Creative block can be a killer. Just look at these horror stories from real designers:
“As soon as I attempt any sort of design work, I have this horrible feeling that I’m not up to it. The creative flow just stops.”
“I am struggling with gaining confidence as a designer.”
“I often get designer’s block and struggle especially when I come to start a project. I find myself pushing pixels around a screen for a long time and I just can’t find the spark and then I start thinking that perhaps I’m not cut out to be and stay in this industry.”
As you’re a designer, you’ve experienced creative block to some extent. All creative people do. You may have come across generic advice such as “just push through it” but more often than that it isn’t as simple. Pushing though can be extremely difficult to do in some situations and can even make the block a bigger hurdle which can increase frustration, spiralling its way to a bigger block and even more frustration.
To understand how to get past creative block, we must first know the causes. Making improvements to just one of these will have huge benefits to your work, so I’m going to dig much deeper than the generic advice because it will give you greater freedom to design.
When it comes to creative block, self-doubt is enemy number one. It affects many different areas of your design work and career. When confidence is low, designers start questioning their ability, even though you don’t just lose your ability to design all of a sudden.
Self-doubt can show up in many forms but I’m going to focus on a few of the biggest.
Comparing Yourself to Other Designers (aka Imposter syndrome)
“Every time I start work on a project I think what is the point when there are so many other designers out there that are better than me?”
This kind of thought enters the minds of all designers at some point. I’ve shared my own story about how I dealt with impostor syndrome.
If you only get one thing out of that article, make sure you remember this:
You aren’t a bad web designer because others are great. There aren’t limited amount of spaces available for great web designers.
Once I realised the best designers in the world get past it by just turning up and doing the work, I knew that’s what I needed to do. The fear of being useless compared to others has faded but it took constant reminders that the work I create is still good even if there are others creating better work.
Impostor syndrome is a sign you’re on the right track because it means you’re improving. Comparing yourself to others is completely natural and you can turn it into a good thing by thinking this way rather than thinking negatively.
Catastrophising is an irrational thought, believing something is far worse than it actually is and designers are unfortunately really good at it. Here are some real comments I’ve heard from designers:
“I just can’t find the spark and then I start thinking that perhaps I’m not cut out to be and stay in this industry”
“I feel as though I am going to disappoint my client. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“There’s no creative core in me anymore. I want to make good stuff, but no idea is good enough. I’m seriously thinking about changing career.”
“What if all my best design work is behind me?”
These comments don’t sound like healthy thinking at all. If you think you are going to disappoint, then there’s more chance you will. It may be reassuring to know that other designers have similar thoughts to these too (that’s why I included 4 real quotes) but you want to be better than most designers of course.
Just because these are only thoughts in your head, it doesn’t make it feel any less real at the time. Sometimes you just need to remind yourself that you’ve been doing this for a while and just how good you are. Hang your achievements up on the wall, be proud of them and use them as a reminder that you can achieve something great.
If you feel you don’t really have any achievements to date, or you’ve only just started designing, use the lack of achievements as motivation to make a name for yourself.
Creative block is performance anxiety. Too much pressure creates a block but mostly this pressure develops as a result of our thinking rather it actually existing.
You’ve been hired to create something of value. That’s a lot of pressure but on the plus side, you’ve been hired to create something of value. That is a marvellous thing. Rather than thinking of all the pressure, focus on the opportunity you have.
Embrace the Fears
Fear is less intense if you don’t resist it. Accept it because it will always be there.
When you don’t feel the fear is when you should be worried. It may be a sign you’re in too much of a comfort zone which will slow self-improvement. Fear is a sign you’re doing something worthwhile. Never forget that.
2. Lack of Motivation
Motivation goes up and down like a rollercoaster but you can control it more than you think.
It you don’t care about what you’re designing there will likely be a point where you suffer from a lack of motivation. It will take longer to appear for some than others but eventually it will show itself and hold you back from you doing your best work.
You have to love what you do. I mean the actual design part, and as you’re here reading this, I assume you do love designing. The real issue is motivation for anything around the design work.
No job is perfect, so you will absolutely have parts you don’t enjoy. For example, I love designing but hated working in noisy open plan offices, so I turned to the world of freelance. Now I love freelancing but hate the accounting/taxes part. There will always be some aspects of your job you won’t enjoy as much as others. Such is life.
In the past I’ve worked for companies I didn’t really care that much about. Fashion, extreme sports, video streaming and worst of all, corporate finance. Why on earth did I work in the corporate world?! Motivation disappeared rapidly in all those full-time jobs and I ended up hating them. Unfortunately, I learnt the hard way.
Focus on a single type of business/industry/person you care about. If you do that, motivation will be much more readily available.
Not Too Difficult, Not Too Easy
You have to stay between the boundaries of not too difficult and not too easy. Stray beyond those and you’ll start to see motivation drop.
If you find something too difficult, you can become frustrated or anxious but if you find it too easy, boredom may strike.
First thing in your day, whether that be at a job or after you’ve got up and you’re ready for the day, start with the harder work and move onto easier tasks as the day goes on.
You have more energy in the morning to tackle harder tasks so it makes sense to start with them.
As you go through the day, your work will get easier and you’ll feel better for it. You’ll be reducing the chance of struggling with creative block at the end the day (which is a more difficult time to deal with it anyway) as well as being less likely to carry any frustration through to the next morning.
Think of it like climbing a mountain. Getting to the top is tough but the view at the summit is worth it and you have the much easier task of walking down on your way back.
3. Criticism and Rejection
Two of the hardest things to deal with are criticism and rejection. I especially struggled with this early on in my design career. I still struggle with it to a lesser extent almost a decade later and I know I’m not the only one.
Really, this is another fear but it’s worth separating and focusing on specifically because it’s HUGE. The fear of showing your designs to a client or your boss is very real for some as criticism and rejection is hard to deal with.
When people say “don’t take it personally”, I understand what they mean but it just isn’t as simple as that. Again, this is generic, overly-simplified advice you hear everywhere. It’s hard not to take any criticism personally because you put your heart and soul into the websites you design. Your work almost becomes an extension of yourself.
Taking criticism and rejection personally is normal, unless you don’t care about the work you do. The designers who don’t care probably aren’t reading this, so at least you know you care.
You have to train yourself to expect it and learn to channel the criticism and/or rejection into making your work better. Your design work will be better when others push you. Once you shift your mindset to this way of thinking, you will be a better designer. Not only will your work get better but you will be able to reduce the creative block suffered as a result of criticism or rejection.
The Knock-On Effect
These are just a few causes of creative block but one kind of creative block can lead to another. Rejection can reduce motivation which can lead to self-doubt. If you’ve ever experienced this sequence of creative blocks or any combination of different creative blocks, you’ll know it’s even tougher to get away from.
The best way of looking at this is improving the way you deal with one block will reduce the knock-on effect, so even if you only focus on one for now (which will be easier anyway) you’ll be making significant steps forward.