Ever feel like some days you can crank out amazing looking designs with little effort? Then on other days it feels like nothing is working, you’ve lost all your talent and you’ll never make another good design for the rest of your miserable life? Don’t panic – this is natural. It’s like writer’s block, except for designers. It happens to all of us.
So, the real question is; how do I avoid designer’s block? Or better yet; how can I get into the “zone.” For those of you unfamiliar with the term “the zone,” it’s the expression athletes use to describe how they feel when they’re performing at their very best. They’re not THINKING about how to perform – they’re just DOING IT.
So, how do you get there? How do you stay there? And once again – how do you avoid designer’s block? It’s not possible to dial in design perfection each time you sit down at your desk, but there are a few things you can do to help. Here are 10 items to help you find the “zone” and avoid designer’s block.
1. Get “loose.”
In my experience, there is a danger in sitting down and trying to get right into a design (or drawing.) If the very first time your pencil hits paper you need to be drawing exactly what you’re intending to be your final piece of art – you’ll have a tendency to “tighten up.” You can literally feel your muscles tighten as you start to put down a hard crisp pencil line. As a designer if you don’t start out by getting loose, your brain tightens up on exactly what you think the final design should look like.
But drawing and designing is not executed in a perfectly straight line. It’s not a math equation. It’s a process. And the first part of the process needs to be getting loose; opening your mind to the possibilities or loosening up the muscles in your drawing arm. If it’s drawing that I’m about to do I like to start with some very loose sketching. It doesn’t have to be a sketch of anything in particular. I’ll just draw big circles, cylinders, goofy faces, body parts, random patterns, whatever. The important thing is that you do it fast and loose. The goal is just to relax. Pretend you’re a kid picking up a crayon for the very first time.
As for loosening up before a design project, I like to surf the web. There is nothing like the inspiration that seeing other artist’s work has for broadening my mental picture. If I already have a solid idea of how the design is going to be, I will force myself to think of another one. Pretend for a moment that you’ve done the design exactly how you envision it and the client completely rejected it. What’s next? How else can it be designed? Once again – we’re talking about getting loose, being fluid, opening up your brain to more possibilities.
2. Find inspiration.
Inspiration is important. Having excitement for the work you’re about to do is critical. Personally I do three things to get inspired. First, I surf the net and look at other designers/illustrators work. When I see a cool drawing I feel a rush of energy. I’m jealous of what they’ve done and I want to try and make something just as cool. Second, I put on some good tunes. Music is great for me. Finally, I make up a story about my drawing or design in my brain. It’s good to have an internal dialog that goes beyond “I need to design a chart for a grocery store.” How about: “I’m designing a chart that’s going to be used in the new Tron movie.” In truth my design is just for a local grocery store – but in my mind I’m pretending it’s for a movie. I can hear the theme music as the lead character of the movie steps up to a translucent floating display. It’s a tense moment as he uses a touch-screen interface to figure out which pizza has the most calories. In Tron 2 calories equals energy, which is GOOD in the digital world. He’s going to need his energy to battle it out in a game of Deadly Disk. Ok, this is a ridiculous story, but you get my point. Find a way to get excited, get jacked!
3. Get your head out of the “game.”
Ever notice that you’re sometimes able to do amazing design work when you’re under a crushing deadline? You sit down and start cranking through a design. You’re working super fast. You’re not thinking. You’re just doing. You slap it together – if it doesn’t look good, you just move it around rapidly until it does. I call this speed designing. You’re not giving yourself ANY time to prejudge your ideas. You’re just executing them, evaluating them in a split-second and then making changes.
What you’ve done in this scenario is taken your brain out of the equation. You don’t give yourself enough time to second guess anything.
They say the fastest path to success is through failure. So, if you fail fast, you’ll succeed fast. If I catch myself over thinking a project I can play this little game with myself: “I only have 30 minutes to complete this entire design… ready, set, GO!”
4. Give yourself time.
Sometimes our clients do not give us much time to complete a design. It is particularly hard to design something when you feel like there isn’t enough time. It’s like pressure is mounting on you. Somewhere inside you know that you better get it right the first time or else you’ll miss your timetable. This causes you to tighten up.
To fight this feeling of time pressure I have several options. I can talk to the customer about his timetable/budget. If I can convince him/her to give me more time/money – that’s the best solution. I can also allow myself to go over budget and “eat” the time I’m over. I can also try to think of some design shortcuts to save me some time. Whatever I decide to do, I need to get the time pressure off my mind.
At Go Media we have a “Portfolio Project Policy” which basically says: “If you think your design is going to be portfolio worthy, you can go over budget on your time.” It’s important that we give ourselves the time to do good work – even if the financial bottom line takes a hit. After all, we got into this business for the art, not the money. If we were just after money we would be crab fishermen in the Bering Sea.
5. Have fun with a new technique or toy.
If I’m not feeling in a very designy mood, not inspired and generally not creative, I’ve found that a new toy can help to lift my spirits. By new “toy” what I mean is some design tool. Maybe I buy a new piece of software, or a Wacom tablet or maybe a new brush. Or maybe a new “toy” is just a piece of knowledge. Maybe I’ll search the web for a new drawing tutorial. If I can learn a new technique, I’m immediately inspired to try it out.
6. Lower your expectations.
As designers and illustrators we need to remind ourselves that we’re not going to paint the Mona Lisa each time we touch paint to canvas, or pencil to paper, or pixel to computer. We’re going to fail – a LOT. I like to think of a professional baseball player’s batting average and my ability to make a good design as analogous. A very good baseball player only gets a hit 30% of the time he steps up to the plate. I think this is a good average for a designer too. If I sit down to draw 10 times and 3 come out good – then I’m doing a good job. If you put too much pressure on yourself to hit a home run each time you draw/design it will make it even harder. So, relax, expect to fail. It’s ok. I still love you.
7. Be aware of your difficulty level.
Not all design projects are the same. Are you designing something that is in your comfort zone? Or are you being asked to design something you’ve never done before? This is all part of managing your expectations. If you have a good perspective on your ability as it relates to the project at hand, you’ll keep a positive attitude about your results. And a positive attitude means better design.
8. Eat a proper diet.
Huh? Diet? Why the heck would what I eat affect my ability to design? Well – food affects your mood and energy level. And your mood certainly affects your design. I’ve noticed that when I’m in a bad mood I design poorly. Or more to the point is that when I’m in a bad mood I don’t even design. I just sit there staring at the blank screen doing nothing. As each design idea pops into my brain a little negative voice in my head says: “No. That’s a crappy idea. That won’t work. Think of something else you loser.” And so I sit. Idea after idea is gunned down in my brain because I’m in a bad mood.
“So, where is the connection between food and mood?” you ask. It’s simple – food signals your brain to release insulin. Insulin is a drug that makes you feel full – and happy. Also, food gives you energy. It makes you feel awake and alert. Furthermore, having an appropriate blood-sugar level makes you feel calm.
Now, let’s go back to that scenario where I’m sitting at my desk designing. Except now I’m happy and calm and full of energy. And what happens now when that design idea floats through my brain? Do I gun it down before I even try it out? No. This time a little voice in my brain says: “Sure! That could work. Let’s give it a try!” And if it fails does that voice rip me to shreds and tell me I suck? No, this is the happy, calm, energetic voice. It says: “No problem Bill! Let’s try something else. Even though this design didn’t work – there is one small part of this design that DOES look good! Let’s use that part and explore how we can expand on it!”
Ok, food effects mood, got it, so, what do I eat? Well, this is not rocket science. You’ve heard it a million times: balanced diet with fruits, veggies, protein and complex carbohydrates. In my experience there is one area to really focus on to help your mood: eating more protein and avoiding sugars (simple carbs.) When you eat sugars like candy, pop, white bread and white noodles – you’ll get a huge insulin spike. You’ll feel full of energy and really full for a short burst. Then you have the insulin drop. Suddenly you’ll feel very tired, sad and you’ll have the munchies. Proteins on the other hand burn slower in your body. It spreads out your energy over a longer period of time. Your mood is stabilized. There is no sudden spike and no sudden drop. At the very least – mix in some protein along with your carbs. This will help soften the drop off of energy.
Which brings me to caffeine. I certainly love my cup of coffee in the morning. The energy spike is AWESOME – and I feel GREAT. But I’ve also learned that it’s not exactly ideal for drawing. I have TOO MUCH energy. I can’t sit still. I’m washing my walls and sweeping my floors. Or, I write long blogs about designer’s block.
There is not one rule for everyone. Some people may design better on a huge dose of caffeine and a plate of pasta. I don’t know your personal brain and body chemistry. My point is that food affects your mood. And your mood affects your thought process. And your thought process affects how you design. And HOW you design affects your ABILITY to design. So just be aware. Take a moment to think about what you’re eating and what mood you’re in. Then figure out what your optimal designer diet is.
9. Get your sleep.
Sleep is somewhat related to mood and energy just like your diet. I can’t go into a long discussion about the effects of proper sleep because, well, I don’t actually know anything about it. But I do know that we need our sleep. And I know that I become a slug when I haven’t had enough sleep. Suffice to say that it’s something to be aware of. What is your ideal sleep pattern? How much sleep do you need to be at your best?
10. Take a walk.
More physiology coming at you; did you know that exercise releases endorphins? Endorphins are natural drugs in your brain that make you happy and relaxed. Also, a little time walking will allow your subconscious to work through the design project that is festering in your brain. We have a ping-pong table here at Go Media. A game or two of ping-pong has the same effect. It breaks up your brain waves and gives it some time. Innovation is just around the corner!
In conclusion – you’re going to get designer’s block. It’s inevitable. Don’t get frustrated and upset. Just accept it as part of your job. Now, eat some beef jerky as you go for a walk around the block to check out the local graffiti wall. I promise by the time you get back you’ll feel right as rain.