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Creative Block 101

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Read Time: 8 min
This post is part of a series called Let’s Talk About Creativity.
Understanding Creative Thinking
Creative Block: Environmental and Emotional

In the previous article, I described the creative thinking process. Sometimes this process isn't as easy as you might think; problems may arise during any one of the various phases. For example, it might be difficult to formulate the exact wishes of the client, or perhaps you just can't achieve that light bulb moment. Your inspiration stops and you don't know what to do. Fortunately, it's perfectly possible to understand why you're suffering creative block and to face it head on.

Firstly, a reminder of the creative thinking process:


What Exactly is Creative Block?

Creative block can be easily explained with a metaphor: a road. The road to a creative solution is treacherous and frequently dotted with obstacles. These obstacles are the creative blocks that you must avoid to achieve your end. They'll be familiar to you and being able to easily identify these obstacles is the key to overcoming them.

"Most artists have experienced creative block. We get stuck in our work. We beat our head against the wall: nothing. Sometimes, it is because we are trying something at the wrong time." - Lukas Foss

In the beginning, this will all sound a bit forced. You'll have to consciously learn to understand this theory and apply the knowledge we go over. However, with practice you'll begin to unconsciously apply what we talk about, so that your brain will naturally anticipate a creative block.

The Four Blocks

Generally speaking, there are four major groups of problems which may cause creative block:

  1. Observational block: obstacles which prevent you from seeing the problem, or understanding information required to solve the problem.
  2. Environmental block: problems which are caused by your culture and your immediate environment (clients, for example).
  3. Emotional block: obstacles which hinder your freedom to form and express your ideas.
  4. Intellectual block: problems with strategy, persuasion and expression.

Let's go over each one in a bit more detail.

Observational Block

We may be constantly looking, but we don't always see everything. One reason we sometimes suffer creative block is that we have difficulties defining the exact problem, or we fail to obtain enough information to be able to solve the problem.


VS Binoculars on Dribbble

The following situations might be quite familiar:

1. Difficulties With Defining the Problem

"A problem well put is half solved." - John Dewey

As explained in the first look phase of the creative thinking process, properly defining the problem is crucial for furthering development of your creative project. In order to avoid creative block at this point:

  • Gain maximum pointers. Understand what your client wants, why they want it and at whom they are aiming. Understand your client, understand their industry, understand the clients of your client.
  • Look out for misleading information. Your client might not be very technical, so sometimes it's difficult to explain what you expect from them or what they should expect from you. Communication is the key to avoid misleading information. Check and double-check.
  • A wrong tendency is to minimize the time spent defining what is expected from you and what possible solutions you might have. Many designers begin straight away with finalizing the first solution which pops in their mind, only to have it fail at a later moment. Invest time in a good brief. It will make both you and your client happier.
  • Be careful to not overdue defining the problem. A customer might find it obtrusive if you think about more than what was asked. Try to stay faithful to your assignment, but be critical when necessary and dare to communicate as transparently as possible with customers.

In other words, the problem is never "My client wants a new website". There's a reason why someone wants a website. Always look beyond the initial problem and formulate a correct, complete brief which satisfies both you and your client.

2. Inability to Consider the Problem from Different Viewpoints

Most problems deal with more people than simply those who solve the problem. For example, when you develop a website for a client the result isn't just a matter between you and the client, but also a matter of the users who will use the website. A great solution is a solution which serves the interests of more people.


Mortgage on Dribbble

As a designer or developer, it's sometimes difficult to look at what you create from a different viewpoint. This is why usability tests are so incrediblly important during the development process. Expanding your perspective is very difficult and it's not something that everyone is able to do.

Therefore, it's advisable to work with people from a different industry, or simply a potential user, to think of a possible solution for your problem, or even test a potential solution which you have designed. Their input is invaluable. By working together, you increase the amount of viewpoints, so you increase the quality of your solution.

3. Stereotypical Perception

One of the key words for creativity is unexpected. We like to live up to our expectations so we see what we want to see. The problem with stereotypical perception is that it limits your creativity, so attempt to step away from this.

"The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify. Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity - that it's this or maybe that - you have just one large statement; It is this." - Chinua Achebe

Saying that, stereotypes are a very strong tool. They are simple to understand, quite universal and there is some truth related to a stereotype. Therefore, even with stereotypical perception, you can be creative!

4. Saturation

Let's take a break from the article. First of all, grab a piece of paper and try and draw the dashboard of your car. Don't use any form of help; rely purely on your memory. Feel free to step away from the computer and return in five minutes when you're finished with your drawing.


Board de Dash on Dribbble

Welcome back! Now compare your drawing with either your real dashboard, or refer to some dashboards by searching Google images. You might be shocked at how difficult that was, or how much your drawing differs from the real thing. How's that possible?

Saturation is recognized as a phase in the creative thinking process whereby we collect as much information as is useful to find a solution for a problem. However, saturation is a block in itself. The fact that we quickly reach information overload may be a cause of having difficulties to think clearly.

This is a very treacherous block and it's double-sided. Sometimes we think we have enough information, but we fail to use it when we need it. On the other hand, sometimes we ignore far too much information and we fail to create context to design in. We absorb so much information on any given day and there's simply no way to remember everything (unles you're Stephen Wiltshire). This is why, for example, it's nearly impossible to draw an accurate replica of the dashboard of your car.

How is it possible to combat this block? Well, there are two important solutions. The first involves giving the problem time. Remember that a lot of creative solutions occur to you in the midst of living. By not actively looking for a solution and giving all the information time to be analyzed subconsciously, your mind will slowly become empty and clear again.

The other solution is in collecting qualitative information. During projects, I always keep a folder where I place relevant inspiration in the form of URL's, images and so on. This way your information is easily accessible and it's easy to remind yourself what exactly you're doing when you start working on your project again. Dare to be picky while handling information.

5. Inability to Utilize all Sensory Information

One problem we often have is that we are all very visual. We typically ignore other senses, especially when it comes to design, relying mainly on sight (and sometimes hearing).


Olympic games of senses on Dribbble

Yet, one who wants to be creative should attempt to embrace all sensory information. For example, when you develop a website for a honey business, how can you translate the taste and smell of honey to a full browsing experience? For example, you could challenge yourself to create a color scheme with only taste as your guiding sense. This is indeed very challenging, but by using all possible sensory information you can develop a great experience.

One technique which is often used is to temporarily close certain sensory information. For example, close your eyes and listen to what's around you, you'll hear more (and better) with your eyes closed.

Your Challenge

Now let's try to put the theory into practice. Cast your mind back to a couple of previous projects; try to identify whether you experienced any of the problems mentioned above. Did you have problems with defining the problem? Did you fail to look at the problem from different viewpoints? Or was it all just too much for you at that moment; information overload?

It's smart to look at old projects and understand why certain aspects went wrong. Write these problems down and think about how you could have avoided or conquered them more quickly. Doing this will help you avoid the same mistakes and recognize situations in the future.

That covers observational block; next time we'll take a look at environmental and emotional block. Thank you for reading!

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