You’ve refreshed ESPN.com six times in the last
hour. Added to your MySpace page. On the way
back from the bathroom, you slumped back in your
chair and checked your e-mail. Again. You reached
for that Paul Rand book on your bookshelf. Maybe
you picked up this magazine. But as your brain
creeps along, you begin to realize what’s happening.
There’s no one way out of a creative hole. But
by becoming more aware of the conditions that create
such roadblocks, you might be able to bypass the
dead-end doldrums. “There is no formula for creativity
and no cookie-cutter solution,” says author Sam
Harrison, expert on harnessing your creativity (see
“Recommended resources”). “But there’s definitely a
determinate flow in the way highly creative people
generate an unending stream of bold ideas.”
Inspiration won’t be knocking.
The biggest problem with stuck designers can be
found in the most common phrases you’ll hear
them utter: “Nothing’s coming to me.” “My mind
is blank.” “I’m waiting for something to hit me.”
Finding ideas is absolutely not a passive thing,
says Stefan Mumaw, coauthor of the forthcoming
Caffeine for the Creative Mind. “Idea generation is an
act: It’s mobile, it’s bold, and it rewards those who
go get it,” he says. “The reason ideas aren’t coming
to us is that we haven’t made the big effort.”
This goes hand in hand with the myth that
“getting inspired” is a sensation we’re unable to
control. “It is a conscious thing,” says Harrison, “in
that we have to make a conscious effort to put aside
preconceived notions and explore.” Since ideas aren’t
always waiting in the wings and you’re often pressed
for time, it’s crucial to prepare your mind to be more
receptive. “When we’re working with demanding
clients under tight deadlines, we can’t wait around for
those free-forming ideas to spring up,” says Harrison.
“We need a process—a game plan.”
Don’t try this at home. Or at the office for that matter.
Great ideas can’t be found anywhere in your
normal routine. The only way to get your mind
going is to give it something to do. “Carl Jung
explained that the four highest human achievements—
love, faith, hope, and insight—can neither
be taught nor learned since they come through
experiences,” says Harrison. “Creativity is fueled
by insights and, as Jung said, these insights are the
result of experiences.”
Experiences aren’t going to happen if you’re
doing and seeing the same-old same-old. Eat a spicy
dish at an ethnic restaurant, bumble through a foreign
language, or return to the piano lessons you quit
as a child—try anything but business as usual.
And that means physically moving away from
your tried-and-true workplace. “Push away from that
desk,” says Mumaw. “We can make inspiration feel
welcome when we choose to experience something
different for a time.” He suggests doing your work
from a different desk, working outside, or taking a
drive down to the local coffee shop to sketch ideas
out for the morning.
If you’re researching a project, Mumaw’s coauthor
Wendy Lee Oldfield recommends anchoring
your “field trips” firmly in the problem at hand. “If
the client that I’m designing a logo for is a landscape
company, I might drive through various neighborhoods,
visit parks or local public gardens,” she says.
“I may go to a bookstore and flip through gardening
books. I might find out if there are any upcoming
expos or conventions having to do with landscaping.”
Document your brilliance.
No matter where you go, don’t forget to take along
a way to capture your insights. It’s almost a way of
cleaning out your creative cache. “The inability to
archive ideas keeps us from moving on to something
else,” says Mumaw. “Documenting ideas, in whatever
form you’re most comfortable with, is absolutely
paramount to effective idea generation.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s a 60-cent spiral-bound
notebook or a fancy voice recorder, as long as it’s
always along for the ride. Oldfield recommends a
voice recorder for its on-the-fly capability … but
if you’re in a pinch, you can always call your own
voicemail. She notes that voice recording minimizes
the self-editing that tends to occur in writing when
you censor your language or thoughts.
Harrison, on the other hand, is an advocate for
the written word, especially if you’ve found a method
to jot your thoughts efficiently. “Avoid long, flowery
sentences and elaborate drawings,” he says. “Capture
what Henry James called the ‘floating particle of an
idea.’ With today’s search engines, note-taking is
easier. If we capture key words and names, we can
later Google for specifics.”
Put down the mouse, ma’am.
Even though you spend the majority of your design
time staring at the screen, don’t look there for ideas.
The computer may be a creative tool, but it’s critical
not to see it as an inspirational one. “It’s important
to move away from the computer at every stage of
the creative process,” says Harrison. “Web surfing
is a great way to explore, but we also need to hit the
streets and talk to clients, end users, and suppliers.”
Replacing idea-generating experiences with
computer-controlled diversions will put you in a
vicious downward spiral of relying on the white box,
says Oldfield. “The designers who often complain of
not having any ideas are usually the designers sitting
in front of their computers, staring at their monitors,
just waiting for ideas to hit them,” she says.
Even more dangerous is limiting your design
decisions to what you find on the web instead of in
the real world. “We have become dependent on the
internet and any other form of pre-existing media to
do the work for us,” says Mumaw. “We design based
on what filters exist for us, we drop in whatever fonts
we have loaded at the time, and we choose imagery
based on what we can find online.” Take too many
technology shortcuts and soon you’ll have the computer
dictating your entire execution.
Forget everything you know.
When you do move away from the monitor, don’t
fall for another big mistake—relying only on design
sources for your research. Designers tend to look at
other designers’ work for original solutions … not
exactly a recipe for enlightened thinking.
Expand your circle of “idea genies,” the people
you interact with to grease your gears. If you brainstorm
exclusively with designers, or read only design
magazines, you’re less likely to gain the insights
necessary to communicate beyond that perspective.
“Subjecting your brain to a variety of sources—from
the expected to the unexpected—is what will stimulate
your mind and make you more likely to find the
inspiration you’re looking for,” explains Oldfield.
Stick it out to get unstuck.
Even if you do everything right by following these
tips, you’ll probably get stuck again. But the next
time your idea machine comes screeching to a halt,
remember that the pain you’re feeling is part of the
process. “It’s a healthy in that it challenges us to
do better, push ourselves, and grow,” says Oldfield
about the upside to this frustration. “Along with the
‘I can’t do this!’ thoughts, there are also times when
you say to yourself, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I did this!’
Without the doubt that challenged you to do better
there would have been no ‘wow.’”
By taking pride in your success in becoming
unstuck, you’ll become a better designer. “You’ve put
yourself in a position to stretch, so learn from the
experience and take that new knowledge with you
to the next experience,” says Mumaw. “Never stop
desiring to grow.”
Exercises to Revive Your Creative Mojo: Try these methods to experience your environment in new ways.
The following three exercises are excerpted
from Caffeine for the Creative Mind, by
Stefan Mumaw & Wendy Lee Oldfield, published
by HOW Design Books:
1. There are signs posted around every
office in the world, signs that warn us of
impending danger, bathroom segregation,
or even which way the exit is. What if those
signs were changed to an international pictorial
language that not only identifies, but
adds art to the space? Forget the shapeless
figures and celebrate the difference
between men and women, janitors and
upper management! Create new signs for:
a) Men’s/Women’s Room
b) Fire Extinguisher
c) Janitor’s Closet
d) Executive Washroom
e) Parking Garage
2. Every one of us has dreamt, at some
point in our lives, what it would be like to
be rich and famous, living in Beverly Hills,
shopping on Rodeo Drive, walking overtly
pink poodles with more bling around their
neck than the NBA bench-warmer down
the street. We’ve imagined what that life of
luxury is really like. Oh, the crazy things we
would own! Let’s imagine it one more time.
Your task is to write down 10 things a single
woman living in Beverly Hills would own.
3. Point of view can make the difference
between good and great. By looking at
problems from another point of view,
we often find solutions we’ve never seen
before. On a piece of paper, draw nine triangles,
all of equal size and composition
and equally spaced across the entire paper.
Now, interpret those triangles from another
point of view by making a drawing using the
triangles. Create something out of each triangle
that sees it from the point of view of:
a) Mad Scientist
b) Baseball Player
d) School Bus Driver
f) Street Cart Hot Dog Vendor
The next three exercises are excerpted
from IdeaSpotting, by Sam Harrison, published
by HOW Design Books:
1. How to notice details
Spotting insights and ideas often depends
on noticing details. Here’s one way to polish
your noticing skills:
- Think about a street you often go down.
List everything you remember about that
street. You’ll realize there’s much you can’t
recall—the color of a building, name of the
dry cleaner, number of parking spaces.
- The next day spend a few extra minutes
on the street. Notice every detail. Write
down what you see. Make a precise map.
- Wait a few days, then give yourself
another test. If you’ve forgotten anything,
return to the street and correct mistakes.
Do this exercise with magazine pages, retail
shops, office spaces. Each time, you remind
your brain that details count, and you train
yourself to retrieve details from memory.
2. How to speed-read a room
A supermarket has 30,000+ products. A
video store has 5,000 titles. People are
packed in subways, restaurants, and malls.
You can’t see it all. So what’s the answer?
Scan and select. Train yourself to speedread
details, braking for what’s inspiring.
When you enter a space, quickly scan and
record first impressions. How does the space
feel? What’s the mood? What colors and
characteristics jump out? What’s the smell?
What sounds do you hear? Next take mental
snapshots of key areas and interesting
people. Etch each image into your memory.
Close your eyes. See the picture. Catalog
details. Train your subconscious to filter the
superfluous and capture the significant.
3. If you’re mired, move!
Where do you go when you can’t take a
vacation or even a day off? When it’s just
you and those same old thoughts? Robert
Louis Stevenson said, “I travel not to go
anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to
move.” If you’re stuck, move. Move to a
nearby park. Move to the library. Move to a
hotel lobby, mall, or café. Just move.
List three getaways within 15 minutes of
your workplace—retreats for when you’re
stuck with old ideas.
Zing! Five Steps and
101 Tips for Creativity
on Command, by
Sam Harrison, $12.95,
to Find Your Next
Great Idea (available
May 2006), by Sam
Harrison, HOW Design
Caffeine for the
Creative Mind: 250
Exercises to Wake Up
Your Brain (available
Oct. 2006), by Stefan
Mumaw and Wendy
Lee Oldfield, HOW Design