Sometimes, being creative just feels impossible. Whether it's getting started on a large project, or simply fighting your mid-afternoon fatigue, creative block is a common issue for many people in many professions.
With some projects, it’s getting started that’s the problem. With others, it’s smooth sailing for a time, but then you get caught on some small detail and everything comes grinding to a halt. Simplicable provides a great definition for creative block, describing it as "a period of time when the creative output of an individual or team falls to low levels. Unlike regular tasks such as cleaning a basement, creativity tends to have great peaks and valleys of productivity."
Both of these situations could be described as creative block. It’s a problem that plagues almost everyone in a creative field. But you have ambition. You’re on a schedule, you’re on a deadline, the work needs to get done. What can you do?
Fortunately, you’re not the only one to ever suffer through this problem. Many of the top artists and designers have also fought with—and overcame—creative block, and they have a thing or two to say about how they persevered.
Keep reading to hear 15 different perspectives on beating creative block.
Sometimes, starting out by coming up with the worst solution can help you overcome inertia. The idea is to at least get started. — Sean McCabe, hand lettering artist, and entrepreneur.
Sometimes, the hardest part of a project is just getting started. Maybe you’ve built up a lot of pressure for yourself to create something amazing from the get-go. To break past that creative block, don’t worry about failure—don’t even worry about necessarily creating something that you’ll even be able to use. Jus start and go from there.
"If you can capture that bit of excitement you have at the beginning within style tiles/mood boards, then you always have something to refer to. I personally like to add little design touches—a dash of motion or playful design element which adds an extra bit of value and delight. That sort of thing keeps me going." — Jay Chan, digital product designer at Ustwo
When you first start to think about a project or brief that you've received, it's important to try and capture those initial thoughts and inspirational muses so that you can be creatively stimulated later on. By creating storyboards or mood boards, you are able to visually capture your inspiration, and also clearly display to the client or your supervisor your vision for the project before you start to put pen to paper.
"You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play."Trey Speegle, mixed-media artist
We've learned that boundaries aren't always blockers to your creativity and it seems that Trey agrees.
The blank canvas (or computer screen—or whatever medium you work in) can be intimidating. There are just so many things you can do with it. By setting restrictions, goals and realistic timelines, you'll find that you're likely to be able to focus and have more clarity of mind.
"I do have times where I sit at my desk and stare blankly at an empty sketchbook page, whilst an overwhelming sense of fear and inadequacy washes over me. I think that’s normal. Best thing is to be pro-active and not let the situation engulf you. Get out, move, flick through some magazines, visit a gallery, meet a friend, read a book, walk in the park. Just do something. I find that once you step away from that empty page, you soon start to imagine ways of filling it." — Johanna Basford, illustrator and coloring book artist.
If you’re struggling to work and nothing is coming to you, maybe you just need to recharge. Stop forcing it and walk away. Johanna recommends doing something you enjoy. Focus your energy elsewhere. You may find that a solution comes when you’re least expecting it
For cases like these, make sure you always carry a sketchbook. You never know when inspiration might strike.
I tend to say yes to more than I can do, and the fear of failure keeps the work flowing. – Nicolas Felton, infographic designer.
Consistently saying yes will give you a steady supply of creative challenges to keep you on your toes. There will always be something new to figure out, and if you’re anything like Felton, the fear of failure will propel you to succeed.
These projects give you the opportunity to experiment – are you most creative when you plough through an entire project from ideation to completion, or do you work better with the ability to switch between different in-progress projects on your whim? You’ll only know if you have a variety of different projects available to you.
"In the end, a deadline is always the best cure for creative block. I sometimes artificially induce this feeling of panic by making public commitments to people about presenting work on a particular day. It works reasonably well." – Ben Barry, graphic designer at Facebook.
Similarly to Felton’s fear of failure, having deadlines set in stone is highly motivating to the right person. You may have a desire not to disappoint your client, or a desire to stay consistent for a fanbase that’s expecting updates. Whatever it is, deadlines have the power to minimize procrastination.
If your creative work is a hobby, not a job, it may be hard to enforce deadlines. In this case, make those commitments to anyone who will hold you accountable—whether that’s an understanding friend, a creative colleague, your spouse, or an expectant fanbase.
“Try to recreate the work of others that you admire. Try to figure out their process secrets, how the work is put together. Writers do this—they retell the stories they love, musicians rewrite the music they love and want to hear. It’s how we learn, it’s how we practice.” – Alexander Charchar, graphic designer and former Smashing Magazine editor.
Stealing—for learning purposes, anyway—is a great exercise. Classically-trained painters would recreate famous works in order to learn the art of painting. If you visit many European art museums at the right time, you will encounter art students with their easels set up in front of the exhibits, continuing this tradition.
Find a piece that inspires you—whether that’s a poster design, a well-designed website, or a gorgeous typographic piece—and try recreating it. Often you will find that things are more complex under the surface than they seem, and discovering this is a great way to get past the complexities that may stall you in your original work.
"Whenever I’m faced with that kind of ‘doubt’ or ‘block,’ I just drop my pens and take a break. Breaks can be weeks or even months of not doing anything related to drawing. Once I feel like I’m really missing my craft, that’s when I get back to drawing with enough creativity and eagerness to create something awesome without any doubts or creative block." – Kerby Rosanes, illustrator and doodler
Like Basford, Rosanes’ policy is that you can’t force creativity to flow. A break isn’t something to fear—consider it time to collect yourself and recharge for a new attempt. Even if that break is for a few weeks or months while you try something new, whenever you feel that passion again you will find that the creative block has been lifted.
"I’ve been reading a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, and he references a famous author who sat at his desk and worked for eight hours straight, even when he had zero ideas. When he literally had nothing to say, he wrote anyway. That idea really stuck with me. I imagined that dude at his desk like, ‘this is what I do.’ It’s like panning for gold." – Adam R. Garcia, designer and creative director
On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you just have to put in the time. Writers are infamous for this, some rising at the crack of dawn day in and day out, chipping away at the next great American novel. If new material isn’t coming to you, go back to what you’ve already created and see if there are revisions to make. Or just take McCabe’s advice and create something bad—at least then you’re creating something.
"Be a continuous feedback loop. That means continuous input: reading books and blogs, attending talks and conferences, using the medium you design for. It also means continuous output: writing books and blogs, speaking at conferences, designing." – Luke Wroblewski, web designer
You and your work don’t exist in a vacuum. You’re operating at a time in history where the world is more connected than it ever has been before. Take advantage of that. See what others in your field or your specific discipline are doing. See what rules they’re breaking. See what work is recognized as groundbreaking and what is simply copying the trends. All of these things will help you identify places where you can break the mold and be original in your own work.
"As a general note, I find writing things down can be helpful. I use a sketchbook at early stages of every project, and end up writing up lists for every aspect of the brief I’m working on (even if the brief is my own). The end results look a little odd—there are a lot of lists, some of which can be drawings—but it’s really helpful to sort of empty your brain onto the page, then you can look at it a little more objectively and choose which bits work best." – Johnny Kelly, animator
As we mentioned earlier, it's a good idea to have a sketchbook on hand wherever you go, just in case, some incredible new idea strikes you. You should regularly perform brain dumps, as Kelly describes—just release everything to paper, so it can stop bouncing around in your head and actually make sense spread out on the page.
"Whenever I feel like I’m in some sort of ‘rut,’ it’s usually just being distracted or worried about something that’s not relevant to the piece I’m working on… or just not being able to sit still and concentrate for a long period of time. For years, I would just have music on headphones, but for a while now I’ve been addicted to various podcasts of informative shows, stories, and ideas.
"Working while listening to these keeps my conscious mind stimulated in a different way, and seems to let my creative/visual side run loose and work without worry. Disconnecting from life’s daily distractions, and sort of separating myself into two halves feels like it’s been the best tactic for me to almost feel meditative while I paint."– Audrey Kawasaki, painter
You may always be trying to match your playlist to your mood, but what if you used your audio choices to inform your work, instead?
In fact, one study found that listening to happy music has been shown to improve creativity.
“When I have a creative block, I do a few different things: 1. Take long showers. Somehow I can think a little differently while I’m in the shower. It washes away my old thoughts and I feel renewed. 2. Clean my surroundings. I cannot think clearly when there’s a mess around me. 3. If it still doesn’t work, I go for a bike ride and I try not to think about the project at all. Somehow things always work out in the end.” – Ji Lee, designer and creative strategist at Facebook
Even if you’re the type of person who takes their laptop to Starbucks to work or otherwise likes to be creative while a lot is going on around you, it could increase your creativity to instead work in a more minimal environment. Decluttering your work area could be the first step in decluttering your mind.
“Lately the thing that has been really good when I am in a rut is to take the Amtrak somewhere. I, unfortunately, don’t do it as often as I would like but I love the forced sitting that happens and unlike air travel, the seats are very comfortable. My grandfather would drive to Alaska every year and write novels while driving (dangerous I know) but I think train travel is similar.
There is something about moving through the world that makes you feel alive. That said, this isn’t something that’s easy to do. So the rest of the time I really just power through the work. If I am feeling uninspired I just accept that I am going to make some mistakes and really just work through the process.” – Mike Perry, designer and artist
If you have the time and occasion to travel, being stuck in transit can actually make for a great time to force yourself to hunker down and work. Like Perry says, train travel is the way to go, both for comfort, and also because there is just something special about watching the world zoom by outside the window.
"Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. I never had painter’s block in my whole life." – Chuck Close, painter
Maybe it’s a little harsh, but for some people, looking for inspiration is just another form of procrastination. Just go get to work. Sooner or later, the ideas will flow.