How do you break out of current creative mind sets?


Most designers hit a roadblock at one time or another.

Few designers get those "dream" projects where they are allowed to create anything and everything they want. In most cases we all have to adhere to some restrictions.

After dealing with similar restrictions repeatedly, it becomes very easy to get mired down in how the design problems have been previously solved rather than finding new solutions.

I'm familiar with mood boards, idea books, and the like. However, these all seem to basically take the user down the same previously traveled paths.

What specific steps should one take in order to break out of current mindsets and expand horizons to look at a project in a fresh, inventive manner?

Is there a processes you use to conceptualize something in a new way?

12/15/2014 4:34:00 PM

Accepted Answer

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5 simple steps for producing ideas

James Young's A Technique for Producing Ideas outlines a deceptively simple system that requires great discipline to complete. I followed pieces of his approach instinctively before discovering it but keeping Young's five steps in mind has helped me expand my output.

  1. Gather raw materials: Flood your brain with the subject at hand.

    The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.

  2. Digest the material: Study what you've found and see where the connections are.

    What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

  3. Unconscious processing: This is where you wait for inspiration to strike -- get back out into the world for a while.

    When you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

  4. Inspiration strikes: When the subconscious is done, it hands over something you didn't think you could do.

    It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

  5. Face reality: Take that great inspiration and make something usable out of it.

    Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

It seems obvious when you read through it but it's just one of those things that only time and discipline can perfect. And true to Young's own reflections on the topic, you must be a curious soul to do it well. Ideas come from your mind's ability to reshape information in valuable new ways. You must have something in the brain's databank to reshape in the first place. If you aren't the curious type you'll be better served by a job as a production artist.

When all else fails

Go back to what you should always be doing: Sketch your heart out!

If you commit to not limiting what you put on paper, you'll be surprised what comes out of your head. Take a coffee (or scotch) break or head out to the local park after you've made some headway and come back to your sketches with a fresh eye. The conceptual connections will start coming together before you realize it.

1/24/2013 6:07:00 PM

Here's how I tackle layout and workflow concepts.

Do something. Anything. And do that thing knowing that it doesn't have to be good. It just has to exist. It's not an end, it's a beginning. It's just a way to stop you from staring at a blank page.

Then do an alternative design.

Quickly. Don't think about it too much.

Then another. Don't despair if they're bad. You're simply riffing. You're emptying your head onto the page, so you can try to construct something good from the bad.

Use whatever technique or medium lets you create concepts quickly. It doesn't matter if that's pen and paper or software. I find that being able to throw lots of alternatives near each other is good, so that usually means paper, an iPad app like Procreate, or Adobe Illustrator. A big canvas is good.

When you think you have a good design, pretend it's a competing product — pretend that you can not use that design and that you have to come up with something different.

Then do that again.

After the frenzy, you can sit back and let yourself critique the work. Tear it apart. Beg, borrow and steal from all your alternatives until you have created a hybrid, winning layout.

Some background

I started my career as a finished artist and retoucher, being the hands for ad agency Art Directors. I'd have to do what I was told and only occasionally offer input. There was one Art Director in particular who I ended up working with quite a fair bit. An older guy who seemed to stumble though his work. To me, he didn't seem to know what he was doing. He'd just bounce around, back and forth and eventually get to something that may or may not be final. It felt like he was taking a scenic route where a more direct path could have been taken, saving hours of work.

And then I started to realise something — he'd intentionally try different and crazy things, knowing that most wouldn't work. He didn't care. In doing so, we'd end up in places we never would have got if we over-thought things. We'd end up with designs that worked, but seemed a little unconventional. Except when we didn't. And that was fine, because we'd know the path that had been taken, and exhausted many alternatives. There was some certainty in knowing the design was good in comparison to all other possibilities for the elements at play.

He was a great mentor and I now use a very similar technique. There's so much value in learning by rapidly exploring.

When you have nothing, do anything. When you have something, do something else.