How to consistently produce great creative work

4 min read
Jonathan Weber,
Farheen Gani
  •  Jul 3, 2018
Link copied to clipboard

We’ve all been there—staring at a blank screen, out of ideas, hoping for a flicker of inspiration. The creatives you follow on Instagram and Twitter seem to be putting out an endless stream of amazing work. Meanwhile, you can’t even get started on something.

The process of creation is hardly instantaneous—it’s nothing like switching on a light bulb. Instead, it’s the gradual synthesis of your experiences, thoughts, and dreams. To reap more great ideas, you need to sow the seeds for them, every day.

Let’s go over some of the best ways you can cultivate creativity in order to do great work consistently.

“Keep an eye out for the impossible.”

Twitter Logo

Seek new experiences

It’s difficult to feel inspired when we’re stuck in the same old routine. New experiences awaken our sense of amazement. They make us feel contemplative, sometimes even poetic.

New experiences have a stronger correlation to creative achievement than even a high IQ. After all, the more novel experiences you have, the more material you have to work with.

Want to have more epiphanies? Ditch your routine every once in a while. Explore a new country, soak up the local culture, swap stories with strangers. If you can’t afford extensive travel, take up new activities where you live, like volunteering, painting, or baking. The idea is to break the monotony, in work and life.

“Break the monotony.”

Twitter Logo

Gather raw material

This a crucial step in fueling creativity. Every book you read, every movie you watch, every online debate you’re part of—all these are fodder for your imagination. Your ideas are nothing but a culmination of these.

In his book A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Young lists gathering raw material as the first step to producing new ideas. And this is where most people fail, according to him:

“Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material, we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.”

Feed your mind as much raw material as possibleTwitter Logo—books, blogs, movies, works of your favorite designers. Don’t just skim the material, internalize it. Keep a journal of striking thoughts, quotes, and ideas.

Related: The books, podcasts, and TV shows that inspire design leaders

Next, spend some time reflecting on the material. Do you agree with the writer/designer of a book? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned? What piques your interest most?

As you get into the habit of collecting raw material, seemingly out of nowhere it will find its way into your work.

Look beyond your industry

Here’s another tip about feeding on raw material—always go for the buffet. Let’s say you’re a UX designer. If all you read is UX-related content, you’re exposed to the same concepts as your peers. To have truly unique ideas, step out of your echo chamber.

“Look beyond the design industry for inspiration.”

Twitter Logo

For instance, Sonia Simone, Chief Content Officer at Rainmaker Digital, makes a point to mix up her reading list. She says, “It’s just very important to me to keep putting things in my brain coming from other places, whether it’s a Terry Pratchett novel or an interesting piece of neuroscience or something that comes from outside my echo chamber.”

By all means, binge read UX-related content, but from time to time, also gorge on material unrelated to your work or field. As an example, Sooshin Choi, Head of College for Creative Studies at Detroit, suggests car designers should look to furniture designers for inspiration. Or they might look beyond the design industry altogether. Say marketing, literature, or science. This approach opens up possibilities you’d never imagine.

Let your mind wander

Often when deliberating a creative problem, the best solution is to step away from it. Let your mind wander, and once you get back, you’ll find the answer unraveling.

Young calls this stage the third step in producing new ideas. At this point, he suggests you do whatever stimulates your imagination: “Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.”

Related: This is why you have all your best ideas in the shower

A magical thing happens when you allow your brain to relax. It switches to its default mode network, a part of the cortex quietly toiling away at complex issues and making new connections. The next time you reprimand yourself for daydreaming, know that your mind is busy. Let it work.

Give yourself constraints

As much as we think creativity is about thinking outside the box, sometimes we need a box to think within.

Architect Frank Gehry, known for building the Disney Concert Hall in LA and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, considers limitations and constraints as the number-one inspiration for his work. The strict standards for acoustics at Disney Hall led to Gehry’s unique and award-winning design for the interiors as well as the graceful exteriors of the space.

“Sometimes we need a box to think within.”

Twitter Logo

Says Gehry, “It’s better to have some problem to work on. I think we turn those constraints into action.”

Constraints can be anything from the budget you’re working with, to your customer’s expectations, or even an imaginary condition you set for yourself. As long as it gives you a starting point, it works.

Be accountable

Many of us thrive on deadlines. They tend to jolt us out of procrastination and make us create even when we’re not in the mood to.

If deadlines serve as creative triggers for you, be accountable for every project you undertake. Ben Barry, graphic designer at Facebook, induces accountability artificially by “making public commitments to people about presenting work on a particular day.”

If you’re uncomfortable doing this, look for events and opportunities in your community with a deadline. Participate in a hackathon or a design competition, or take up more freelance projects on the side.

Emulate the greats

Budding writers are advised to study authors they admire. It helps them develop a ear for great work and hone their voice. This advice is applicable to almost any field.

Remember though, passive observation of great designers is hardly helpful. Instead, graphic designer and former Smashing Magazine editor Alexander Chernov urges designers to “try to figure out their process secrets, how the work is put together.”

Be it an onboarding workflow, logo, or website design, try to deconstruct the thought process behind it. Better yet, recreate it in your own style. With time, you’ll discover your own creative process.

Research your end users

Startup founders are often asked: How did you get this idea? A common reply goes, “We identified a problem our users faced.”

Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook, shares this recipe for getting ideas on her blog: “To find ideas, find problems. To find problems, talk to people.”

As a designer, you’ve heard of design research. It involves gathering data about your users—who they are, their challenges, and how they use your product. This is a great way to spark new project ideas.

There are lots of ways to conduct research, but the most common involves talking to your users directly. One-on-one conversations with users can uncover problems and preferences you may have overlooked. If you can’t talk to users directly, use surveys and usability tools to gather data.

Dream often

Do you remember how wild your childhood dreams were? You likely thought anything was possible—growing up to be a neurosurgeon, flying airplanes, traveling to Mars, becoming a superhero.

Guess what? To foster creativity, you need to dream big.Twitter Logo When we grow up, we become so attached to reality that we limit our thoughts to what’s possible. So we never come up with any extraordinary ideas.

Walt Disney famously had three distinct phases in which he produced ideas: the dreamer, the realist, and the critic. The dreamer was all about thinking the most absurd, the most impossible. At this point, it was all about “What if?” and “Why not?”

“Dream big.”

Twitter Logo

The realist refined these thoughts into doable, practical ideas. This step was about finding out “How can this be done?” Finally, there was the critic who decided if an idea was worth pursuing at all.

Most of us like to be realists and critics, hardly ever letting the dreamer speak up. No wonder all we’re left with are practical, boring ideas. This is not to say the realist and critic are unimportant. But when it comes to producing new ideas, they might toss out a good one before it has the chance to ripen.

Make space and time for ideas

We schedule a time for everything, but thoughtful contemplation is often reserved for times we’re desperately hoping for a creative breakthrough. The result? Great ideas elude us and our mind seems bogged down.

John Cleese, in his 1991 lecture on creativity, considers five factors essential for a fulfilling creative life:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Time
  4. Confidence
  5. Humor

Space refers to a place when you’re not under your usual pressures. Work, family, friends, none of these responsibilities to think of.

Next is time, a special slot in your schedule free of meetings, emails, and other daily chores. The second “time” in this list is for abundance. You need to give yourself enough time to turn an idea over and over in your head. Making a creative decision (or any decision) too soon does more harm than good. Once you have enough time and space reserved for ideas, you’ll seldom have to force creativity at a moment’s notice.

Ideas are almost never the result of a single eureka moment.Twitter Logo It takes years of experiences, contemplation, and refining for meaningful ideas to take shape.

The best way to be consistently creative? Design your life around fulfilling experiences, keep an eye out for the impossible, and give it time—inspiration will follow.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard