Design

We asked 7 product designers how they avoid creative burnout

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If you’ve ever felt like the days are on a repeating loop, or that your creative spark plugs have gone dead, rest assured—you’re not alone, nor is the problem a new one.

The human brain only has so much bandwidth for the kind of focused, nimble thinking and collaborative engagement that design projects require before it tunes out or switches modes.

Michelangelo got so famously burned out painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission he desperately didn’t want in the first place, but who says no to a Pope?), that he composed a poem to his misery. It begins, “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture…”

How to avoid burnout

One of the world’s most iconic and imitated images, created in a state of near-total creative burnout

So how do designers keep from “dulling the knife” when they’re working on the same project day after day? In the interest of preventing goiter and creative burnout, here are a few tips for keeping inspiration and flow alive:

Look for opportunities to work remotely
Andrew Cullen, Director of Product Design at InVision
“We’re very fortunate that working for a fully distributed company gives us a head start in nailing the work-life balance. Whereas I would typically be starting my day with a commute, being remote I’m now able to fit in a trip to the gym, walk the dog, or a number of other ways to ease into the day. Sometimes being away from the screen is actually when your mind starts to wander and you think about problems you’re tackling at work in a different light.”

“Creativity is fed by understanding problems deeply.”

Diversify your tasks
Ed Fairman, Interaction Designer BBC.com
“I often jump into smaller tasks like helping developers translate designs, improving a certain function, solving a usability issue, or even helping create some collateral for other team members.”

Ed Fairman

Get granular in order to see the big picture
Elysse Bonner, former Interaction Designer at DocuSign
Once you understand a system, especially a design system and how it’s implemented, you can let it evolve over time or make small improvements. Those specific points are interesting creative spots where you can evolve an entire organization’s design, brand, or philosophy while still staying inside of it.

Related: Read the Design Systems Handbook

Elyse Bonner

Deepen your understanding of the user’s point of view
Jess Brown, Director of UX at VICE and former UX Lead at Rent the Runway
“Creativity can be fed by understanding problems deeply, not just by working on different problems. As product designers, we want to bring the user’s point of view into strategic conversations, and to able to advocate for their unmet needs. By going to the source—our users—then digging in and asking why, we can find inspiration for new thinking and design solutions.”

Jess Brown

Stage design challenges and “disrupt”
Daniel Hardy, Director of Product UX at GoDaddy
“We try to seize opportunities to make one-off projects special. Sometimes we make them design challenges, and the product team puts up prizes.

We also have a practice we call “Disrupt,” where all the designers stop what they’re working on and solution against a large project. It’s a fun way to step out of your day-to-day tasks and challenge your conventions.”

The GoDaddy design team

Embrace the unknown and the process of discovery
Nikki Will, Head of Design at Pocket
“There’s still so much to solve regarding how people discover and consume content, and we’re constantly learning what’s working and what isn’t. Working on the same brand has been so rewarding because we continually learn from our mistakes and improve the product.

Technology moves fast—there’s always something new to think about. Our roadmap is years long. When it comes to content and all of the different devices and apps, there are so many unsolved problems and opportunities.”

The Pocket design team

Work on something you’re passionate about
Payam Rajabi, Designer at InVision
“My team has been working on InVision Studio for a long time. Each person on our team brings a different skill, and together we’re greater than the sum of all our parts. We feed off each other’s energy and the motivation is contagious.

I’ve worked at companies where people are really motivated by the mission but don’t necessarily work together well enough to execute it. I’ve also worked on highly skilled teams that are very process-driven but don’t really care that much about the end result. Neither is ideal if you want to stay inspired and focused for a long period of time. With Studio, we’re motivated by the fact that we’re building the world’s most powerful screen design tool. It’s impossible to not be excited about that.”

The Studio team

And if all else fails, take heart

At least you don’t work at The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain. Construction start date: 1882.

Projected completion date: 2026.


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Author

Rachel Starnes

Rachel Starnes is the author of The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible) (Penguin Books, 2016). She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno and her BA from the University of Texas. Her essays have appeared in The Colorado Review, Front Porch Journal, and O Magazine. Born in Austin, Texas, she has lived in Scotland, Texas, Saudi Arabia, Florida, California, and Nevada, and is currently at work on a novel. More at rachelstarnes.com

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