Creative Block



Written by Russell Shaw

Published on April 26, 2011

Last Edited on June 06, 2014



Our job is to come up with new ideas – fresh thoughts, innovative strategies, new concepts – all that fit a client’s timeline, functional needs, and budget. Sometimes, a client request is, “I need you to come up with a totally new design/copy/strategy – by next week.” Society normally look at ideation as a matter of inspiration – sitting in a coffee shop, attending a beautiful play, waking up from a vivid dream – where an idea just “hits” us. Yes, every once in a while, this is how creativity works. And, arguably, this is how some of the best ideas happen. I would label it Creative Method One – raw, unpredictable, seemingly miraculous creative insight. It is the kind of creativity that author Elizabeth Gilbert spoke about in her TED talk, and I think her point is valid (you can view her talk here). Sometimes creativity is like a spirit that possesses us until the thing is made.

But the problem with my this "Creative Method One" is that it fails to function efficiently on a professional level. By following it I may produce one great new thing every quarter or so, but how is that going to sustain me occupationally when I have a client asking for something new in a week’s time? And that’s why I find there to be a second method, Creative Method Two, that is less exciting, less sexy, less fun or imaginative – but somehow deeper and more authentic in its own way. Creative Method Two is, simply put, hard work. I know this does not sound revolutionary; it seems bourgeoisie or motivational. Chuck Close says it best:

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

My old painting instructor relayed that quote to me in college. I wrote it down in my notebook and have never forgotten it. It fails romance and mysticism, but it achieves honesty. There are days when I do not feel creative and I have no clue how I will output something for a client in a drought of inspiration. But Creative Method Two suggests that, in those times, when I keep plowing through, after a lot of time, sweat and (inevitably) failure I will reach a different level of creativity – one that produces great things out of sheer dedication to the task at hand. It's about showing up. It's about iterating and trying from scratch and researching more and digging deeper and never giving up until you find a solution that works.

I think it looks different for everyone, but for me, I've found that dealing with creative block looks like taking a day or two to immerse myself in the research, strategy, or information about the company, as well as the history of design surrounding their industry – really thinking hard about all aspects of the project – and then taking the next day to not think about it at all. Critical, deep thinking about the project on the front end, and then taking a break after studying, usually fixes the problem. I come back the next day, after the break, and often am equipped with fresh ideas.

Creative Method One and Creative Method Two. Both are valid. Both have their place. But I would put money on the notion that the most successful creatives will be following the latter in absences of the first.



“It's about iterating and trying from scratch and researching more and digging deeper and never giving up until you find a solution that works.”