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All designers hit a roadblock at one time or another. Few designers get those "dream" projects where they are allowed to create anything and everything they want. In most cases we all have to adhere to some restrictions.

After dealing with the same restrictions repeatedly it becomes very easy to get mired down in how the design problems have been previously solved.

I'm familiar with mood boards, idea books, and the like. However, these all seem to basically take the user down previously traveled paths.

What specific steps should one take in order to break out of current mindsets and expand horizons to look at a project in a fresh way?

Is there a processes you use to conceptualize something in a new manner?

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I just don't think this is a good fit, which you know, for the site. There's no right or even close to right answer its all going to be opinion and what works for each individual. –  Ryan Dec 5 '12 at 19:18
I know Ryan.. just trying to get away from software questions a bit. –  Scott Dec 5 '12 at 19:42
@Ryan: Hmpf. If relevant issues like this 'don't fit', then what good is this format anyway? Well, accept maybe for Adobe CS tool help... I'd also argue that a collection of informed answers to a 'wide' but relevant question is probably adding more actual value to this site than, say, keeping them out, as it stands. –  TehMacDawg Dec 5 '12 at 20:18
I agree but that is a discussion for Meta and the FAQ. As it stands this question would be better for a traditional design forum/discussion group. –  Ryan Dec 5 '12 at 20:29
@user568458 if your new "title" and explanation works because the answer will be the one that works for Skaught, it is still a bad question for this format. In that case with your own logic it would be "Too Localized" and be of no benefit to anyone else. Again, I like the question but its just not a good fit for our format. –  Ryan Dec 6 '12 at 18:09
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12 Answers

Here's how I tackle layout and workflow concepts.

Do something. Anything. And do that thing knowing that it doesn't have to be good. It just has to exist. It's not an end, it's a beginning. It's just a way to stop you from staring at a blank page.

Then do an alternative design.

Quickly. Don't think about it too much.

Then another. Don't despair if they're bad. You're simply riffing. You're emptying your head onto the page, so you can try to construct something good from the bad.

Use whatever technique or medium lets you create concepts quickly. It doesn't matter if that's pen and paper or software. I find that being able to throw lots of alternatives near each other is good, so that usually means paper, an iPad app like Procreate, or Adobe Illustrator. A big canvas is good.

When you think you have a good design, pretend it's a competing product — pretend that you can not use that design and that you have to come up with something different.

Then do that again.

After the frenzy, you can sit back and let yourself critique the work. Tear it apart. Beg, borrow and steal from all your alternatives until you have created a hybrid, winning layout.

Some background

I started my career as a finished artist and retoucher, being the hands for ad agency Art Directors. I'd have to do what I was told and only occasionally offer input. There was one Art Director in particular who I ended up working with quite a fair bit. An older guy who seemed to stumble though his work. To me, he didn't seem to know what he was doing. He'd just bounce around, back and forth and eventually get to something that may or may not be final. It felt like he was taking a scenic route where a more direct path could have been taken, saving hours of work.

And then I started to realise something — he'd intentionally try different and crazy things, knowing that most wouldn't work. He didn't care. In doing so, we'd end up in places we never would have got if we over-thought things. We'd end up with designs that worked, but seemed a little unconventional. Except when we didn't. And that was fine, because we'd know the path that had been taken, and exhausted many alternatives. There was some certainty in knowing the design was good in comparison to all other possibilities for the elements at play.

He was a great mentor and I now use a very similar technique. There's so much value in learning by rapidly exploring.

When you have nothing, do anything. When you have something, do something else.

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I do a little bit of this with paper and ink. Jumping into the computer always seems to take me down a "too perfect" road. Ink on paper is total commitment -- if you don't like it, move on. If this approach interests anyone, the idea of rapid prototyping may be of some inspiration. Also look into the related concept of fail fast, fail often. –  plainclothes Dec 6 '12 at 17:31
Excellent. I definitely agree that getting away from the computer can be a good thing. Tools like Balsamiq can be good, too. Like you said, it's about being quick and not trying to provide too much detail early on. –  Marc Edwards Dec 7 '12 at 5:08
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Well since you all are leaving the question open here's my genuine answer:

When I run out of ideas I like to do things like booze, sex, go to the beach, read, write, paint, sculpt, dance, travel. My mind has never been expanded less then when trying to force expansion while stuck.


Wanted to clarify the booze - I mean among friends at a bar, lounge, barbecue, the beach whatever. Not alone in a depressing way.

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+1 for the hilarious and illuminating edit! –  huzzah Dec 11 '12 at 22:00
Does your edit apply to the sex as well? :-P –  CK1 Dec 20 '12 at 18:39
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5 simple steps for producing ideas

James Young's A Technique for Producing Ideas outlines a deceptively simple system that requires great discipline to complete. I followed pieces of his approach instinctively before discovering it but keeping Young's five steps in mind has helped me expand my output.

  1. Gather raw materials: Flood your brain with the subject at hand.

    The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.

  2. Digest the material: Study what you've found and see where the connections are.

    What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

  3. Unconscious processing: This is where you wait for inspiration to strike -- get back out into the world for a while.

    When you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

  4. Inspiration strikes: When the subconscious is done, it hands over something you didn't think you could do.

    It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

  5. Face reality: Take that great inspiration and make something usable out of it.

    Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

It seems obvious when you read through it but it's just one of those things that only time and discipline can perfect. And true to Young's own reflections on the topic, you must be a curious soul to do it well. Ideas come from your mind's ability to reshape information in valuable new ways. You must have something in the brain's databank to reshape in the first place. If you aren't the curious type you'll be better served by a job as a production artist.

When all else fails

Go back to what you should always be doing: Sketch your heart out!

If you commit to not limiting what you put on paper, you'll be surprised what comes out of your head. Take a coffee (or scotch) break or head out to the local park after you've made some headway and come back to your sketches with a fresh eye. The conceptual connections will start coming together before you realize it.

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One of the best places that I use to get creative is Stumbleupon. Between that and getting to the gym early in the morning, I can usually break out of a creative block. Creativity is all about discipline, but those two things help me a lot.

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Transfer the problem to something completely different.

For example, if you are stuck with a webdesign, sketch what the design with similar brief could look like were it a building, a dress, a wallpaper, a airplane, ... -- The idea here being that you can forget about the actual limitations of your media and technical requirements and think about the design problem on a transcending conceptual level, which you can channel back to the original problem.

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A good place to look for fresh approaches is find other contexts that have the same problem. One is courses for established professionals: these will fail unless the group of experienced people on the course step out of their fixed ways of working and embrace new approaches.

Tricks that work which I've seen used well, which could be used to loosen up an ideas generation process, include:

  • Extreme restrictions around equipment. Strictly no computers. Then even more restrictions. Only use scissors, glue and paper in 3 shades of beige. Only use felt pens of 4 random colours, half of which are almost out of ink. Only use things bought from your local art supplies shop that begin with 8 randomly chosen letters. Use your wrong hand. Create the whole thing on one post-it. You're forced to improvise and to pay no attention to the wrong too fine levels of detail. Then, explain how you'd develop that into a final product.
  • Absurdly impossible deadlines. Introduction at 9:30am. Brief at 10:00am. Start coming up with ideas and creating things at 10:30am. Stop work for lunch at 12:00, moan to the other guys about how impossible that was over lunch. Everyone shows off and explains at least 3 completed items in a crit session after lunch. Nothing focuses the mind like needing to do the impossible under pressure in public under peer review.
  • Work with other people, especially if you're not used to it and don't like it, especially if it's difficult to see how it's even possible for this project.
  • All of the above at once.

Obviously, these would only be really early in the idea generation stage, and nowhere a client might be watching :) What you produce will be discarded, but producing it gets your mind loosened up. People hate these at first, but it's always amazing and refreshing to see what people can come up with despite these restrictions.

The lunch break (or equivalent break) before the crit is essential: you can forget the trauma of trying to do something that feels strange and wrong, and come back and surprise yourself that the thing that filled you with frustration while you made it is actually surprisingly not bad.

You're doing it right if, while you start, you have the reluctant, sick-to-the-stomach feeling that is your hunter-gather's brain informing you that what you're about to do will expend a large amount of energy that it would much rather just skip and preserve in case you need to fight a sabre-tooth tiger later in the afternoon.

These work if it's the process and concept development that's proving difficult. If it's the interpretation of the brief that is drifting into autopilot, that's harder. Most tricks I've heard of are based on randomly generating then tackling improbable briefs (Wikipedia's random article button helps - hit it three times: 1st article is the client, 2nd the product or message, 3rd is the target audience).

One amusing one I've heard of is to go on something like 99designs and give someone the exact literal opposite of what they want. (you win the internet if it gets accepted).

These are more like preventative exercise than a reactive cure, but if it reduces the likelihood of hitting a creative block in the first place, so much the better.

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Get out of your current headspace. Go express some creativity on your own terms for a bit. Doodle a cartoon, paint something etc. Play some videogames or whatever. Just get your mind wrapped around something thats interesting just for the sake of being interesting and not work related for a little bit. Once you've purged the work thoughts from your head, you can take a fresh look at the problem. You can't really do this if you still have residual thoughts about it, so you have to break free of your current mindset before you can change it. You need to do something unrelated generally (and fun) to do so from my experience.

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The most helpful (and most entertaining) answer to this problem I've ever seen is John Cleese's lecture on creativity: http://vimeo.com/18913413

He gives many practical suggestions, backed up with research and anecdotes that explain why they're helpful.

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This video is definitely worth watching, especially for anyone who works in a creative field. –  Marc Edwards Dec 20 '12 at 22:22
Can you give a few bullet points or notes outlining some of the key points to give an idea of the gist? I'm sure it's worth watching (hell, it's John Cleese...) but it's a good practice to summarise external links so people know what they're getting. Also some folk can't do audio at work, and it's always possible the video might be taken down. Cheers :) –  user568458 Jan 23 '13 at 22:48
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

My answer (although not necessarily a solution)...

Solutions to creative obstacles often are dependent upon deadlines, at least for me.

If I have a tight deadline... I'll follow a bit of what Marc Edwards has answered -- I'll just get something done. Then do it again, then start asking "what if" a great deal. "What if that were blue?" "What if I aligned that to the right?" "What if I decreased the text size by a point?"

With this method I can generally come up with a workable solution which I can live with. It's not always the best solution to create "stunning" design however. I find this kind of working to be more grunt labor with some knowledge more than anything. I follow a grid or basic design principles and spit something out until I'm no longer embarrassed to admit I created it. Clients are generally thrilled because it's still better than they could create. But that doesn't always mean I'm thrilled with the final piece, simply not ashamed of it.

My ideal method for producing better quality design requires more time.....

If I have the luxury of time.....

I let things stew a bit.

If I find myself involved in a project and I feel I'm solving issues with some standard, used, solutions I'm just not happy with, I set the project aside.

I'll spend some time merely thinking about the project without physically working. I allow the ideas to simply brew a bit while possibly taking in some inspiration.

I may flip through pages of an old Print or How magazine. I may surf the web for some inspiration. I may go through a clients web site to see how they are handling branding currently. I might dig through a morgue of pieces to get inspired. I do all this while also taking time for other things... grocery shopping, lunch, a little tv, whatever. But I spend time without being physically productive but rather thinking about the problem.

I'll then avoid a computer (including tablets) and break out a pencil and a pad of layout bond and sketch. Just sketch whatever I think may work. In my experience, it is exceptionally rare to create a new design solution if you're simply staring at a blank page in whatever application you've launched. There are simply too many restrictions on you from the start. My good pieces come from my overcoming software restrictions and taking steps I probably wouldn't have taken if I started in an application.

I tend to work really odd hours. Often I'm working late at night/very early morning. This helps me avoid distractions and is often very helpful in pursuing more complex ideas.

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Do you need a low cost solution? Because travelling in a foreign country REALLY helps break you out of mindsets. Especially if it's a significantly different culture, like say Thailand, Indonesia or Vietnam.

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Oh, if only one could jet off to some foreign land to spark creativity during projects. :) Now that's a position to hold! I don't doubt travel helps, always has for me. But I was thinking of more "while working" or "in processes" methods, not exceptionally time consuming junkets where things are put on hold for days or weeks. :) –  Scott Jan 28 '13 at 14:07
Last weekend I flew into New York for Disrupt NY and that completely kicked up my creativity. I have found that even a road trip or walking to a new coffee shop, browsing random used books, drawing ridiculous creatures helps me to break out of creative blocks. –  JGallardo May 1 '13 at 16:35
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My solution is to just have a break. Give your brain something else to do. Go for a walk, make some food or a coffee, watch some funny videos, play some games or even go have sex if that helps. Search around on the internet for inspiration, Dribbble, Forrst, etc. Anything that lightens your mood, reduces stress and makes you happy.

I find that thinking about the fact you can't think of anything else just makes it worse.

For instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p71Lg5c83bc :D

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When I am in the office and beginning to feel a creative block, I just go for a walk, Even if around the building. Or I play on Tumblr, send a stupid joke text to a friend via text or Gmail chat, browse memes, or walk outside with my Moleskine sketchbook and just purposely draw ridiculous things that make me laugh.

I keep a lot of sketch books around everywhere. My house, my office, my car, and multiple ones for various reasons. Also helps if you browse Dribbble or Patterntap.

I used to go on SecondLife and create ridiculous buildings and avatars there. It would be hilarious and totally feed my creativity. You could maybe do this for like 15 minutes every other night.

The gym helps as a part of daily routine. But hiking and bodyboarding were my favorite.

But when I just really need to crank something out, I just start drawing with pencils. Be totally sloppy and make ridiculous designs to start with. Then as you progress, you begin to create order out of things that seemed odd at first.

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