Flow: How to Avoid the Creative Block of Frustration

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

Have you ever played a video game and wanted to smash the controller into a million pieces? I’m far from an aggressive person but I once attempted to throw a controller against the floor but luckily for me, a pillow was placed exactly where I threw it, preventing any damage. That calmed me down and made me realise I needed to change something to avoid further frustration.

What I learnt about frustration when playing computer games has helped me when frustration strikes when I design. It can be annoying to have the perfect vision of the website you want to design in your head only for it to not resemble that within the first few minutes or if you’ve been working on something for hours and it isn’t turning out as great as you hoped. Irrational thoughts start to appear and we question our ability.

Let’s see how we can over come this particular creative block.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Model

In the last article on flow, we saw how Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model helps us enter the state of flow. We need challenging design work but we also need to know what we are doing, otherwise we will be spending too much time learning, breaking the flow.

Too challenging = frustrating

Too challenging = frustrating

We also need challenging work to not be too challenging. If the challenge is too much for us we will get frustrated, as you can see above. This is different to “anxiety” and “worry”, heading in a more aggressive direction.

Frustration Can Be a Good Sign

A challenge that is too difficult can unfortunately lead to a negative (and irrational) view that you’re terrible at web design but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes our minds can get carried away from the reality, so let’s think differently and look at the good side of what frustration can mean.

One thing people tend not to notice when they’re frustrated, is that it can mean you’re actually pushing yourself to get better. You’re trying something more difficult which is a key way to grow as a designer. It just shouldn’t be too difficult.

A word of caution: frustration is a good sign only if you notice it and take action to reduce it. Failure to recognise this will likely lead to a “frustration spiral”, where the harder you try, the more you get frustrated and annoyed. How to get out of a frustration spiral is covered towards the end of this article.


Simplifying is the key to removing yourself from the clutches of frustration and towards a state of flow. Eventually, your skills will improve allowing you to succeed at bigger challenges but that isn’t going to happen overnight, so we need a more immediate technique to overcome this creative block.

Lower the challenge and work on something easier. Simplify. There isn’t an exact science to this as you’ll have to experiment and see what works for you in a particular situation but if you look back to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model, you’ll see that you don’t want to make the challenge too easy.

For example, if selecting fonts or colours for a project is too frustrating or attempts at creating a theme or style for a design project frustrates, simplify. Start with finding a single font and/or colour that expresses the design’s goals and work from there. Starting with something smaller is better than flailing about wildly in frustration!

If you don’t know the goals of a design, find out what they are using the same advice I give for those struggling with a blank screen and the challenge of choosing fonts will become much easier. Designing for the sake of it can be overwhelming with infinite possibilities but if you know the real purpose of your design, design decision become easier. A website aimed at kids is going to look a lot different to one designed for a corporate company, to use a dramatic example.

Take Control

Research published in the March edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals that failure to master a game and its controls led to frustration and aggression, regardless of whether the game was violent or not.

This is an interesting study for the debate on video game violence but also for designers. It matters not what the work is but whether it is too challenging or not. If it is too difficult, you don’t have control and won’t be able to hit a state of flow.

Taking another look back to the flow model once again, control is a good area to be in as you’re only one stage away from being in the zone and is probably the easiest path into flow. You can change the challenge level relatively quickly but you can’t change your skill level anywhere near as fast (moving up on the flow model towards flow is easier than moving horizontally towards it).


When you’re frustrated, the determination to succeed can lead to you trying too hard, which creates a spiral effect making things worse the harder you try as you become more determined. The effects of this spiralling may mean that you can’t reach the heights you originally had in mind at the start of the project.

If a frustration spiral hits, you definitely need to take a break in much the same way you need to take breaks to avoid burnout in general.

Discover, Simplify and Experiment

I get many emails from designers who struggle picking fonts and colours for their designs but this is actually one of the easier aspects of design work once you know how to simplify but there’s more you can do to make your design life easier.

Discover > Simplify > Experiment

Let’s break it down:

  • Discover: the process of discovering the goals your design work needs to achieve which will inform your design decisions and make them easier.
  • Simplify: make it easier for you to get over certain hurdles you’re finding difficult, as explained earlier (like fonts and colours).
  • Experiment: more often than not, the way to a good idea is to try many ideas and see what works best (read more about experimenting here).

With this simple system, you’ll likely find that you won’t ever reach the dreaded world of frustration and the creativity will flow that much easier and if you do enter a frustration spiral, remember to relax. It’s only a website.

Boost Your Design Confidence by Overcoming Creative Block

One of the things I've been quietly working on lately is helping people get past the struggle of creative block. I'm not quite ready yet but you'll be the first to get free updates on how you too can overcome creative block, so you can have the confidence to come up with great ideas and do your best work.

Free. No spam. Unsubscribe any time.

by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with over 7 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.