I glance across the office taking in my surroundings. Sparse white walls, speckled white ceilings punctuated by glaring fluorescent tubes, glowing computer screens and white desks contrasted by charcoal grey patterned carpet and chairs.
It’s amazing how many of us are expected to be creative for 8 or more hours a day in what often resembles the waiting room of a dental clinic. If you can recall the eureka moments, creative solutions or deep thinking you’ve ever done in a clinic’s waiting room, you’re in limited company. The often bland, characterless and monotone decor leaves most with a decidedly soul sucking effect. Yet, many of the offices we spend a bulk of our days, with the intention of being creative, often resemble these very places.
We’re expected to ‘think outside the box’ whilst literally being in one.
Sadly, when we struggle with bouts of design ruts and creative block, we routinely direct blame at ourselves rather than considering a larger view of potential culprits around us that influence our mental state and creative energy. We often laugh at how we come up with solutions to problems or make breakthroughs on an idea at the most strangest of times and places. In the shower, while taking a walk or when driving along an open country road. But the more you ponder these situations, the more sense they make.
We’ve all encountered times in our lives where creativity seemed in limited or exhausted supply; some short, while others far exceeding their welcome. Having my own such moment fairly recently, I’d decided to analyse what factors were causing such a debilitating deficit in creativity juice, what got me through it and summarise my findings for others.
Some of the findings you may have not considered or waved off as things you “just need to deal with”; while others may be “well duhhh” type common sense. But what I’m aiming for is that when applied collectively to defeat creative ruts, its efficacy is far greater than merely having more coffee or some other “patch” to limp along with.
As I sit writing this, I’ve carefully selected a working space that feels inspiring, coffee in hand, at a time of day I feel most creative, at a moment where my capacity for writing felt at its most abundant. Everything aligned and my creativity is generously rewarding me for the effort.
Let’s look at the various factors that have a tremendous influence on your level of creativity…
I often wondered why I was so massively productive in a loud cafe filled with patrons talking, laughing, occasional outbursts, the bustle of people coming and going, music murmuring away in the background. Yet in the office sometimes couldn’t even inch out a paragraph of writing or a simple drawing where it’s relatively peaceful and quiet, only occasional chatter and the subtle rhythmic clacking of keyboards (except for that jerk three desks down with the idiotically loud mechanical keyboard).
Creativity isn’t just visually appealing designs, creativity also comes in the creation of strategies and solving business challenges. However the environments in which each of these optimally take place may differ. I was essentially converting the energy and bustle of cafes into visual creativity. Whilst the comparatively serene office setting was thumbs up for writing up strategical and process documents requiring considerable consideration and precise word smithing. Having said that some of the best strategical writing I’ve ever done was crunched into an airplane’s economy seat on an international flight, go figure?
It’s about knowing how we individually respond to and take in our environments for the particular task at hand and knowing that there isn’t a ‘one place fits all’. And more importantly, knowing what you need at a given moment, as in some cases the ideal environment suitable for a task is interchangeable. In a creative slump at your desk? Go set up your laptop in the office cafeteria, an unused meeting room or find a nook somewhere that feels more compelling. Cafe down the street? What’s actually prohibiting you from going down there for a couple hours for a fresh environment?
I remember a client site where, instead of sitting doing design work in the drab office desk clusters, I’d bring my designers to what we’d coined ‘the rainforest’. It was a collection of small coves on each floor of the building’s central atrium planted with trees and tropical plants complete with seating and tables. Our productivity and creativity was always 1,000% better in ‘the rainforest’. The fact that few others ever leveraged these fantastic spots except for having lunch was beyond me.
Sometimes we forget the purpose of a laptop and the freedom it brings, and we somehow feel tethered to desks. Challenge this way of thinking.
Each venue (and often spots within venues) has its own energy, and syncing the location with your creative needs is so powerful. How we’re expected to repetitively attend the same bland venue day after day really boggles my mind. It all goes back to the truly antiquated corporate mentality that “bums in office seats equals productivity” which is often grossly wrong.
I remember taking teams out to run design exercises at local cafes, and they were clearly not accustomed to the concept. They were literally giddy with excitement at the prospect of spending a few hours at the cafe working through how to conquer the real sticking points of the designs at that time. Wow did ideas ever flow, they oozed from the team, they stepped up and relished the moment.
This is really a two part equation… It’s about designers recognising that where they do their creative work plays a role in their creativity. And it’s also about employers respecting their designers as adult professionals and affording them the ability to choose when appropriate the space in which they can do their best work and unshackle them from their desks. I mean seriously, outside of the digital world, how many artists and creative people are constrained to a chair and desk for a majority of their days?
Just as your favourite track pumps you up in the gym or whilst driving through winding roads (what speed limits?), its power to unlocking creativity is undoubtable. It’s amazing how just the right track can literally transform your creative ‘spirit’ on the spot. There’d been many ’11th hour’ deadlines needing plenty of creativity in ludicrously short timelines and it’s my firm belief a few high-energy ‘go to’ mixes got me through them. Think of them as auditory versions of espresso shots. It’s not a matter of just playing music, it’s playing the right music.
Routine and Repetition
Sometimes day after day of the same project and same life routine can leave you dull and uninspired. Your mind knows when it’s slipping into the abyss of routine and can take swift action to shut you down as a heads up that it’s time to mix things up. Think of it as your body’s protection measure like a electrical fuse box. Your mind wants and needs new experiences and variety. Just like we wouldn’t eat the same foods every day, we can’t sustain long stretches of a highly repetitive life.
Likewise, if you’re the poor person responsible for pumping out dozens or even hundreds of banner ads, info graphs or other such materials like an assembly line, your mind eventually at some point says, “I’ll do my best to force you to change.” not caring that it’s your job. Think of it as your subconscious mind taking the drivers seat to avert a cliff dive. Listen to this and know when it’s time to change things up. Some companies just assume you’re happy to churn out the same things over and over for eternity, but it’s your responsibility to seek ways to vary this and to get exposed to other forms of work.
Similarly to routine and repetition, focusing on the same set of designs or particular part of a system for weeks, months or even years can create a tremendous amount of tunnel vision. I’ve often encountered companies that configure their designers to essentially be locked into designing for a very specific subsection of a product for extended durations, and frankly it gets monotonous and tiring for those having to look at the same few pages, screens, interactions and so forth.
When I’ve conducted one-on-one conversations with such designers, and there’s that trust relationship in place, a majority of them express a loathing of having to nit pick and literally obsess about this small portion of a larger system ad nauseam for months. I assure you, they’re exploring their employment options.
It usually starts positive, designers have the chance to truly refine and perfect critical parts of systems, that’s quite an enticing proposition for designers. But as this carries out too long, this energy and enthusiasm diminishes and eventually inverts to resentment. They see all the changes and accomplishments happening around them and feel disconnected and shut in. It creates designers with a poor holistic view, which results in them having little accountability for the product as a whole, because they haven’t had enough exposure or accountability for any other part of the product.
I’ve always been one to push for designers getting involved (and thus understanding) a larger portion of systems and platforms. It gives them variety, new challenges and lets them have greater pride in the overall product. This fuels creativity.
There’s something so incredibly stimulating about a good design session or workshop with the team. It gets you as a designer out of your way of thinking and approaching problems, and opens it to the wider lens of the team and beyond. The more we sit in isolation hitting away at design challenges on our own the more insular our decision making becomes. We may feel we can keep stabbing away at design and through brute force we’ll figure it out, but actually strength comes from doing that from different perspectives and lenses for hugely more effectiveness.
We sometimes feel that we’re bothering others asking them to join in for a session, or that we need to be the lone ranger problem solver, but actually it’s infinitely more mature to identify when it’s necessary to round up the crew to solve problems together. Doing design is never about ‘see what I did, see the problem I solved for the company’ it’s much more about how as a collective of talent a problem is able to be solved. Yes, everyone’s up to their eyeballs in work, but perhaps when it’s appropriate, they too need a time out to look at and solve something different for their own creative energy.
I’m certainly not one to shy away from copious amounts of coffee on a given day. Over time, I’ve largely been able to regulate this to my advantage, occasionally tipping over the point of sanity. It took much longer however, to realise what a profound impact sugars were having on my energy and train of thought. All lines of my family trees intersected into me inheriting a spectacularly powerful sweet tooth. So smashing back a Kit Kat at that mid afternoon energy drop into the abyss certainly satiated that. But that tremendous hit to energy also hit creativity. I’m not the right person to go through dietary considerations, but it’s something that cannot be ignored and there’s plenty of resources out there to help you understand how this impacts your energy and creativity based on your body’s needs.
While on the topic of obvious factors such as diet, again I’ve been amazed at just how powerfully sleep works for or against you – particularly with respect to creativity. Had a night out and got less than 6-7 hours sleep? Yes you might be functional and keeping up with things, but don’t expect your creativity to be beyond surface level. Did that a couple days running? The depth of your creative thinking capabilities really starts dropping. Had a rough week of little sleep, what are you really expecting? The compound effect is brutal.
Going to galleries, museums, festivals, exhibits, art installations and browsing through books and sites that creatively inspire is so incredibly powerful. Why would appreciating paintings on gallery walls done some 150 years ago creatively inspire you to design a better mobile app? Because it isn’t that. It’s creativity done in another universe than which you reside. It doesn’t have to be digital to inspire your digital designs. Sometimes we get a little too stuck into our digital world and need to come up for air.
Every once in a while I’ll pick up a copy of hipster culture celebration “Monocle” and take in what’s happening in product design, architecture and product design with a worldly view. It’s a reset button from staring at wireframes, competitor’s apps and yet another ‘inspirational’ Pinterest board, etc.
Something I’ve learnt in my time living in Vietnam is that sipping a cold Cà Phê Sữa at a roadside cafe staring blanking into the droves of motorbike traffic blurring past is extremely therapeutic. It’s a chance to ’switch off’ and go into this other state of reflecting on life. I’d go so far as to say sometimes leaving me euphoric.
I’ll get right to the point… Stop mindlessly swiping through endless feeds of literal garbage every spare moment of the day. Give your mind a chance, even just a moment, to gather its thoughts, conclude, explore, ponder… to think! You can’t if you’re constantly consuming other people’s often ill informed ideas, opinions and speculations. I think we as a collective society have largely become numb and unimaginative from it all. At the very least, half of our mobile on-screen time is completely useless, both in productivity and recreational perspectives.
How can we possibly think through and form our own ideas if every waking moment is spent consuming that of others. Endless rehashing of the same re-shared posts.
The next time you spend your lunch hour eating your lunch whilst scrolling social feeds, news aggregators and shopping sites full of meaningless content, afterwards ask yourself:
- Can you recall any specific tastes or textures from your meal?
- What was the purpose of using the mobile device; did it fulfil the purpose?
- How much of what you swiped through can even be remember, and of that, how much was redundant consumption that’s either similar, repurposed or identical to what you’d already seen in the past?
This isn’t a swipe (get it) at social media, it’s about being realistic that if you’re going through a creative rut and you really want to work your way though it, you must give your mind space to think and compose.
Be purposeful and deliberate about your use of mobile technology.
There’s little that’s more dispiriting than contending with completely inadequate hardware and software as the tools for your creativity. Just like a dull pencil or hardened paint brush, antiquated computers and inappropriate software are daggers in a digital creative heart.
So many times I’ve talked to UX and design professionals left to contend with ridiculous tools both in software and hardware. If you spend a sizeable portion of your day contending with an employer’s sluggish geriatric low-spec laptop and constantly dealing with out of date, trial and crack software you really need to ask yourself whether your employer is serious about design.
I’ve had conversations in the past with designers that left me decidedly angry. For example, their employer had forced them to rely on PowerPoint for all of their wire framing or wouldn’t even shell out for legitimate copies of Sketch. Often either because their procurement process was a mess and nobody could effectively communicate the value of investing in proper tools; or worse, it was under the guise of being ‘lean’ and ‘boot strapping’ which is ignorant and foolish. In fact, it’s amazing how little it costs for a designer to be highly productive, and if those costs aren’t in the cards then perhaps there’s much larger issues at play for the company as a whole.
A good leader will inspire you and give license to be creative, to push boundaries and give the nudges needed to create great work. They get you pumped up that what you’re building serves a greater good, that what you produce touches lives, that your contribution is highly valued. They create a positive environment that is supportive and geared around allowing you to do your craft. They pull you from creative corners you may have inadvertently backed yourself into. They give you the freedom to explore, discover and be the best designer you can be.
Does all this characterise your design team manager or sound like a fantasy in a far away land? If this is foreign territory for you, it is an unfortunate circumstance you’re in and perhaps seeking an environment that does give you this leadership is worthwhile.
There’s been a few leaders in my life that I can safely say had a profoundly positive impact on my way of thinking. Each stimulating conversation I saw as a chance to grow, look at things differently. We all need this as designers, its absence leaves us toiling away with however we’ve always been thinking.
It you’ve been around the block in design, you’ve likely been stung a few times with projects that have taken weeks, months or unfortunately in some people’s case years only to be shelved, become a shadow of what you’d built or be completely overridden by others, it really takes it’s toll on your sense of purpose. Without sufficient resilience and emotional maturity to handle these set backs, it can really hit into one’s wellbeing.
Been working on banking apps for the past several years and you’re increasingly losing steam and struggling to spit out new designs for their latest “we’re not a bank, bank app”? Maybe deep down you actually don’t give a shit anymore. Is your employer giving you projects that you instinctive know from the start aren’t likely going to go anywhere or really shouldn’t exist to begin with? This all completely kills design. Designing is this incredible response to the existence of a need; if that need is dubious or ill conceived, it’s such a blow to having purpose as the driver for design.
While we don’t all have the luxury of choosing design jobs or projects that perfectly align with our passions or interests, there’s times in a designer’s career when they need to identify whether they need to move on to the next challenge that gets them closer to something they feel closer alignment to.
As a designer, we’ve likely all had some pretty dark moments in the void of creativity, but I hope that when really being methodical about your approach to tackling it and by truly sensing what you uniquely need to be creative and actually addressing it, that you can over come such moments and create beautiful products.