Breaking the Spell

Not dissimilar to writer’s block, designers often encounter designer’s block. This is my take on how to beat your way out of it.


We’ve all had those moments when you’re presented with a challenge of coming up with a creative concept that will “blow my mind” away. Excellent, you said. This is what I live for.

So you think hard. You look for inspiration, in all the different shapes and places. Your moleskin becomes your battle ground: You sketch. You doodle. You write keywords to emote the brand personality with notes on color palettes, moods and shapes. You start to see your vision. It slowly takes shape, sketch after sketch, honing down to a clear vision in your mind’s eye.

And it’s brilliant! You’re ready to turn this vision into reality: A beautiful design where everyone can see the exquisite typography, color pairing and graphic treatment. For the web, you want to present this fluid and dynamic website where the user experience is simply intuitive and yet so intriguing, the site visitor will spend a lot of time on the site and share it with their network. And your client is going to think you’re god.

Two days later, with the deadline looming over your head, you’re staring at your monitor for what feels like a long time. Wait, what time is it? Oh no. You’ve been looking at the same file for the past hour and you haven’t moved forward an inch.

Yes, you’ve placed the right navigation here, the images are right, the layout looks just like what you’ve sketched out. It’s just something is not gelling correctly. Maybe the image has to get bigger (or smaller?) or moved to the side (or center?) a bit more. Maybe it should be dark blue instead of cerulean (isn’t that turquoise?). And after you fixed that, what happened next? What if the user clicks on the image? How does the site behave then?

Then you realized where you are. You’re stuck. Yes, you’re stuck in the brilliance of your vision and you went in the one direction without every looking back.

It happened more often and to more people than you think. It smacked me in the face when I was in graduate school, 16 hours before my final design project is due, with a term paper yet to be written. And I learned to do a very hard thing: Break the spell.

Here’s how:

Face the music.

Force yourself to wake up from this “fantastic idea” dream and really face the problem. See what’s wrong with the vision. Ask people around you because often times, you’re so close to the project you don’t see the issue. The whole forest for the trees thing.  Have fellow designers or web-savvy friends help you see what’s the snag and reassess your vision. Get input from people in your target audience demographics.

In essence: Step back, take a break, discuss it with someone new. Ideas need to marinate before they can grow into something great. You just have to be patient.1

Maybe it’s just not a good execution of a great vision. Sometime it’s a lack of experience or the design was asking for a different style. As long as you can explain to me how you envision the experience to be, I will then assign it to someone with more experience or better style-match to take the concept and realize it. You should ask your manager if you can get some assistance if that was the case. Trust me, if you’re idea is good, it’ll be worth shuffling resources around to get it done.

Trash it.

On the other hand, if your idea and vision is not right, be ready to scrap the whole thing and start over. Sometimes, it’s easier to start a new concept than to fix something that’s not going to work. This is harder to do because it’s admitting that sometimes, your vision may not be great. Or maybe it’s because you didn’t see 3-steps down the road which, in the digital interactive world, is about 2-clicks ahead.

Of course it’s painful but you get over it because the next design process will be clearer. You may not realize that you took notice of elements that are not working. The clean slate allows you to rethink in a different way how to recapture the initial vision you have.

I have a rule that I impose on myself and designers in my team:

If you don’t get the vision in your head into something I can see in 2 hours, let it go and start over.

I believe in rapid prototyping because it helps you translate your vision quickly to see if it works. I’m responsible for running a business that can’t afford the luxury of time like when you’re in school and the assignments can take days or even weeks to complete. Rapid prototyping lets you articulate your vision in a way that allows everyone else to see it and see where it can go. It doesn’t have to be perfect or even complete. It’s for others—including the agency’s stakeholders—to get the idea. You can do all the finessing and polishing when you know it’s going to work.

Try, try again.

I did say you need to be patient for an idea to evolve into something great. You may say my two-hour rule does not reflect a lot of patience. However, to be able to take something you dearly believe is a great vision and trash it takes patience because you may have to do this again and again. It is good practice, and you need practice to get to a place where you can see the issue before you go down a certain path.

It’s like when you were in design class and your teacher took your work and put red marks all over it. (I have to admit, I was one of those teachers.) It’s frustrating because you thought so hard, worked so hard, and it seems like everything is up for picking. It’s just that we, as teachers, mentors or creative directors, can sometimes better see the issue because we are not so close to it. It is not our vision to baby; It is our job to see the vision realized to the best possible outcome.

And in the end, the client can as easily tell you to scrap it and start over. It happens all the time to everyone in this profession. Even to the best of us.

Trust me, you’ll get used to it. Now go back and give me another take on that.


1 Communication Arts: Drawing, Cutting and Pasting

Photo Credit: Overcoming Writer’s Block