There’s something about the creative process that requires you to be in a certain frame of mind, to be feeling inspired and focused and in the zone so that you can create your best work. So it’s especially frustrating when you’re chugging along, trying to be your most brilliant, creative self–and, suddenly, nothing feels right. You’re struggling with creative block.
Creative block is the last thing you need when your whole job is built on being inventive. You can do all the right things to set yourself up for success at the start of a project, but that still doesn’t guarantee that you won’t run into The Dreaded Block. But don’t fret, dear designer, read on! Here are 9 top tips from professional designers and famous artists on how to overcome creative block and stay inspired.
What works best when trying to overcome creative block is different for everyone. Even professional designers with years of experience face creative block and deal with it in different ways. So when creative block inevitably strikes, dip into some of these tips and see what sticks: get inspired by other artists and creatives; do something completely different; try another approach to your work; or just take a break.
1. Try a digital detox
Many of us spend their days glued to the computer screen. As a designer in the digital age we create most of our work digitally. But sometimes all you need to do is get back to basics. Typographer and graphic designer Gerard Huerta recommends, “When you are stuck, walk away from the computer and draw. It will teach you how to see.”
Get away from your daily desk routine and take a walk with your sketchbook. You may be surprised by the ideas that start flowing through your head when you swap a glowing computer screen for a pen and paper. The act of drawing with an actual pen (or pencil or even paint) on actual paper will make you look at things differently and will give you a whole new perspective on whatever you’re working on.
2. Remember that you can’t force creativity
If nothing seems to be working, here’s a pro tip: don’t force it. Take a page out of designer, artist and author Adam J. Kurtz‘s book and give yourself time to look at your work with fresh eyes. Here’s his advice: “Forcing ourselves to ‘be creative’ is pointless. It’s not a manual skill that you either do or don’t, but a series of emotional and mental tasks that sometimes just don’t come together.”
Everyone loses steam sometimes. It’s ok to walk away and try again later on, after you’ve given your brain a break. You may be pleasantly surprised to see what happens after a little recharge time.
Adam explains: “We all know what our work looks like when we’ve stayed up all night and then see it with fresh eyes in the morning. So if there’s not an immediate emergency rush, I like to just walk away. Do something else and maybe let the ideas float in the back of your head until you’re ready to make the work for real.”
3. Find new sources of inspiration
Inspiration is everywhere. Looking at other artists’ work can be incredibly inspiring. And especially if their work is different to what you’re used to, immersing yourself in something new can generate tons of new ideas. 99designs Top Level designer Ocelittle recommends, “Do something completely out of your comfort zone. Is there an artist or designer that you admire? Great! Try putting yourself in their shoes and try again. You might learn something new while getting rid of your creative block.”
So go ahead and ask yourself “what would my favorite artist do?”, even if it takes you out of your comfort zone. As long as the answer isn’t “light my computer on fire”, you’re guaranteed at least one new idea.
And don’t forget: inspiration can be found anywhere, not just in the visual arts. When in doubt, immerse yourself in a cultural experience outside of your work: go to a movie, a play or a concert. This is an opportunity to awaken your senses (and hopefully uncover some of your greatest ideas).
4. Take on a monotonous task
Whether it’s cleaning the house or going for a long run, sometimes you just need to do something to clear your head. A simple, methodical task is exactly what you need to give your mind a break and reboot.
So 99designs Top Level designer Sali Designs’ advice is simple: “Go wash dishes! It’s a repetitive task that doesn’t require that much cerebral activity. By the time I finish, I’m relaxed and ready to tackle my work again.”
There are tons of things you can do to relax your creative muscle and still do something productive: try reorganizing your filing system or doing your taxes. Chances are that after doing that for long enough you’ll be craving some creative work.
5. Allow yourself to fail
Are you holding yourself back because you’re afraid your work won’t be good enough? It’s time to shake off your worries and push through. Taking risks will help you to sharpen your skills—and who knows!—you may find yourself creating work you never dreamed possible.
When working on an important project, oftentimes we’re afraid to fail. So we stick to what we know and don’t dare to try something new.
Paula Scher, one of the most influential graphic designers of our time, knows that sometimes the best work sprouts from mistakes: “It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow. You have to get bad in order to get good.”
So take it from Paula Scher and let yourself fail once in a while. Allowing ourselves to make mistakes is how we learn and challenge our creativity. It’s time to embrace what Bob Ross liked to call “happy little accidents.”
6. Take care of yourself
Listen to your body. If you’re finding yourself tense with pressure, give yourself permission to abandon your struggle. Breathe, eat a snack, opt for a nap, or do something else. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes taking care of yourself is all you need to recharge and trigger a breakthrough.
For 99designs Top Level designer Maneka feeling well rested is crucial to foster creativity: “I don’t know why, but I feel most creative if I have enough sleep.”
People in all lines of work need to practice a little self care every now and then—and especially for creatives it’s important to not forget about your body’s needs in order to get into the right frame of mind. It’s fairly easy to get sucked into a project and forget to eat or sleep… eventually that’s always going to come back around to bite you. A tired and hungry body will keep you from doing your best work. So make sure you create space for self care in your daily routine.
7. Break it down into manageable chunks
Sometimes a project or task can seem so big and overwhelming that we lose track of what really matters and we get stuck. Time to take a step back.
Post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh famously said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the big picture, and sometimes that can be paralyzing. It can completely kill your creativity.
The solution: Find ways to manage your projects so that they’re divided into manageable chunks. You can tackle them one at a time and the big picture will come together bit by bit.
8. Apply some pressure
As creatives we sometimes sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. Famous photorealist painter, artist and photographer Chuck Close has a much more pragmatic view on the matter: “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.
Procrastination is the easy way out when a difficult task looms over us and we’re not sure how to tackle it. Chuck Close’s plan of attack is simple: dive into work head first and keep going even when things get tough. We can’t force creativity, but we can show up to work. Every day. By pushing through and sticking with a task, you can actively do something to generate new work and new ideas—and chances are creativity will come along for the ride.
While pressure may not always be the solution, sometimes it’s just what you need to get over a creative slump. If there’s one thing that can get your adrenaline pumping, it’s a hard deadline.
99designs designer Sali Designs explains, “One of my favorite books is ‘Steal Like an Artist’ by Austin Kleon. His theory is that having limitless possibilities is the main reason behind creative block, thus putting constraints and limits on oneself is the key. So I always limit myself by setting deadlines and that pushes me to go beyond creative block.”
10. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries
Is it possible that you’re putting up your own creative barriers out of fear of pushing your skills?
Henri Matisse famously said “Creativity takes courage.” Perhaps your creative block means that deep down you’re afraid to take the next step and do something new and different.
It takes guts to be truly creative and put new ideas out there. Figure out what it is that you’re afraid of. What holds you back? Once you overcome that fear, you’ll overcome creative block. Time to push the boundaries of what you’re used to.
Your checklist for crushing creative block
Creative block happens to the best of us, but it doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks. With a little advice from the pros, you’ll be back on track in no time. Whenever your creativity hits a snag, go through this list of tips from expert designers and famous artists on overcoming that mental blockage. We promise, their advice is a surefire way to get your creative juices flowing again.