Tags: courage, creative process

Creative block can happen to anyone. You sit down to create something new, turn on the tap for new ideas…and nothing comes out. You’re frustrated, a little frightened, and at a loss for what to do next.

Creative block

What do you do when no ideas are coming?

To start, let go of the idea that you are not creative. Creativity is not an inborn trait, but a skill – anyone can be creative if they understand how creativity arises. Creativity is almost never the result of divine inspiration – instead, it’s the skill of taking old, hackneyed ideas and combining them in wacky ways to produce something new and exciting. And, like any skill, it can be developed through practice.

Here are some ideas for how to blast through creative block and get your creativity flowing again.

Get working

Doodle with your hands. Don’t try to do anything, just pick up some materials and start messing around using a technique chosen at random. Tell yourself you’ll work for an hour even if you don’t know what you’re doing. Ideas often arise from simply working with your hands.

Brainstorm some designs

brainstorming

The big secret of brainstorming

Before you start creating new designs, I’m going to let you in on a secret. In fact, it’s the most important thing I can tell you about designing, and it will enable you to blast through creative block.

Your initial designs don’t have to be good. Rotten designs are just fine!

For every brilliant design idea there will be ninety-nine (or more!) mediocre-to-awful ones. The key is to churn out lots of design ideas, so you can find the one gem. Then you can take your diamond-in-the-rough and polish it up. In the end, you’ll have a wonderful finished piece, and no one will know just how awful your initial design was.

Not every idea has to be brilliant. Designs can be torn apart, repurposed, adapted. The one good element of an otherwise terrible design may prove the touch of perfection in a different project. So don’t worry if it’s not quite right. Treasure all your design ideas, even the ones that look awful to you.

In addition, your sketches do not have to look like they were drawn by a professional artist. I used to despair because my initial sketches looked nothing like what I was envisioning. In fact, they looked like they were drawn by a six-year-old. I hid them away because I couldn’t make my sketches look like my vision.

Eventually I realized that my design sketches would never be beautiful. But they don’t have to be. The sole purpose of a design sketch is to give you a rough idea of your intent for the piece. If it reminds you of what you were envisioning, and that’s all you need. My sketches still look like a six-year-old drew them. But my art doesn’t.

To prove it, here’s my initial sketch for my work Goodbye, Ma – and the finished piece.

initial sketch for "Goodbye, Ma"
initial sketch for “Goodbye, Ma”
"Goodbye, Ma"
“Goodbye, Ma”

Now that you’re in on the secret of brainstorming, it’s time to get started.

Collect Ideas

Start by collecting some ideas. Ideas might be:

  1. Half finished projects
  2. Things from your sketchbook
  3. Materials, techniques, or tools you could use
  4. Photos of work you find inspiring
  5. Abstract ideas such as fire, freedom, etc.
  6. Constraints, such as “I will use only blue and orange in this piece,” or “I will work only with materials from my stash”.

If you are totally at a loss for ideas, try giving yourself some creative prompts. Go to Google Images and type in the first word that comes to mind. Select an image from the first page of results, then write down some things about the image that strike you as interesting. What colors are used in the image? What mood does the image convey? What is the image about?

Once you have some ideas at hand, it’s time to start brainstorming.

Brainstorming guidelines

First, let go of judgment. In fact, make an effort to come up with the silliest ideas possible. The goal is creativity, not safety.

Generate lots of designs, try out many different ideas. Many of them will suck. In fact, most of them will not work out to anything you like, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s what you want – because to create really original designs, you need to take risks. Sticking to the safe won’t give you the most creative results – you have to go to the wild places to find interesting ideas.

So when you’re brainstorming, capture ideas without thinking about whether they’re good or bad. If you’re thinking it, sketch it.

Start brainstorming

wild-and-crazy-paints

Get started. Sit down, take five ideas from your list, and set a timer for twenty minutes. Start sketching. Combine your ideas in wacky ways – what can you do using this technique and the color palette in that photo? Go as far off the wall as possible. Try to come up with ten designs inspired by the five ideas you selected, before time runs out.

Remember, they can be terrible designs – that’s fine, that’s what you want. And don’t stop to flesh out any one design – your goal is quantity, not quality. Get the idea onto paper in the roughest possible format and then move on. Do as many designs as you can before the timer goes off.

Turn off the Judge

Uncensored

If you find yourself coming up with an idea and thinking, “No, that’s wrong,” stop and have a talk with your internal Judge. This is the part of your mind that evaluates ideas and actions, and decides what works and what doesn’t. The Judge is not evil – in fact, it’s necessary later in the process, when evaluating whatever you’re working on. But early in the process, it can be deadly to your creative side. Creating and critiquing are two completely different ways of thinking, and you can’t work in both modes at once. So shut down the Judge for now. Just let the ideas flow out. When your Judge kicks in (and it always wants to be involved!), say, “I’m CREATING now, not critiquing – so please, Judge, go take a nap and come back once I’m done brainstorming.”

Pick a design, any design

Once you’ve brainstormed some designs, select whatever most appeals to you from your set of new designs. You don’t need to be deeply inspired by the idea; you’ll be improving it as you go. Don’t agonize over choosing the correct idea to pursue. In creative work there is generally no one right answer to anything. So if you truly can’t decide, it usually means that they are all good ideas. Don’t waste time trying to pick out the exact perfect design, just choose one and get going. You’re not married to it; if it isn’t working, you can always come back and try something else.

Above all, keep working!

I hope this has broken you out of your dry spell for ideas. But if not, remember that the most important thing you can do is keep working. I interviewed 22 master artisans for my book Master Your Craft: Strategies for Designing, Making, and Selling Artisan Work, and asked each one of them for their advice in overcoming creative block. Every single one of them said, “Keep working. If you do, ideas will come.”

blast-through-creative-block

Summary

    1. Creativity isn’t inborn – it’s a skill that you can develop with practice. Don’t let a temporary lack of ideas convince you that you’re not creative.
    2. Two ways to blast through creative block:
      1. Doodle with your hands. Keep playing in the studio until an idea appears.
      2. Brainstorm some new designs.
    3. The first big secret of brainstorming: Most of your brainstormed designs will be totally rotten, no-good ideas. And that’s great! Creative risks and crappy designs are part of making good work.
    4. The second big secret of brainstorming: It’s OK for your initial design sketches to look terrible. The objective of design sketches is to capture an idea, not create a work of art.
    5. Collect ideas to prime the pump. These can be found objects, photos, half-finished projects, constraints – anything you like. Use Google Images to get creative prompts if you’re having problems finding ideas.
    6. Combine your ideas into as many silly, off-the-wall designs as you can. Set a timer to keep yourself moving.
    7. Turn off the internal critic. Your internal Judge is great for evaluating projects in progress, but will shut down creative thought if you allow it to interfere. Tell it to take a nap and come back later.
    8. Pick an idea. Don’t agonize over your choice. In creative work, there usually isn’t a single right answer, so if you have four or five appealing ideas, don’t waste time agonizing over which one to choose – just take one and get started. You can always come back to the others later, if the first one doesn’t pan out.

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  1. Such a wonderful collection of words here! I sure can relate to the “six year old drawings!” I just didn’t know they don’t have to be perfect. I learn so much from you and am grateful for your wisdom. Thanks!

  2. Excellent, practical advice. Our creative abilities apply to more than we imagine…in our daily choices we can use these tools.

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