Your inspiration is jammed; your self-belief has fled. The beast of creative block is upon you. Its causes are complex but its effects are always wretched. Fortunately – as three industry professionals discuss – there are ways to manage and overcome it.
Jitters. Anxiety. Exhaustion. Fear. The slow and seemingly unstoppable shriveling of the soul. The feeling of one’s brain having been replaced by a wasteland, inhabited only by wolves and the ghosts of former glory.
Such are the symptoms of creative block. Creative block itself is a product of burnout – identified as a real major health concern by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Though many are coy around the subject (it seems an admission of weakness to say you have it) everyone struggles with it at one time or other. Even Picasso – as Patrick O’Brien wrote in his 1976 biography, for a time “the mere sight of his pictures and drawings infuriated him.”
While creative block can probably be traced to the very first caveman who despaired his stone-smashing technique was losing panache, it is arguably more common in this day and age. And it’s the hyperactive, demanding, always-on culture of modern work that is to blame – the one that glorifies the workaholic, then threatens to turf them out when output falters or quality dips.
“We have simply accepted overextension as a way of life,” wrote Emma Seppala, science director at Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and author of the 2016 book, The Happiness Track.
Granted, if you’re just one worker, it can be hard to challenge the culture of an organisation. And certainly, no one can change it overnight. Nor can we all successfully campaign for the napping areas, aquariums and basketball courts that Google workers currently enjoy. There are still a bunch of great hacks you can deploy to both dodge creative blocks or overcome them when they hit. Here, Gareth Allsopp, Senior Art Director and Former Creative Group Head at M&C Saatchi; Beau Thein, Digital Creative & Design Head at Studio Nerve; and Matt Caulfield, Mahlab’s own Head of Design, share some of their own.
Matt Caulfield: Punch someone, garden, listen in
They say your best ideas come to you in the shower. Unfortunately, few office layouts have taken this into consideration. And, for skin-pruning and sustainability reasons, you can’t stand around in them all day.
It’s equally true, however, that you can’t think out of the square if you’re constantly having your creative juices put in a productivity blender.
Here’s what I do to manage creative block: I make sure to switch off. I do mundane things – stuff like gardening or ambling about. There are also practical exercises you can do to discipline yourself, like drawing a lamp in fifty different ways. Ultimately I do whatever it takes so that I don’t take my work home with me. Because when I do, I’m going to stress about it. I’m going to let it crawl into my dreams and in the morning, find it beside me on my pillow – just as vicious, just as lumpy and just as ‘there’ as it was the night before.
For my next point – look, you might not like hearing it. Half the articles on the internet bang on about it; about how it can basically solve every human issue, ever. Exercise. Yeah. The old movement of limbs.
Walking qualifies, but blood-pumping activities come recommended for better oxygenation of the brain. I’ve found that punching people is what works for me. (Note: in every other space, I am a very peaceable, non-punchy guy.) There’s a gym across the road from our Mahlab offices, and in the mornings sometimes, I go over and start boxing.
In the ring I’m not thinking about how to design the best collateral for an important event, or how to wrangle a cover layout. I couldn’t if I tried. All I’m thinking about is how to hit the other guy and not get bopped myself. When I go back to take a jab at the project, I feel that much more ready to take it on. And the method works whether I win the match or not.
My last point is probably most relevant to those lucky cads who, like myself, have somehow nabbed a position of leadership. Too often us creative execs get the sense – usually encouraged by a broader company ethic – that they’re the ‘head guru’. That all the best ideas flow from some innate, mysterious place within.
It’s just not true. That spark can come from anyone. I’ll often talk to staff members, bring them in on the project – including the junior ones, the quiet ones, even those who aren’t in the creative department. While they might not have a complete solution, they’re able to look at something in a completely different way. And it’s that fresh perspective that can trigger something crucial. Be humble, I’ve learned. Be curious. Share a cupcake with someone. Have a chat.
Gareth Allsopp: Try Zinio, collaborate, eat bananas
All work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy. Or Jill a dull girl for that matter. It applies to everyone.
When the pressure is on, sometimes that’s when you’re setting your new record for personal best. You’re on top of the world, hitting straight-shooters left and right, blasting through problems and spinning ideas to knock the socks, shoes and garters off everyone.
But doing this nonstop? That’s unsustainable. All those ideas that once burst like supernova can suddenly hang there like cold lumps of ice. That force which pushed you to new heights is now clobbering you senseless.
When this happens, I set aside a day or even a few hours just for fun stuff. I force myself to stop obsessing over and magnifying the issue, and head to the freshest springs of rich, diverse and even unusual inspiration. It can be looking at the latest in design magazines on Zinio or heading to Pinterest to admire really cool chairs. It can even be witnessing a guy offering to lick anything you give him as means of artistic expression (an actual performance at this year’s Sydney Contemporary art fair). Checking out what creative individuals all around the world have done and are doing is incredibly rejuvenating.
A related hack is to engage one of your trusted peers. When you feel that tunnel vision start to close in around you, bringing a left-brained ally on board can be like magic. Those who can give you constructive feedback (rather than telling you, “that is rubbish, what are you even doing?”) will time and time again, prove themselves golden.
My final hack? Detoxify. Cut out the coffee, go cold turkey on alcohol. The first one just makes you jittery under pressure and the second one slows you down. But more than this, it’s neurochemical – by controlling your body, you’re reasserting control over your mind.
Oh, and bananas. When I get creative block, I eat heaps of bananas.
Beau Thein: Ogle birds, figure out a process, read a book
You can go for a walk, sit outside, look at some birds (disclaimer: ibis-watching doesn’t work). Nature is the muse we tend to neglect.
But you can also manage creative block procedurally. In other words, figuring out a process around how you get on with your work – a structure you can always default to. So when a client hands you a brief or your company sets you off on a project, you don’t just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. (The image of the creative genius lazing about a studio, sipping brandy while listening to jazz – it’s a dangerous one.) Instead, you sketch out a rough map of how you’re going to navigate through each stage. By enforcing this kind of discipline, you are directing your workflow around fixed, project-specific parameters, rather than letting it gush out in a messy, disorientating swamp of unrelated ideas.
I’ve also found reading useful. But saying that, I don’t mean reading design blogs or scanning over your LinkedIn hero’s portfolio. Instead, read a book. Read a novel. A picture-less one. Why? Because you’re not relying on visual cues to recreate those same visual images in your noggin. Instead, you’re using text-based cues to create entirely original images. The creative processor of your brain is that much more generative.
Ready Player One is what’s on my bedside table at the moment, a sci-fi classic by Ernest Cline. The fact that Cline has an incredibly simple, easy-to-read style helps enormously too. The reader doesn’t have to expend neural bandwidth decoding sentences or navigating through jargon. The words fly off the page – and your imagination reacts by flashing up its own cinema screen and flooding it with story.