The creative process is rarely a straight line. When handed an idea, a designer first needs to understand the guiding concept behind that idea, then build on it and bring it to life. But sometimes, lightning doesn’t strike, and the designer is left staring at a blank screen. It happens to every designer at some point, but there’s a way out. I promise.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing mainly on web design, even though some solutions can apply equally well to other creative fields. To start, let’s talk about some of the causes behind creative block.
Over thinking. When making design decisions, you might feel as though your options are limitless. That can be overwhelming. After all, when you can do anything, the hardest thing is to do one thing.
Not understanding the client or project. Sometimes designers are so caught up in their own sensibilities and aesthetics that they lose sight of what the client wanted to begin with.
Deadline is too far out or too close. This can be a daunting task. Work often fills the time it has available, so a deadline that’s too far out might result in endless noodling, but if it’s due the next day, you might freeze up.
Naturally, there are more reasons, depending on the project, but these are some of the most common that I’ve encountered. But enough about problems. Let’s talk about solutions.
Solution 1: Remove everything that’s not working
Let’s assume you’ve started a layout, and put a few obvious elements on the page. You begin tweaking and adjusting, focusing on the details rather than the big picture. And when you finally take a step back, it ends up looking terrible.
Don’t panic, just remove and hide all the pieces that aren’t working. Clear out the noise, the clutter, the debris, and you’ll come back to the point at which the design still worked. This will help you focus on building up the most appealing parts of the design. And as you go, you can begin to layer in some of those discarded elements in a more thoughtful way.
Solution 2: See a professional
As a designer, chances are you have a team or colleagues who might be able to offer you constructive criticism, or help you approach a particular problem in a new way. If you’re flying solo, that’s where social sites come in, like Dribbble, Behance, or even Reddit.
But if you do have the benefit of a team, talk to a project manager who understands the project from a strategic point of view. Talk to another designer who has a style you like. Just find that fresh perspective, and you’ll get one too.
Solution 3: Do something completely different
Go for a walk, watch a video, read an article. Maybe even switch to a different project that requires less creative thinking. Pull yourself out of your rut by any means necessary. Just get away, and reset your brain.
Solution 4: Click around, absorb good art
If you can’t get away physically, try to remind yourself of why you like design in the first place. Find sites that inspire you, and create a bank of them by bookmarking or saving screenshots. Find the biggest agency in your area and check out their portfolio, or look at the wildly impractical site of a movie you’re going to see next summer. Look at something less conventional at Deviant Art.
Of course, it’s infinitely more powerful to look at art in the real world, so if you have the time, find a museum and take a trip there.
Solution 5: Take the pressure off, and take a breath
Let’s just keep things in perspective here. Design is not a life or death industry, so don’t pretend that it is. You’re going to make bad designs occasionally; not everything is going to be perfect, and you have to know what matters and what doesn’t. In Matt Steel’s article, “The Abundance of Slowness,” he sums up this point nicely:
“…In the 18 years he owned Top Design, he never encountered a true design emergency. At Peleg’s firm, they weren’t saving lives or fighting wars. It was a service firm, and they lived accordingly.”
Solution 6: Go home, sleep it off
Sometimes you can give a project everything you have and still come up short. That probably means you legitimately are out of ideas, and out of energy. But creativity is a renewable resource. So get away, recharge, and come back to it later. If you leave a design alone, you’ll see exactly what’s wrong with it the next day. I guarantee it. “Just think about it deeply, then forget it… then an idea will jump up in your face.” Thanks Don Draper.
And there you go. So pick a solution, and get right back into the race. I’m sure you’ll be just fine.