How to beat your designer’s block

By Christine Ramirez Posted Feb. 25, 2015 Reading time: 8 minutes

I’m pretty sure I haven’t blinked in a while. I think this because my eyes are dry and so is my mouth. My face is tense and my chest feels tight. I’m noticing that my breathing has become shallow and I’ve got a weak feeling in my gut. Suddenly, I notice the doubt rising from the pit of my stomach.

The woman has heard that I make websites. I confirmed. But what she didn’t know was that I still felt like I was getting away with something and that someday soon, everyone would figure me out. As I become more aware of the sea of white on the screen, I can’t help but think that maybe this is the moment where I come out empty handed. Nervous foot tapping accompanies the urge bubbling within to open the window, pick up the monitor and then throw said monitor out the window.

“That’s cute. You added ribbons to distract from the trash!” “You have no idea what the hell you’re doing right now, do you?” “Really? That’s what you’re going with?” This is what designer’s block (DB) feels like for me. If I snap out of it and am able get outside my head, I find the internal dialog comical. On a good day, it’s an annoyance; but on a bad day, it’s utterly debilitating.

As design professionals, learning to manage designer’s block is essential to staying fulfilled in our careers

As design professionals, learning to manage designer’s block is essential to staying fulfilled in our careers and getting the good stuff that’s lurking inside of us out. I’ve realized that this resistance comes with the creative territory and it’s not something I can totally eliminate. So what is a designer with a deadline to do?

Random tactics for plowing through DB are usually some variation of, “Step away from the work!” and “Go for a walk!”, or “Look at magazines!” These tactics of avoidance and faith never seemed to consistently work for me. What if I was fighting against a deadline? I could never rely on complete faith that a surge of creative genius would strike while I was making eggs. Has it happened? Yes, it actually has; but not consistently enough for me to feel confident that someday these tactics won’t desert me. On the flip side, I’ve also thought, “Maybe if I just tried harder, I’d be able to get through this…” which was equally ineffective. So I’ve found that was does work is to create a system that saves me from myself.

It’s my hope that following the three steps below could help you develop your own system for working through resistance:

  1. Identify when it happens;
  2. understand why it happens;
  3. develop a system — a collection of habits and frameworks — for managing it.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll be outlining how I worked through these steps to create my own system that works for me.


Identify when it happens (triggers)

After having plowed through many rounds of designer’s block, I noticed a clear pattern. Every time a project that was outside of my comfort zone came across my desk, I would feel the anxiety rising. All of the psychosomatic reactions I outlined above would subsequently emerge. Inevitably, it would lead to an extended period of “I’ve got nothin’.”

But the upside was that I found that my trigger was laughably predictable and within my realm of control. I found that the height of my anxiety always came at the beginning of a project and was most pronounced when I considered it out of my comfort zone. It was a funny pattern; after an initial conversation with a client, I would genuinely feel eager and enthusiastic. Unfortunately soon after, when it was time to shut up and start the work, I would hit a wall. This lapse in creativity could range from minutes to days.

My trigger: the beginning of projects I consider to be out of my comfort zone.


Understanding why it happens

Recognizing when DB would rear its ugly head isn’t enough to fully understand the nature of the beast. The next step is to dig deeper to understand why it happens.

One of the most common and pervasive afflictions that creative professionals experience today is fear

Why this was a trigger: as a perfectionist, I’ve realized that I tend to be overly critical of myself. So when a challenging project comes along, my initial excitement gets replaced by the fear that I’d be judged or “found out” as a fraud. This was deeply rooted in my need for perpetual perfection (which is hardly realistic or practical).

As it turns out, I’m not alone. One of the most common and pervasive afflictions that creative professionals experience today is fear. David Kelley, founder and chairman of IDEO, categorizes these fears as fears of the messy unknown, fear of being judged, fear of the first step, and fear of losing control.

By tracking these events back to an original feeling, I was able to find the root cause of the block and build an arsenal of habits and frameworks to manage it.


My system for managing designer’s block

Identifying the triggers and understanding why they caused designer’s block allowed me to create a system that seems to short-circuit the lesser side of my brain. It didn’t mean that these feelings of fear totally went away. However, it did allow for me to develop a way of thinking that ignited actions, which ultimately gave me the legs to work through any fear with courage and confidence.

Here’s my system:

  1. set constraints;
  2. change my physical state;
  3. mindlessly run through a pre-established routine.

Set constraints

I’m hardly alone when it comes to being susceptible to the temptations of the internet and my physical surroundings. So when I’m priming myself to work, I’ve learned that setting constraints drastically minimizes any risk of giving into the resistance.

My constraints are:

  1. Setting up a specific account on my computer using the parental controls feature that blocks all social media and distraction-friendly apps. Apps like Freedom and RescueTime also work well for blocking the internet and are available for Mac, Windows and Android.
  2. Working specifically in the office in my apartment where there is no TV or food.
  3. Turning off my phone and putting it in another room.
  4. Time-boxing the work. I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique where I work 25 minutes and take a break for 5 minutes. I use Alinof Timer on my Mac as an alarm. I don’t use my phone since I’d be tempted to check out notifications each time the alarm went off.

Turns out, Maya Angelou uses constraints, too. She’s been known to reserve a hotel room where she consistently retreats for the sole purpose of writing.

Change your state

DB has a way of manifesting itself physically. For me, I’m like a deer in headlights and my hands get clammy. Taking on the posture of someone who was confident and in control was a super easy way to adjust my mental state.

…simply holding one’s body in expansive, “high-power” poses for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to power and dominance in the animal and human worlds) and lower levels of cortisol…In addition to causing the desired hormonal shift, the power poses led to increased feelings of power and a greater tolerance for risk.

– The science behind why this works outlined in the TED talk by social psychologist, Amy Cuddy

Mindlessly run through a routine

My routine is comprised of two parts that go hand-in-hand: Physical habits and mental frameworks.

Physical habits

Habit 1: write before you design.

Start with what you know and work your way through a series of questions that will expand on that knowledge. Before I design, I write. I write down the things I know that the client’s already told me, and I list down questions when I’ve hit a dead end and need more answers. Then I go and ask them. I also write lists of adjectives that describe the brand and how I want it to be perceived through the design, so it’s there and available for me to reference when I’m ready. I find it appropriate sometimes to create a mind map.

Fellow designers have written about this here, and here.

Habit 2: thumbnail lots of options without judgment. (I like to tell myself, “the crappier, the better” to get myself in a judgment-free mode of operation.)

By allowing myself the time to explore the breadth and depth of a project, I was able to generate multiple ideas without the distraction of the tools available in software

Back in college, I had an Illustration professor that always assigned thumbnailing as part of the process for each project. Without fail, every project started with at least 50 thumbnails and each thumbnail represented a different idea. It was quantity over quality at this stage. Even though it was painful for me to do it at the time, he argued that this was an effective way of clearing out the bad and/or obvious ideas to get to the best ideas that were inside all of us. This also developed the habit of not getting too married to any one idea, which taught us adaptability. What he didn’t mention, was that this was also really effective at defeating designer’s block. I didn’t remember to integrate this habit in my professional life until I was sick of living in the funk of designer’s block. I have a newfound appreciation for it now.  

Additionally, insecure and less experienced Christine would jump into Photoshop thinking that by working on the deliverables right away, I would come up with a solution faster. The opposite was actually true. By allowing myself the time to explore the breadth and depth of a project, I was able to generate multiple ideas without the distraction of the tools available in software.

Habit 3: talk to other people about the problem (designers and non-designers).

Explaining the design problem and talking about possible ideas has helped me immensely with getting hidden ideas out. I’ve surprised myself by uncovering insights and additional gaps in understanding when I’ve forced myself to articulate the problem to someone else. There’s also the added bonus of alleviating any loneliness I might’ve been experiencing after locking myself in the office and churning (as outlined in the habits above).

Mental frameworks

Mental frameworks are an important part of your arsenal, too. Some days, the creative flow seems to be effortless while on others, you’ll find yourself experiencing multiple false starts. The key here is not to allow yourself to ask stupid rhetorical questions, e.g. “Why do you suck so bad?”

For me, the following frameworks I use are:

  1. “If I was an expert, what would I do? By asking this question, I was able to think of the next step instead of staring at a blank page or screen;
  2. “If there was no possibility of failure, what would I do?” This allows me take more risks in my work.

To feel fulfilled in any career, it’s important to dance around the perceived limits of your ability. It’s why we have no choice but to drag ourselves through the outer boundaries of our comfort zone. But to say so is much more difficult than doing so. This is why creating a system helps. It’s a crutch that occupies our lesser minds and generates momentum for our more enlightened selves. Executing on a prior planned system creates the conditions to do work you’re proud of.

You may have noticed a lot of my tips above are action-oriented and aimed at attacking the problem directly. I’ll leave you with a quote by Chuck Close that sums up this article nicely:

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.


Featured image, obstacle image via Shutterstock.