Beating designer’s block

4 min read
Cassius Kiani
  •  May 12, 2016
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Those hours—or days—where you’re working on a project and just can’t seem to make any progress or come up with ideas? Thank designer’s block for that.

We’ve all been there. Sometimes no amount of coffee, walks around the block, or cat videos can help you shake the feeling that it’s just not happening. And that’s a terrible feeling to have—especially if you’ve got a rapidly approaching deadline and a client who keeps asking how things are going.

Let’s take a look at why designer’s block happens and how to overcome it.Twitter Logo

Where does designer’s block come from?

Designers constantly use 2 parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the cerebral cortex.

Your ability to make smart decisions comes from your prefrontal cortex, while your creativity and creative thinking come from your cerebral cortex.

When you design (or tackle tricky UX problems), your brain works hard to make sure you’re the best damn designer you can be.

Although it’s a little different, think about these parts of your brain as muscles. Imagine going to the gym every day and doing the same exercise—you’d get tired and stiff, things would start to slow down a little, and eventually your body would say no more.

When you’re hit with designer’s block, there’s a good chance that’s the reason. You’ve done such an amazing job, for such a long time, that you might just need a break.

“Designer’s block can hit when you’ve been doing the same thing for too long.”

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If you’re finding that your main block is creativity, then something (somewhere) is probably causing you stress. Because our limbic system manages our fight or flight response, stress causes your body (and brain) to keep you safe. When your limbic system is active, energy is taken away from the cerebral cortex, the creative part of your brain, for this very reason.

On the other hand, if you’re struggling to make decent decisions (which could be anything from color and font choices, to finishing user workflows), then decision fatigue is probably starting to set in. Decision fatigue happens when your prefrontal cortex is constantly making decisions for a long period of time. You’ve probably felt this before when you’ve come out of a long brainstorming session, or after you’ve been asked to solve a complex problem. This is another common cause for designer’s block because as designers, we’re constantly making decisions.

So how do we overcome designer’s block?

Arguably the best way to start overcoming designers block is this: Spend a few minutes finding out how you’re feeling and where the the issue truly lies.

Sometimes you’ll notice that it’s your decision-making that’s acting as a barrier. And if that’s the case, there are a few quick fixes that’ll quickly get you back on track.

When creativity is your barrier, take a more mindful approach to tackling the issue.Twitter Logo Sometimes, it can be a little tricky to do, but we’ll get there together.

When you’re struggling to make decisions, recharge

If your prefrontal cortex is exhausted and you’re making (or can’t even make) bad decisions, then you need to refuel.

There’s a study that shows judges find it increasingly difficult to make decisions on sentencing and parole as their day drags on.

The remedy for this? Food.

Judges were given a sandwich and an apple on their breaks, and their ability to make better decisions increased exponentially.

When you’re struggling to make decisions, recharge with a snackTwitter Logo you enjoy. Feeding your body gives your brain the boost it needs to stay on top.

If food isn’t working (or you’ve eaten and there’s no difference), then prioritize the decisions that matter to you. It’s safe to assume that the majority of designers use (and maybe live in) their smartphones.

Well, every time we make a decision to send a tweet, take a snap, or swipe right, we’re using our prefrontal cortex to carry that out. Since we’re alway connected, it can be tough to step away from social media and other apps—especially while we’re trying to work.

Prioritize your time on decisions that matter, and give your brain a break from those that don’t.

“Resting is just as important as putting in hard work.”

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And if you’re still struggling to get past this side of designer’s block, then recharge your personal batteries with some rest.

You can look at taking a vacation or asking for a few days off, but in reality you might only need 10-15 minutes to step away, sit down, put your headphones in, and find your happy place.

Resting is just as important as putting in hard work.Twitter Logo So when you find your decision-making skills lacking, don’t be afraid to step away.

When you’re struggling with creativity, use your head

My team has come up with a few different ways to beat designer’s block—after all, deadlines are deadlines and the show must go on.

Do a visualization exercise. These help re-engage the cerebral cortex without adding to any existing stress. Forcing an idea doesn’t work.Twitter Logo

Start by closing your eyes or grabbing a piece of paper. Think of a word, then describe or draw what comes to mind. Don’t force it. If the word doesn’t resonate with you, find another. If you’re struggling to find words, let the random word generator to do the heavy lifting for you.

Go for a brisk walk around the block to clear your head. Leave your phone at your desk so you can pay attention to your surroundings.

Clarify instructions and briefs. Then, when designer’s block hits, you can work in a process-driven way.

A handy list of quick tips:

  • Never make a decision or work for too long on an empty stomach
  • Take 5 to relax
  • Think about what’s on your mind and tackle it
  • Stay mindful and open to issues that arise
  • Do the toughest and most important things first
  • Go on vacation and visit a new place (Tokyo is one of our favorites)
  • Visualize what you need to do—paint the bigger picture
  • Exercise or take a walk around the block
  • Make sure everything’s clear. If you need more information, just ask.

So go and beat designer’s block. You’ve totally got this.

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