Uninspired? Unplug yourself

~ 10 August 2006 ~

Last week I was stuck. In a big rut. One that almost brought me to my knees.

This week I was stuck. Again.

Happened to you too lately? I bet. It’s a common occurrence in our industry: Creativity block. So how’d I get myself out of the rut? I stepped away. While there a plenty of ways to get unstuck, one of the best methods I’ve found to escape a block is to just step away. Do something else completely unrelated. Pick up a guitar. Flip through a photo album. Anything other than what you’re currently doing. I’ll sometimes even shut down my computer when away merely to help me unplug and shut down mentally. Remove yourself physically and mentally from a block, and you’ve solved half the problem.

The other half is often, quite simply, solved elsewhere. Inspiration weaves its way into every facet of life. We’d be sorely remiss if we sought to be illuminated only by the medium or genre with which we work.

For example, last week, amidst one of many travels, I happened upon a copy of Gastronomica, “the journal of food and culture”, in an airport terminal newsstand. Beautifully photographed, markedly well-written, and wonderfully designed, this Spring 2006 issue was my first exposure to the magazine. (Some describe it as “The New Yorker for food.”) Immediately I was welcomed with a deluge of inspiration, some of which served as an escape from this week’s block. A classic tale of print design inspiring web design, I suppose.

Included at the end of this article are additional samples from the magazine.

But the point here isn’t to find yourself a good food magazine to be inspired by. The point here is to awaken the senses — all five of them — to new environments, many of which will become killer unblockers.

Additionally, inspiration often comes on strongest not only where we least expect it, but also when we least expect it.

When I was about 10, my parents owned a piano built, if memory serves me well, in 1896. I remember it vividly — painted white, worn on nearly every edge, the ivory keys damaged and missing, and horribly out of tune. It sat idle in our garage for a few years, in hopes of being proudly displayed in due time indoors rather than out.

I loved that piano, even aged and dissonant as it was. My sister and I would tinker on it time and time again. I knew little about music, much less about how to play a piano. But gradually I found myself discovering basic chords, even constructing simple melodies.

Occasionally my little fingers would miss the key I intended to press while composing these basic chords. Falling like manna from heaven, these “mistakes” would often lead to compelling harmonies that were previously unknown to me. I was floored that, by pressing the wrong key occasionally, I did something right — I exposed myself to new ideas.

Have you taken the time to do likewise with your projects? Have you left your comfort zone enough to allow “mistakes” to present themselves?

Completely restored several years ago, that very same piano is now proudly displayed in my parents’ home. Occasionally, upon visiting them, I’ll sit down and stroke the keys. I’m often reminded of the time it sat idle in our garage, when my little fingers would botch a chord — and make things better.



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1   Nick ~ 10 August 2006 at 07:32 AM

Just the other day my brother and I decided to stroll down to our local Borders and flip though a whole bunch of magazines in search of inspiration.

I think that its a great way to get ‘unstuck’!

2   Andrew ~ 10 August 2006 at 07:36 AM

Great article, as usual. I find, because I work with amongst suits who dislike the idea of creatives doing anything other than producing tangibles, that my drive time is my most effective way to unplug.

Whether it be a podcast, NPR, or a simple hour of silence, it’s nice to have some time to focus on something else.

3   Jonathan E ~ 10 August 2006 at 07:44 AM

You raise a lot of great point here Cameron. Inspiration is often hard to come by until you step away for a bit and sort of let yourself “re-charge.” As a kid I was always inspired by nature, often spending too much time staring at the clouds in the sky instead of focusing on my school work. I’ve learned that sometimes all you need is a little bit of a break to help the ideas start flowing. Sometimes for me it’s still as simple as taking time to stare at the sky.

4   J Phill ~ 10 August 2006 at 08:11 AM

Creative block is very frustrating. Being in front of a computer all day, it’s not hard for it to happen, and I’ve found that getting off of the computer helps me alot, and even getting out of my normal setting. Magazines help out alot because they are full of inspiration and design. Lately, alot of my inspiration has come from design outside of the web.

5   Adrian ~ 10 August 2006 at 08:16 AM

Excellent article. I went through something similar a few weeks back and for me, the answer was finding balance. Too often I would allow work to take over the majority of my time and family, relationships, and life all suffered because of that. Sneaking in that extra hour of work turned into an afternoon, a day, a weekend… Eventually burnout set in and I found it was taking twice as long to be productive; my creative juices were well drained. Budgeting time for breaks and keeping in mind what life, for me, is all about really made a difference.

6   june ~ 10 August 2006 at 08:22 AM

“Do something else completely unrelated”

Fortunately most of my hobbies are completely unrelated to my career. I have a great passion for the great outdoors and organic gardening. I also enjoy cooking, canning, sewing, beading and other crafty things. I often get great ideas when I’m doing something relaxing and meditative…like picking butter beans or adding compost/dirt around a tree.

A friend of mine once asked me if I thought it was odd that my career was so drastically different from my pastimes and lifestyle. I said no. :)

7   John Beales ~ 10 August 2006 at 08:26 AM

Often I find a simple task switch will help - for example if I’m trying to make a design and am stuck I may write something instead. However, I do find that getting right away from electronics, (go weed or water the garden, or take a walk outside), helps more than anything.

I also love magazines, but find that if I’m reading my mind doesn’t ‘recover’ as it should.

8   Maria S ~ 10 August 2006 at 08:34 AM

Just yesterday, while I was stuck riding the train, I read a great article from one of the free magazines we were given at SXSWi. Yes, it took this long…

The article is titled “Creative by Nature” by Bob Kodzis, from Create Magazine. It discusses the idea that the largest source for creativity and inspiration is nature. Sounds so simple and cliche, but the article presented many examples of design and even business situations when ideas taken from observing nature have come to the rescue.

That, and this post today are great reminders that I should probably try to get that morning walk in my daily routine again. It used to be one of the times when I got a lot of my best ideas before starting the work day.

9   Sam Hardacre ~ 10 August 2006 at 08:51 AM

Toward the end of the article, I couldn’t help but think of this book which my brother gave me.

When creative block sets in there are a few methods I try before I begin to curse everything. I try going for a walk, going to a cafe and surprisingly, the most effective (to date) is talking to someone about it. There have been times when I just tell a friend about a problem and they provide that hint of inspiration that open the flood gates. Sometimes people who aren’t attached to a project at all can be the most help.

10   Keith ~ 10 August 2006 at 09:01 AM

I totally agree, and the idea of looking though magazines works very well for me. A long trip to the bookstore seems to work wonders in many ways. Just being surrounded by shelves of thought, words, art, etc. get’s my creativity going.

I’ll also highly suggest The Creative License - a great book I just finished that help me FINALLY get my current redesign project going full speed. It’s a very inspiring read.

11   Phil Bowell ~ 10 August 2006 at 11:47 AM

Like Sam I often find talking to someone about the project and the ideas I have to be the best way of getting my juices going again.

Being a student it often used to be my mum, but I now seem to turn to my GF a lot more. She is creative as well and her little insights into what i have done already and a suggestion of maybe you could do something like this can just instantly put me right back in the zone. Its almost like a slap in the face sometimes!!

12   Jackson ~ 10 August 2006 at 01:54 PM

This is great advice. I find that my best work came as an inspiration from my environment. Countless times nature and architecture has given me the lift I needed. I believe it’s important to take a break when you are stuck and do something enjoyable. It’s easy to forget why we love design when deadlines cut so horribly into the creative process.

13   Smallest Photo ~ 10 August 2006 at 02:59 PM

I often run into the same issue with photography. I’ve found that giving myself a mini assignment such as a color or shape to photograph with the only goal being to capture that assigned subject. Lighting, composition etc all thrown out the window. Freeing myself in this way is quite liberating and before too long I can lock in on a more substantial idea.

14   Cameron Moll ~ 10 August 2006 at 03:01 PM

Funny how restricting yourself to just the assigned subject actually frees you up in a broader sense, isn’t it?

15   Marc ~ 10 August 2006 at 07:29 PM

Feeling pressure, I find my mind to wither.. focusing all senses to the most important, and losing the sight for all the other things. For someone doing routine work, this really helps to keep going, but for creatives, its fatal.

What I found out recently is, that pressure can also result from too much inspirational input. Looking through those plenty sources can tourn out like an addiction - and hinder yourself from actually freeing your mind.

16   Joran ~ 11 August 2006 at 12:59 AM

Very nice article, I came upon the following book when I was in Paris for a short holiday.
It’s called “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life” by Twyla Tharpe.
I find it a very inspirational read. It has saved me from staying to long in a rut a couple of times.
Nature is the best way though to get out of the old creative block.

17   Sam Hardacre ~ 11 August 2006 at 03:56 AM

RE: Jackson

Architecture has helped pull back the cloud many times. I live in a historic town in England, most of the town centre is populated by buildings dating back the 1800s and earlier (one pub has been standing the since about 1640).

I sometimes walk through the town centre and see how these buildings have been adapted for the needs of modern consumers. The main high streets are made up of the typical shops which appear quite normal, you then gaze up to see thse amazing structures. The mix between new and old is quite extraordinary.

I think the point I was trying to make is that I find this ongoing development and growth very inspirational. Sometimes tweaking the old into something new can have as much impact.

18   Mark ~ 11 August 2006 at 06:18 AM

It’s realy interesting how often I come across posts that are so in tune with what I’m going through at the moment.

Just yesterday I had decided to partially unplug for the remainder of the week. Keeping things which are usually open all day — browser, email, chat, cellphone, different blogs…closed instead. I checked everything once in the morning, and then got down to work — off the computer, with a pen and paper.

I got an awful lot accomplished, and I’m working toward making it a habit — that’s the goal, anyway.

19   May ~ 11 August 2006 at 06:39 AM

Thanks for sharing this article. Comes at a good time for me since I’ve been rather stuck and uninspired lately. So much so that I’ve been contemplating a day of ‘work’ outside of the office. I have to remind myself that sometimes, I’m most productive when I’m with a pen and sketchbook at a coffee shop. And to be honest, some of the moments of creativity comes to me unexpectedly when doing daily things, like taking a shower.
So, today’s assignement may just be to take time away from the project to do other creative things. It may just reboot the system.

20   Natalie Ferguson ~ 16 August 2006 at 06:51 PM

I suffer creativity blocks to, and came to the same conclusions about stepping away. I also recently moved to a city where I didn’t really know anyone - My advice is, try learning latin dancing, hip hop dancing and spanish AND still finding normal work hard in comparison ;)
It really works wonders, pushing yourself hard in other areas really helps focus you at work and pushes creative ideas within your normal doay. Couldn’t recommend it more!

21   Erick S. ~ 17 August 2006 at 04:15 AM

Inspiration has to grow…In my case that is. I need to be surrounded by the subject at hand. If this is possible…

So walkin’ around on the streets just isn’t working when needed, this always works on moments that I cannot do anything with it, on a romantic walk with my girlfriend or so… “I’ll go outside to get some inspiration!”, if it was this simple everyone would constantly be inspired…And I know from experience…

Watch a (actionpacked & 3D animated) movie or listen to some music you would otherwise never listen to. This helps me.

22   Birgit ~ 27 August 2006 at 03:38 PM

While everything you say is true, it may sound strange if you tell your boss “hey, I’m going out on a walk to get some inspiration!” or even “I will spend the whole day outside because it helps me focus on my work better than sitting in front of a computer!”

That’s where freelancing becomes attractive. Makes me wonder.

What I have done is taking a seat in the conference room with a notepad and a pencil, it helps me to get the ideas flowing.

Just now I am planning to spent a few days in the mountains, preferrably alone, walking and hiking to recharge batteries. If only the weather here wasn’t so bad. It’s been rainy for weeks and doesn’t seem to change :(

23   chris ~ 29 August 2006 at 06:05 PM

I like to think of it as a “time out” much like what white space is to design….. time to let the brain stretch and breath and do its subconcious processing.

24   WaltDe ~ 31 August 2006 at 11:43 AM

Keep up the great work on your blog. Best wishes WaltDe


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