A Tech Way Around “Creative Block”

Editor’s note: Alex Cornell is co-founder and creative director at Firespotter Labs, makers of ÜberConference, NoshList, Nosh, and Jotly. Firespotter is backed by Andressen Horowitz and Google Ventures. Follow him on his website and on Twitter.

I’ve always found it interesting when the non-creatives in a company estimate how long it will take the creative team to accomplish something. What’s often baked into their scheduling assumption is that the creatives will deliver results at a predictable and regular rate. They expect that 10 hours of creative work will produce 10 hours worth of pretty pictures; as predictable as a banker crunching numbers.

Instead, it’s entirely possible to spend all day “creating” and literally accomplish nothing. In a way, it’s like a baseball game. The process of arriving at an effective creative solution, while scheduled to take nine innings as it were, could theoretically last a lifetime. And you still might lose the game. Working all day doesn’t always mean anything is actually being created.

There are many reasons for this, and of course some turmoil is a necessary part of a creative process, but there is one particularly gnarly reason artistic production can be so erratic. What causes the creative process to arrest most haltingly is often described as a “block.” Most are familiar with writer’s block of course, but I’ve always been interested in how this ailment affects creatives of all sorts — the so called “creative block.”

Two years ago, I found myself in the unique position to do something about this. Writing for the design blog ISO50, I was in contact with many awe-inspiring artists and designers — folks who had presumably figured out a way to, at least periodically, wriggle their way out of the confines of creative block. I decided to enlist them to build an arsenal of strategies. The results make up my book, Breakthrough, which was released last week.

Included are inspirational strategies by everyone from writer Douglas Rushkoff to singer Jamie Lidell. They explain how they stay inspired, overcome creative block, and what’s worked best for them. Since one block is not the same as the next, a diverse array of strategies is necessary to have at your disposal. This book is that array, the start of your arsenal. I’ve chosen a few pieces to excerpt below from some familiar names around the tech scene.

Robert Andersen – Creative Director, Square

As a product designer, most of what I do is twofold: understand the problem you want to solve and approach it from as many angles as you can. After executing on a well-defined and accurately constrained problem in multiple ways, it soon becomes obvious what the true or best solution is. Creative block generally arises from a breakdown in this process.

If you’re stuck in the middle of the design, it probably means that you’re not asking enough questions. Who is the audience? What do they feel? What do they desire? What will improve their life and create joy? How do other designers tackle similar problems? At the core of every successful design is a set of simply defined constraints that you measure your ideas against. It’s all about determining the soul of a product before laying down the first pixel or pen stroke.

Using constraints and understanding as a foundation, you should then execute as many variations you can within those bounds. There are limitless ways to tackle a problem both functionally and aesthetically, which is why you need to uncover a wide spectrum of possibilities to see what feels right. This is crucial to determining quality. Creating various options also means that you don’t need to put pressure on yourself to form one perfect solution from the start. Explore the good and explore the bad—creative block does not exist here, because even a bad direction can move you closer to the right one.

Accurately understand your task and explore immediately. Give yourself the space to freely fail, and that same space will give you the freedom to succeed.

Aaron Koblin – Digital Creative Artist, Google Creative Lab

They say an elephant never forgets. Well, you are not an elephant. Take notes, constantly. Save interesting thoughts, quotations, films, technologies…the medium doesn’t matter, so long as it inspires you. When you’re stumped, go to your notes like a wizard to his spellbook. Mash those thoughts together. Extend them in every direction until they meet.

Your notebook is feeling thin? Then seek assistance and find yourself a genius. Geniuses come in many shapes and colors, and they often run in packs. If you can find one, it may lead you to others. Collaborate with geniuses. Send them your spells. Look carefully at theirs. What could you do together? Combination is creation.

Beware of addictive medicines. Everything in moderation. This applies particularly to the Internet and your sofa. The physical world is ultimately the source of all inspiration. Which is to say, if all else falls: take a bike ride.

Nicholas Felton – Designer, Facebook

I rely on a few tactics to keep my creativity flowing. I try to alternate the tenor of my years, like crop rotations. During even-numbered years, I try to do more work and make more of a profit; during odd-numbered years, I travel more and concentrate on personal projects. In 2005 I spent five weeks traveling with an around-the-world ticket, and in 2007 I went to China, Tibet, and Nepal for three weeks. After both trips, I returned to my desk filled with thoughts and initiative to create.

My other strategy is to keep my plate as full as possible. I tend to say yes to more than I can do, and the fear of failure keeps the work flowing.

When I’m really at a loss—when it feels like my designs are simply circling the drain—I will leave the office. There’s no point in trying to blindly bump into a solution, so whether it’s sketching in the park or reading a book, I avoid trying to use brute force…it’s kind of like trying to get rid of the hiccups.