LearnHow to Break a Creative Block


writes on November 18, 2013

Nothing can kill your energy like a creative block. One day you’re confidently burning through your to-do list and listening to your favorite tunes, and out of nowhere, a problem comes along that leaves you stuck. I recently hit a pretty difficult block, but I was able to work through it and get inspired again by using a few simple strategies.

Simple is Hard

I’ve been meaning to redesign my personal site for the last few months, and this time around I wanted to create a logo to identify myself. I knew that I wanted to use my initials (NP) and include a visual cue alluding my profession in web design. I’m able to work pretty fast when it comes to websites, so I thought making a simple logo would be an easy task I could knock out in a few hours. Instead, it took me several weeks.

Screenshot of http://nickpettit.com

This is the 1-page site I designed. The logo took weeks, but the rest of the page only took a few hours.

I was planning on rebuilding my site in a day or two, but this one logo was killing my creative momentum. The essence of what I wanted to capture was in my head, but when it came time to draw in Illustrator, I just couldn’t fill in the details. The logo was an important component that I wanted to get right the first time, so rather than rush through it, I knew I would need to use all my best strategies for breaking a creative block. It wasn’t going to just come to me; I had to work for it.

Find Inspiration

When working through design blocks, one of the first things I like to do is find material that’s similar to what I want to make. If you’re not sure what you want to make, just try to find things you know you like. Dribbble and Pinterest are pretty great for finding inspiration.

Screenshot of a Pinterest board featuring lots of design work.

Pinterest can be a great way to find design inspiration. Pin things you like and then come back to them later when you need help.

On Dribbble, I simply looked for logo designs that I really liked. One way to learn about a style is to emulate it yourself. You can learn a lot about what details make particular styles work for some logos and what details can be played with or ignored. If you like a designer’s style on Dribble, it’s worth visiting their profile and finding out who they follow. Often times this reveals a nice eclectic mix of source material that influences their own original work (and can influence yours).

Pinterest is a little bit more of a mixed bag because it’s not meant for designers specifically, but that can also be a strength. By searching for a style or a color, you can find cool movie posters, book covers, and artwork that can help get the creativity flowing. If you like something, pin it and come back to it when you need to be inspired. I admittedly haven’t pinned anything in awhile, but here’s my own design board for reference.

Behance and Forrst are two other popular sites that are great for finding fresh design work, and there are many more out there, so be sure to look around.

Critique and Collaborate

On Treehouse, Mat Helme recently released Logo Design Basics, so I decided to chat with him about my own logo design. I showed him a few of the concepts I’d drawn and then he put down a few more (he drew on a roll of masking tape, so I stuck them in my notes).

Photograph of a legal pad page with dozens of small logo design sketches.

I filled about 4 more pages of ideas like this one.

The brain has a tendency to sidestep key details or idealize certain concepts when you want to make something work. Sometimes this is a good thing (which I’ll talk about later in this post), but talking to someone else about it forces you to articulate your thoughts out loud and put them through some logical rigor. It’s also extremely helpful to hear another person’s opinion.

From there, I came up with a few more ideas and narrowed it down to a few directions that I thought had potential. I decided to post these on Facebook to get opinions from people that I trust and then on reddit to get opinions from people that don’t know me.

Four logo designs featuring the initials NP for Nick Pettit.

These are four directions I liked the most later in the process. Ultimately it was a combination of two that lead to the final result.

Iterate and Repeat

I’m a big fan of iterating on ideas. When I’m designing websites, I like to create several different wireframes of the same page, just to make sure I’m exploring all the options. It’s tempting to go with the first thing that pops into your head, especially if it really feels like you nailed it. Always make at least a few more after that one though, because you never know what will come out of it. After you think you have some good directions, push each one a little bit more to make it the best possible version of that idea.

After getting feedback on Facebook and reddit, I tweaked each of my four concepts a little further. I posted my second pass to get more advice:

Screenshot of four logos each featuring the initials NP for Nick Pettit

This is my second pass at the same four concepts, using the critique to make my adjustments.

One of my best friends has pretty good aesthetic sensibilities and he also knows me really well. He pointed out what he liked and didn’t like, and then made the suggestion of combining the upper left and bottom left into a more refined concept. I roughed out a few more iterations and ended up with my final design.

Logo design featuring the initials NP. The P is formed by combining an angle bracket with the N shape.

This is the final design I settled on. The P is a bit subtle, but it was personally more important to me that the N and the angle bracket be the most prominent elements.

This met my requirement of including a reference to my love for the web (the angle bracket) as well as subtly forming my initials.

Let It Marinate

It can be tempting to move quickly when you’re eager and excited about a project, but it’s helpful to build in rest periods between work time. This time shouldn’t be considered a luxury, so try your best to build it into project estimations. Dedicating some time to not working allows your mind to marinate in creative juices.

This is a big reason why Treehouse has a 4-day work week. Having every Friday off gives time to idly mull over things outside the context of work. When you step away from something, you tend to simplify and combine concepts, only retaining the most important parts. This isn’t always a good thing (as I mentioned previously), but often it’s a magical way to create something in its purest and most elegant form without compromise.

If you have any more suggestions for breaking a creative block and getting inspired, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!


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6 Responses to “How to Break a Creative Block”

  1. Sorry, but I was happy to see what ugly first draft logos you created before the final (which is very nice!), glad other people go through the same stages I do 🙂

  2. Juan Caballero on November 20, 2013 at 8:46 pm said:

    This may sound funny, but your initials and some of your designs remind me of the now out of circulation “Nintendo Power” Magazine.

  3. It may sound a bit odd, but most of my best ideas come to me in the shower, or while driving.

    • That’s true. Whenever you get the chance of letting things go, everything gets more clear.

      It’s quite scary if you’re working in an agency with tons of deadlines and you don’t dare to take the time to getting inspired.

      Another thing that always helped me is drawing goofy versions of the concept. Almost as if you want to turn it in an insulting parody. You’re loosening, having fun and something valuable can pop out.

  4. Nice expression (to marinate) 😀 I found myself that before you wake up in the morning i get to come up with best solutions.

    I noticed you said in the post / interview that you are web design fanatic.
    I found that i wasted time in Dribble and Pinintrest.
    i reccomend http://www.uicave.com to save time on web design inspirations.

  5. I agree, the best thing is to have time away, just so you give yourself that chance to think about it while in the shower or on a deep and meaningful work around town.

    A trip to the library to “speed” flick through the latest design books is always a good thing for me to do during lunch time. Just by flicking through, your brain will capture new ideas and possibly a new way of solving a problem.

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