I do not know what to write. I am sitting here staring at the screen, running sentences in my head, and turning my music on and off. Earlier I went foraging for food (in hopes of sparking some magical words), but ended up getting distracted by Arrested Development for 20 minutes. This happens just about every time I sit down to do anything. I’ll probably go play the guitar between this paragraph and the next.
Of course this is a familiar situation. Often referred to as “writer’s block”, the concept of an inspiration rut is unfortunately very familiar to every creative in any field. Sometimes ideas just don’t show up to work. Given this, we all develop strategies to combat such a scenario. Not all are foolproof, but it’s safe to say that most creative people have some battle plan for dealing with the dreaded “blank page”.
Knowing this I decided to ask some of today’s most exciting artists and creators what they do when the ideas aren’t flowing. I left the question fairly open ended and asked, What do you do to inspire your creativity when you find yourself in a rut? As expected, I was presented with an array of strategies, ranging from listening to Boards of Canada in a forest alone, to cooking up a storm (recipe provided) and waiting for the mind to clear.
What follows are 25 strategies from these creatives to spark your inspiration; hopefully you’ll find something helpful in there. I encourage you to list your favorite strategies as well in the comments. We can never have to many of these…
I think I rely on a few tactics to keep my creativity flowing.
I try to alternate the tenor of my years, like crop rotations. In odd-numbered years (eg, 2009) I travel more and concentrate on personal projects and initiatives, while in even-numbered years (eg, 2008), I try to do more work and make more of a profit. In the odd years, I try to take a long trip. In 2005 I spent 5 weeks with a round-the-world ticket, while in 2007 I went to China, Tibet and Nepal for 3 weeks. After both trips, I returned to my desk filled with thoughts and initiative to create.
My other strategy is to keep my plate as full as possible. I tend to say yes to more than I can do, and the fear of failure keeps the work flowing.
When I’m really at a loss, and feel as if my designs are simply circling the drain, I will leave the office. There’s no point in trying to blindly bump into a solution, so whether it’s sketching in the park or reading a book, I avoid trying to use brute force to get out… it’s a bit like trying to get rid of the hiccups.
To use this horribly overused sentence “I get inspiration from everywhere”, I do get ideas from the most banal things around me. To be honest, I rarely get stuck in a creative rut, there’s more than enough ideas swirling around in my head, its just a matter of priorities and time. I’ve been working on a typeface design on and off for almost a year, and while it is an incredibly gratifying and educational experience, it does stop me from doing other things… So maybe in that way I get stuck in a mental rut: wanting to move on to the next thing, but not before I finish the typeface. But then I’m being really anal and slow with the work on the typeface because I want it to be as perfect as I can make it. And so I continue to run forwards in circles.
Anyway I got the idea for the typeface by looking at some older type design work I had done (yes, sometimes your own work can be a source of ideas — thats what sketches and notebooks are for), and looking at vintage book covers and Wim Crouwel’s Hiroshima poster. So its always a factor of things in the end.
Which reminds me of something I saw on TV: Years ago I saw a documentary on a Belgian comic book artist who had adapted Joe Haldeman’s Forever War into a graphic novel, and a journalist asked him where he got all ideas for the designs of the space ships, and the artist pulled out a piece of a plastic hull for electric wiring (he had an background in architecture) and said he spotted that thing lying around one day in his studio and thought it would be ideal to design a spacecraft.
So there you go. Ideas are everywhere, especially when you’re not really looking for them.
Whenever I feel like i’m in some sort of “rut” it’s usually just being distracted or worried about something that’s not relevant to the piece I’m working on.. or just not being able to sit still and concentrate for a long period of time. For years, I would just have music on in headphones, but for awhile now I’ve been addicted to various podcasts of informative shows, stories and ideas. Working while listening to these keeps my conscious mind stimulated in a different way, and seems to let my creative/visual side run loose and work without worry. Disconnecting from life’s daily distractions, and sort of separating myself into two halves feels like it’s been the best tactic for me to almost feel meditative while I paint.
Lots of reading and lots of sketching. The reading part is a long-term strategy: constantly consuming ideas, influences, details, angles, metaphors, symbols, etc. and storing them in the back of your brain so that later on — sometimes much later on — you have a rich catalog of starting points to draw upon. The sketching is a way to activate all of that background information when faced with a problem in the present: the act of drawing, of giving visual expression to many different ideas in short order helps you sort through all of those random elements and to make unexpected connections between them. The key is to sketch quickly, without getting caught up in the execution or technique, that way you stay in the realm of content, without getting bogged down in form.
I try to take some time off if I feel a lack of inspiration. It’s always been the best for me and to go on vacation for a week or two to just listen and watch. I listen to music and watch people. I would say everything re-inspires me, all the things that happen around me at all the times. I need to take a step outside my work to find inspiration.
The solution to a problem–
Slice and chop 2 medium onions into small pieces.
Put a medium sized pan on a medium heat with a few glugs of Olive oil.
Add the onions to the pan, and a pinch of salt and pepper.
Chop finely three varieties of fresh chilli (Birds Eye, Scotch Bonnet & Green/Red).
Add the chilli’s to the pan, stir together and cook for eight minutes.
Add about 500g of extra lean Beef mince to the pan.
Stir in so that the Beef is coated and lightly browned (should take approx. 2 minutes).
Add salt and pepper.
Add Red Kidney Beans and tinned chopped Tomatoes.
Add a pinch of Cinnamon.
Cook on a low heat for approximately 20 mins.
Measure a cup and a half of Basmati Rice into a medium pan.
Add two and a quarter cups (the same cup you measured the Rice in) of cold water to the pan with the Rice.
Boil on a high heat until the lid rattles.
Turn down the heat to about half way and cook for eight minutes.
After eight minutes turn the heat off the rice, leave for four minutes (with the lid on).
Plate up the Rice (on the side), add the chilli.
Large glass of Red wine (preferably Australian or New Zealand).
Now the important problem solving part–
Take the plates & pans to the sink.
Run a mixture of hot and cold (not too hot) water.
Add a smidgeon of washing up liquid (preferably for sensitive skin).
Start washing up, the mundane kicks in.
The mind clears and new thoughts and ideas appear.
Enjoy a second glass of wine to savour the moment.
When I’m looking for inspiration to get the creative gears turning, I find it from a combination of sources; experimental music, mid century design/cinema, nature/wildlife, etc. To achieve full creative potential I must sit in the woods, watch Mad Men, and listen to Boards of Canada simultaneously.
Staying creative is hard work. Honestly, I don’t think when I got into art school I was very talented at all. I struggled to stand out. I struggled to stay in school. Staying creative was hard work. BUT, the one thing that kept me focused was my desire to be good. I wanted to be really good. I wanted to be as good as those people that WERE talented. I used to think I would eventually, if I worked hard enough, master art like a math equation and then I could relax and just make great stuff and let everything else follow. That time definitely never came, and I know now I never want it to, because the most important thing that keeps me creative is my wanting to be good. So if I’m ever in a rut, the best things to get me out of them is to put myself in places that engage that desire to be good. In a general sense this means to get out and be expose to others creating. In my opinion, there is no better way to trigger your own creativity, than to see what great things others have made or are making. Going to museums, galleries, shows, etc. always inspires my mind in a way that make me want to get back into my own work and make good things. Be good.
I have a couple of things I do –
Take time away from the computer/sketchbook; visit a new city and just mooch about ( I once sat in a cafe in Berlin and had more ideas than I knew what to do with). I go to the Local University arts and design library and pour over back issues of graphic design and photography journals, snapping things that spark my imagination, then go home and print them out and stick them in a scrap book, I always have loads of ideas after this.
Whenever I run out of ideas I often use music to put me back in the mood – music is a huge source of inspiration for my and much of my work has been created while listening to tones from artists such as Sigur Rós (alltime favorite), Hammock, Max Richter, Air, Dead Can Dance, Helios, Johann Johannsson, Jonsi and Alex, M83, Olafur Arnalds, Trentemøller and I could go on and on…
Often the melancholy of the music I listen to gets me in a certain mood and from their the ideas start coming.
There are 6 strategies for this situation:
Do something else, wash the car, back-up your data, do errands…
Sit back and think about the issue, just let your mind go…
Look up stuff, go through your old projects, but avoid Google — it takes too long to find anything useful…
We all have lots of stuff; there must be something in there that is waiting to be used…
Drawing is great, even if you have no talent. Just visualising the simplest things makes them come alive…
Take the problem apart, look at the parts and then put them back together…
Generally speaking, I seem to get a block quite often (as I”m guessing most creatives do?). I’ve found the only way to get through it, is to just keep working and getting ideas down no matter how insignificant they may seem. Hitting a brick wall and trying to get over it can be the hardest and most frustrating thing in the world! Most of my inspiration comes from lyrics / books etc… so reading and listening to music seems to work quite well for me – the words will spark something for me to build on and give me a small thought to explore and see where it takes me.
The first and best thing to do for me is to stop trying to force it and step away for a bit. The importance of taking a break can’t be stressed enough. Then usually I find a lot of inspiration in bookstores. It’s really one of my favorite pastimes and one of the best ways I relax. A stack of books & magazines and some coffee. Sometimes I’ll bring my computer but most of the time its a good chance to get away from a screen and flip through pages and just read, look, and absorb a lot of great stuff. Art books & magazines, music, culture, design, sports, tattoos…the things I enjoy the most. I load up on that stuff and that almost always helps me through.
I don’t really get into ruts that often. When I do I just take a break from drawing and do whatever I feel like until I feel like drawing again. I try not getting into ruts by keeping my mind active with new interest or subjects, reading, watching DVDs, finding interesting podcasts. It’s also nice to hang out with friends who have other interests. I think the well of stuff I’m into is pretty low, so a lot of the things I draw about is stuff my friends talk about and the things they are interested in. Like I’m not drawn into Native Americanism, horror films, talking to the undead, or the magical healing powers of crystals, but I end up drawing that stuff cause my friends talk about it so much. But yeah, I don’t know. It different for everyone, but this is the way I do it.
When I have a creative block, I do a few different things:
• Take long showers. Somehow I can think little differently while I’m in the shower. It washes away my old thoughts and I feel renewed.
• Clean my surroundings. I cannot think clearly when there’s a mess around me.
• If it still doesn’t work, I go for a bike ride and I try not to think about the project at all.
Somehow things always work out in the end.
Here in our studio we are only two creatives who works very close. We use a lot of freelancers but they are not part of the creative process. We try to be inspired all the time and then we archive all of our inspiration, so that we always have something to look at to be inspired. It can be things we see on the street (and take photo of it – of course), in books, magazines, fashion shows, movies, blogs and so on.. So when we start a new project we start by talking about how we see the case and then we look through our inspirations and make moodboards. When we have the visual part set we start the layout process.
Lately the thing that has been really good when I am in a rut is to take the Amtrak somewhere. I unfortunately don’t do it as often as I would like but I love the forced sitting that happens and unlike air travel the seats are very comfortable. My grandfather would drive to Alaska every year and write novels while driving (dangerous I know) but I think the train travel is similar. There is something about moving through world that makes you feel alive. That said, this is not something that is easy to do. So the rest of the time I really just power through the work. If I am feeling uninspired I just accept that I am going to make some mistakes and really just work through the process.
To me there are three factors that contribute to creative block: One, believing you’re stuck. Two, knowing you’re stuck but not knowing how to get out. And three, knowing you’re stuck and knowing how to get out, but doubting your ability to do it. Here are my solutions, respectively:
1. I ask myself, am I really stuck? Sometimes we think we’re stuck or we want to think we’re stuck but we’re actually on track and just don’t know it. Some paths are inevitable. Remember, a rut is also a groove.
2. I do nothing. Being stuck is usually a matter of not seeing the problem clearly. The best medicine for that is perspective. I measure perspective in units of time and distance. Getting a away from a problem helps give me better view of it. Instead of flailing away I’ll do something unrelated — like go to a museum or watch a movie. Inevitably, something in that other experience presents itself as the answer to the problem I’m trying to ignore.
3. I become awesome. Sometimes I’m faced with a problem to which I know the solution, but executing on it just seems too hard. One trick I use to get over that feeling is to work on other, easier tasks. They don’t have to be related — finally touching up that paint above the office light switch, finishing a blog post, organizing the garage are all fine examples. Taking on a bunch of little things that I can do quickly (and well) puts me in the mindset of being able to accomplish things. Then when I come back to that insurmountable problem it’s just the next task to check off the list. No more anxiety.
Set your bedside alarm for 5am. When it goes off either get up and enjoy the unique feel of that time of day or go back to sleep and have the craziest dreams (REM sleep is easier to reach/remember) – one of these experiences will give you inspiration.
Don’t all sit in a meeting and somehow expect that something will pop into your collective conscious. Don’t read the design press, don’t go to google images or youtube. Don’t force it – get out of the studio. Go to the theatre, go to gigs, go to museums, take time off work, go for a walk, stop looking at your computer, turn off your mobile and the tv, Have a chat with your mates about something meaningful.
Diversify your interests. The broader your interests and your absorption of culture the more relevant your designs become for your clients. Put yourself in your clients place and try to imagine how they will receive your thinking. Throw up lots of ideas, exchange opinions with your colleagues, road test your thinking with them, think around the subject, look at it from all angles then apply relentless rigour in creating your design. OR not. Go with your gut instinct because you are so bored of laborious over-worked responses it takes all the joy out of life and you can’t remember why you started in the creative industries if everything is designed by committee and compromise. Draw a lot just for the sake of it. Ignore style. Have the courage of your convictions provided you are extremely talented, if not, listen. Listen in any case.
D: During the micro day to day stuff if I am in a creative rut I surf the web, go for a walk, check out a movie, shop for books, go to a museum or do other largely cliche things to fill up my brain with inspiration. Sometimes though I get sick of looking to other sources and try to clear my head by just getting out of the office and ideas come when I least expect them.
A: When it comes to daily creativity, I try to break down all of my tasks in a rough schedule everyday. I work on projects from 2-3 hour chunks at a time. I do not spend an entire day on one project alone unless its absolutely necessary. I turn off email and IM or check it every hour on the hour. Breaking down time helps me because when I have 2 hours to complete a task I’m solely focused on elements or details that might otherwise been overlooked. I think it makes me more creative because I look forward the next time I will get to work on a project and forces me to take some time off and think about what I will do next time. The schedule also helps me shift gears between different mediums. Multi-tasking doesn’t work for me, I can’t be having an IM conversation while writing a contract while talking to an intern while waiting for an email while trying to design something too. Getting rid of those small distractions and focusing on a single project helps.
D: The way our studio is set up though we try to have some overlap in who works on what, so there isn’t a ton of pressure on any one person to carry all of the creative weight, which can be kind of daunting and lets us be a bit more free with things.
D: But for the larger macro in a rut stuff we try to keep moving our business in new directions so we can stay happy creatively. To do self initiated work that balances out the day to day client stuff but in the end comes back and informs it.
A: On a macro scale, creativity comes and goes for me. I can’t predict when I will be excited about a project. I just try to be happy in my personal life which in turn makes me productive at work. And being productive at work also makes me happy in my personal life. So I try to do as many things that make me happy: playing soccer, reading books, playing video games, hanging with my lady, getting drunk, whatever I’m in the mood for. I find it tough to be creative when I’m worried or angry at something.
D: Also we work a lot of different mediums which helps keep things fresh, since one day we can be doing motion and the next a tee shirt or a branding project.
D: Teaching helps too because it exposes us to up and coming talent and fresh ideas every week. We are learning from them just as much as they are from us.
We are a graphic designer and an artist. This combination is very dynamic, meaning that the way we approach our profession is not from one side, but constantly two perspectives staring at one problem. Sort of a build in dialectic way of behaving — although not always — our working methods are contradicting. Maybe the dynamic is developed more because our professional backgrounds are contradicting. Contradicting in the sense of applied versus autonomous. We experience this as a very productive way of working because this is a lively combination. It’s also progressive and therefore we almost never find ourselves in a situation were we are standing still or have no clue what to do.
Besides our work method being dynamic we also love to create work of our own. To keep our focus clear and to grasp our working method even better. So we keep ourselves busy to keep the progression going.
I often find myself in a creative rut of some sort. It’s not so much that I can’t engage with my creativity. It’s that sometimes nothing I come up with speaks to me or feels special. For as long as I can remember I have been able to just sit and let my creative juices flow… but that doesn’t mean that the juice is always sweet.
When I find myself in these situations I notice that the more I push myself to get results the more I tend to come up short. Regardless, I have several weapons in my rut fighting arsenal; walks, conversations, drawing, reading, records, magazines, vintage shopping, window shopping, digging in old sketchbooks, staring off into space, yoga, TV, red wine, scotch, weed, etc, etc, etc. I definitely try to avoid trolling the web in search of inspiration. It seems to easy and it has been come to commonplace in my opinion.
At the end of the day, most of what I feel are my strongest ideas just hit me when I least expect it… When I’m bed, the shower, on the subway, or a meeting or something. When I am not focused on the quest for ideas. It’s like all the energy I release looking for them causes a cloud to build around me that has to clear before then can get to me.
I’ve got loads of tricks for getting out of creative ruts, like scouring the net for cool photo reference, going through old drawings, finding some new music to listen to, or getting out and drawing at a different location like the coffee shop. But what always works the best for me is talking with my friends. They always have some new way of looking at problems that I never would have thought of, or a cool bit of inspiring artwork to show me, or just some words of encouragement that will get me moving again!
Flee. It’s a simple word with a zillion possible outcomes. In short, we leave. Where we end up each time varies: A bookstore, coffee shop, antique store, movie house, park, forest, river bank or maybe just our living room. The goal is always the same – to see or feel – something that inspires. It doesn’t need to be something new or fresh … but something that makes us want to get back to our pen, pencil, mouse or Wacom tablet with a new, clear perspective. We actually hold project meetings at our local coffee joint instead of work – as they always seem to produce better ideas/results.
In general, these fresh (out of the office) reflective moments – whether they be full days, half days or even a brief few minutes – can be very fulfilling. In fact, we’ve started scheduling them into our regular work days each month – something we should have done long ago.
I go on a long run, bike ride, walk with the dog; Anything but work on the project. Good ideas are stored in fat so if I burn some off I can free them up and use em. The worst thing to do is stress out and try and do everything at once. I’ll have my phone with my and text myself ideas once they pop in my head. – Justin Krietemeyer
Whenever I need inspiration I get up and step away from my computer. I find that starring at an image, or even worse a blank canvas, can become very frustrating after a while. I like to take a walk or run outside and look at everything around me. I tend to find solutions to difficult problems when I’m not thinking too hard about it. I find interesting patterns and imagery just looking around and observing everything, like an ice cream truck driving by or the concrete I am running on. And usually when I have not thought about the project for a little while I come up with a new idea. – Tess Donohoe
My sincere thanks to everyone for participating. I’m sure if anyone out there is having trouble creating, SOMEthing in the above will get you back on track. A popular solution seems to be to get out of dodge and get out and about…so I’m off to Starbucks to figure out a better way to write a conclusion.
- alex cornell
Don’t forget to list your own favorite strategies in the comments. The more the merrier.