Most 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 similar restrictions repeatedly, it becomes very easy to get mired down in how the design problems have been previously solved rather than finding new solutions.

I'm familiar with mood boards, idea books, and the like. However, these all seem to basically take the user down the same 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, inventive manner?

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


15 Answers 15


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.

  • 2
    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. Commented Dec 6, 2012 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. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 5:08

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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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.

  • 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
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 14:07
  • 1
    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
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 16:35

The most helpful (and most entertaining) answer to this problem I've ever seen is John Cleese's lecture on creativity

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

  • This video is definitely worth watching, especially for anyone who works in a creative field. Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 22:22
  • 2
    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 :) Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 22:48
  • 1
    This video has been removed. It would have been nice if the answerer had heeded user568458's point. (I can Google "John Cleese creativity," but which video was it?)
    – Geoff Ball
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 21:01

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.


i Go fishing, sew, sing, paint or take funny photographs. i try singing( i am not a singer) a song using numbers instead of words. Singing can help to distract to suddenly relax. Use music as relaxation therapy. Play it as loudly or as softly as i like,

Smile and laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.i see a hilarious movie. This is guaranteed to help. Smiling and laughing releases endorphins, which fights stress, helps to relax and reminds you that life is more than just work. Even if it feels strange at first, make it a point to smile more often.

Drawing blindly thing some dreams..etc


Mind set and tunnel vision is something we all fall into in one way or another. It is inevitable because of how mind works. Challenging our existing mind set is what allows for the breakthroughs and subsequent advances.

The question which arises is, “How do we challenge our mind set and is there one way that is better than another?”

One many not be able to say that one way of challenging mind set is better than another. However, the experiences of Twentieth Century physicists Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein provide a way to challenge mind set that provided to be revolutionary in their impacts. Although both these physicist were working in related areas of physics and what they did applied to different phenomenon, their approach was essentially the same.

Relative to our inherent creativity and what is available to us, in many ways the mind set we have about our creative power and ability is not unlike the mind set the physic community faced at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Physicist had their ideas and models about how Nature worked. Many of those ideas continued to be pushed even when they were obviously failing to predict the way Nature worked. Both Bohr and Einstein found ways to step out and break that mind set.

We are faced today with a mind set about the nature of the internal and external reality we experience and the inner and outer creative power/Creative Power accessible to us. This mind set that exists today about our creativity is, in someways, much like the mind set that physicists faced relative to uncovering the physics of Nature. The mind set physicist had at this time prevented them from moving forward in unraveling the mysteries of the universe.

The problem the early Twentieth Century physicists faced was that the particular view or explanation of Nature held at that time worked well to explain many phenomena. But some phenomena just could not effectively be explained with the view the physicists held. Many physicist were very attached to the successes of their past scientific studies and were unwilling to give up the models and perceptions of reality that seemed to work so well - in some cases. These physicists seemed to be more intent on fixing and patching that which wasn’t working rather than finding a more coherent model and explanation for how the universe worked.

This is understandable because so many individuals had made a reputation on the past and had spent enormous amounts of their time and effort working with the models of the past. It is hard to give up to what we have become attached. This fact may be one reason why so many great discoveries and bold breakthroughs seem to be made in the early years of a career, before one become “set” in their ways and thinking.

Two particular individuals who caused a profound shift in the mind set of physicists in the early twentieth century were Neils Bohr (1885-1962) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955).

What is particularly intriguing about their stories for studying creativity is

  • how much their approach is valid and applicable to the mind set we have developed about looking into our internal subjective reality,
  • and how our internal world relates to our external world. Their approach help to address what interferes with what we need to understand to release our unlimited creativity.

The work and impact of Bohr and Einstein is important for creativity is was not only what, but how, they came to their ideas that transformed the world of physics.

It was through their efforts that physicists broke free of their mind set, their old way of thinking, and launched a new era of understanding that revolutionized the world.

The same impact is possible for our creativity. The ideas presented here allow us to break free of our current mind set about the nature of reality and what it means to be human based so much in the past. It allows us to embrace a new understanding of what it means to access our unlimited creativity to create the reality of our choice.

The approach taken by Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein are discussed for two reasons.

  • The first is that they challenged the existing mind set of physics by stepping outside the then current thinking and way the world was being viewed. That is they “stepped out of mind.” The stepped out of the mind that physicists were using to explain the physics of nature. In this regard, both used similar approaches in that each challenged the existing mind set of physics at the time and from that perspective an example of either one or the other would suffice. However, each made a particular contribution to physics that is key to the understanding creativity and our creative powers.
  • It is their individual contributions that give us the second reason for look at each of their approaches.

In the Bohr’s approach, the important point is that he looked to nature itself to lead that way and provide the understanding. The approach presented in the Releasing Your Unlimited Creativity material is an approach analogous to that which Bohr employed. Because energy and consciousness are seen as equivalent, nature, and the world of energy, can provide many of the analogies necessary to understand how to access and release our unlimited creativity. The reason for this is that all of nature and all that we experience as energy or energy based, is just an expression of consciousness.

In Einstein’s case, he did not look to nature for the answers. Rather, he made postulates about nature that could explain the phenomena that he experiences. He then look for experiment to verify that his assumptions were indeed correct. For our purpose, it is the assumptions he makes about the nature of light and energy that is important to our discussion on creativity. Again, because energy and consciousness are one and the same, we can apply the same assumptions he made about energy in a new way expanding them to consciousness.

As for escaping mind set and tunnel vision, the key is to be will be willing to step out of mind and what we think and believe to both look to nature as to how creation/Creation works and be willing to make assumptions and then test the truth of those assumptions. If the assumptions are valid, use them and allow effectiveness to be their measure of truth.


Sometimes you have to stop working on "what needs to be worked on" and do something for yourself.

Find a project in a program you want to gain more experience with/learn more about/etc etc...

Then once in there, do something that is outside your comfort zone. Keep notes on what you do and how you do it. Turn it into a tutorial. Push the envelope. But most importantly keep notes of what worked and what didn't. Use that next time you have a design problem you cannot solve.

I used to do small and large projects in Photoshop this way. I ended up learning far more tips and tricks by pushing myself and taking risks without the looming deadline of a "needs to be done project", in the long run I learned way more about what I could and couldn't (needed to learn more about) do in Photoshop.

Just a thought... never stop learning, then you will never stop being creative...

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