Know that panicky feeling when the deadline draws near, but the brilliant idea just won’t come?
Being part of a creative agency means being expected to deliver something unexpected, new, funky or otherwise original, not when inspiration strikes but when the deadline demands it.
Here are a couple of practical tricks to prevent and overcome creative dry spells.
1. No blank page, no blank page syndrome
Blank page syndrome, also known as writer’s block, is the all-to-common sensation of not knowing how to start your first sentence while an empty page is staring back at you.
That’s an easy one to avoid: make sure the page isn’t blank. Literally. Use your previous assignment as a template and start by adapting, deleting and replacing. Chances are the rest will start flowing naturally.
If this is your first assignment of this kind, you can also retrieve your template from elsewhere – documentation related to the job for example.
This trick isn’t for writers alone: when launching into the creative process feels daunting, try working on the setup first, laying the groundwork and taking care of the practical things you’ll need to do anyway – all the while, your mind starts mulling over your actual task without you even noticing it.
2. Make it visible
Creating a visual will help you conjure up ideas, and the only magic at play here is your own brain.
Start by drawing your concept, illustrating your slogan or sketching your video storyboard, and the rest will follow. That’s because you are stimulating different areas of your brain, thereby getting a mental process going that feeds itself – and others’, of course. (Graphic facilitation for instance is a great tool for helping teams generate ideas by having an illustrator visualise them during a creative session.)
3. If it doesn’t come out of thin air, try digging
We like to think of creative ideas as something that pops into our minds for no reason. Most of the time, however, they are the result of a process in which we consider a question from different angles until we see something new.
In practice, doing research about the topic in question is a good way of getting that thought process going, even if you think you know it by heart. Starting by looking at what other people are doing in a similar field may feel like cheating, but it doesn’t mean you will copy-paste their work: checking out existing approaches can lead you in a completely different direction, simply by helping you connect the right dots.
4. Embrace your constraints: they improve your focus
A deadline limits what you can do – and that’s a good thing. Scientific research highlights that too much choice leads to cognitive overload, and when you are working on a creative assignment, that’s an actual risk. When you’re free to do whatever you want, that can make it difficult to settle for one idea, concept or approach, if only because your own expectations may be unrealistically high in this setting.
That deadline is probably not the only constraint you are facing: client briefs and budget, existing guidelines or specific skills and resources you or your team may be lacking are part of most creative’s daily challenges.
Remember: constraints such as rhyme and meter are tools for unleashing, rather than limiting, the poets’ creativity. In fact, one could argue that creativity is always the result of overcoming constraints.
Throughout history, artists have sought to stimulate their own and each others’ creativity by imposing artificial constraints as a form of artistic challenge: take the French writer Georges Perec for example, who wrote an entire novel without the letter ‘E’!
You can train your mind to creatively overcome obstacles. Challenge yourself or your team with exercises such as these:
- What if you had to re-do this drawing without any humans in the picture?
- What if your company was a dish? What would it be?
- What if you couldn’t use any of the most common words to talk about this topic?
At cartoonbase, we use constraints as a technique when organising creative brainstorming sessions.
5. Collective intelligence – from within…
If that sounds twisted, it’s because the human mind works in unexpected ways.
Have you ever called on a colleague to help you sort out an IT issue, only to find that while you were explaining your problem to them you found the solution yourself before they even knew what you were on about?
Basically, you found the solution by explaining the problem to yourself.
With creative tasks, you can do the same. If you keep getting stuck in the same mental loop, talk to someone about it. You don’t need them to provide expert advice or new ideas – you may have plenty of that for yourself once you’ve articulated the issue properly.
6. Clear your mind
When nothing else works, finally some proven, grandmotherly advice: a short break away from your screen can work wonders. Get some fresh air, make yourself a coffee or stand on your head. Then get back to it and things will start to miraculously fall into place.
Most of the time.
Illustrations by Etienne