It’s happened to every artist and designer—that panicky feeling when you need an original idea but your imagination is on an unscheduled holiday. Before you stare at your blank sketchbook or that blinking cursor for another hour, get some help by reading my ten tips for overcoming creative block.
1. Take a walk outside
Sometimes your brain just needs some fresh air and a change of scene. Think about it—if your eyes are staring at the same computer screen or piece of paper for hours, how do you expect your brain to translate that into creativity? So find a trail, a park, or even a tree to stand under, and soak up the nature. If it’s too cold or stormy outside or you’re surrounded by a concrete jungle, just take a walk around your school or place of work. Just moving your limbs can help to clear your head and make you feel more refreshed.
2. Bounce ideas off of your friends (and your nemeses)
Let’s face it—your brain can only hold so much information. Creativity is difficult when you always seem to come back to the same patterns of thought time after time. Be strategic and use the people around you as a sounding board for your ideas. Talk to your friends because they understand your train of thought. Ask people with whom you have nothing in common as well to get some really unique viewpoints. You’re bound to get some new ideas.
3. Use a random online word/idea generator
This is especially useful when you’re a design student and need to choose a target audience other than yourself. Random words can trigger ideas that you might never have considered. Google “random word generator” or “random topic generator” to find a bunch of different sites. Just take care that you don’t get addicted to clicking that “generate random word” button instead of doing real work. Must. Click.
4. Start with what you know
This idea comes straight from designer Michael Bierut as written in his article “Top Ten Things They Never Taught Me in Design School.“ He says, “Start by putting down what you know and already understand[…t]hen work on each unknown, solving and removing them one at a time.” Maybe you think that you just can’t come up with an idea for a restaurant (one of our current projects in my program). Do you know what the boundaries are—can the menu have photos, where will the logo be displayed, how many items can the restaurant serve? Sometimes guidelines can make a daunting white page seem a little less intimidating.
Whether you call it brainstorming, mind mapping, free thinking, or even thought showering, writing down your ideas in an organized, visual style is an essential technique for generating new ideas. My personal approach is to turn to a blank page in my sketchbook, write the topic in a bubble in the middle, and draw arrows emanating out radially to related ideas. There are lots of different approaches to recording ideas, but the most important thing to remember is that no idea is a bad idea.* Some of my best concepts have sprung from a random thought tangent that I decided to record anyway.
6. Listen to music
Music can inspire you to think of new ideas. Try listening to something different—for me that would be classical music, rap, or hip hop. Or, you can listen to tracks whose mood matches the desired tone of your project. If you’re creating a logo for a retro clothing resale shop, throw on those 50s tunes and get a feel for what the era was like. My favourite site for effortless listening is Songza.
7. Give your brain a break!
I’m a big supporter of working hard and productivity, which means I’m also a fan of a concept that seems counterintuitive: breaks. It’s important to take a five minute break from working every half hour or so, especially if you’re doing an intellectual activity such as writing or researching. If you can’t think of an idea for your project, stop wasting your time on that work on something else that needs your attention. This might be a different project or it might even be doing laundry or sweeping the floor. “Sleeping on it” is also a good technique, because often your brain will subconsciously work out problems while you sleep.
8. Get rid of distractions
Take a moment and think about what it is you’re thinking about. Are you fully focused on this problem or are you worried about how you forgot to call your mom or your kitchen is a mess? Recognize what is occupying your brain space and get rid of what you can. That being said, don’t create excuses not to do your work. If it’s a quick task, take care of it right away. If it can wait till later, write it down on a sticky note or in your day planner so you no longer have to worry about remembering it.
9. Explore an unrelated topic
It’s a big, big world and all of us have seen very little of it. Why not learn about something completely unrelated to design that will give you a creative edge? For example, the inside of a dissected cow’s eye has a pretty nifty colour palette.
10. Learn from the pros
This exercise involves a different kind of dissection—the dissection of art and design. You could pick a famous designer like Saul Bass or even a painter like Van Gogh. Take a look at their artwork and try to figure out why they used those shapes, colours, typefaces, and compositions. Make notes if you need to. Then, go back to the drawing board and see how you can incorporate those techniques into your own work.
*Unless it involves murder or being unkind. Don’t do that.
These are just a few suggestions that I came up with. Do you have any favourite ways of getting past your creative block? Let me know in the comments!
Till next time,