Breaking through Creative Blocks

If you’re anything like me, you often hit a creative block when beginning a new project. Some people call this the blank canvas syndrome. It happens when you are faced with a clean slate that has an infinite number of possibilities, and your mind scatters a thousand directions. As a result, it takes you forever to decide which option to choose. It’s a frustrating situation to be in — especially when there’s a fast approaching deadline in the equation. It’s my hope that, after reading this, you’ll have a few tricks up your sleeve for the next time you meet this dreaded dilemma.

I spent about five of my teenage years working as a shoe salesman, and during that time I got to work at various stores — some big and some small. I noticed that in larger stores where the choice of shoes was vast, customers often had a difficult time committing to a pair. Many would spend hours wandering through the aisles and not find a single pair they liked. Whereas in smaller stores, where the choice was sparse, people seemed to have much more luck finding what they liked in a relatively short time.

This observation taught me that too much choice can be overwhelming, and that limitations can make our lives a lot easier. At Mills James, where I work as a motion graphic designer, we have something called Catalyst. It’s a creative club where associates take a month to complete a personal project, then share it with the rest of the group over pizza. What’s so fascinating about Catalyst is every month the group is given a new theme or some other constraint everyone must blend into their work. I’m always excited to see what people create at the end of the month because the projects are always unique and very creative. Who would have thought limitations could have such a positive result?

A snapshot of a typical Catalyst session

Inspired by what I learned in Catalyst, I made a tool for myself that catapults me back into productivity when I hit a creative block. It’s just a simple list of things found in nature that are pleasant to the eye. Whenever my mind scatters a thousand directions, I go to that list, choose a theme and build the entire project around it.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to finding inspiration; it’s all around us! Take a look at the sun set, for example. Why is it so attractive to us? Maybe it’s the warm hues of the sky, the fact that the sun is the only dominant object in the scene, or perhaps it’s the smooth and slow progression of the whole event that makes it so enchanting. Whatever it is you find beautiful, study it. Create your own list from your observations and integrate it into your creative work.

I’ve learned constraints are not to be feared. In fact, I now embrace them knowing there’s still plenty of freedom in confinement. It sounds hard to believe, but self-imposed limitations can open a world of possibilities, and truly be a lifeline for you during times when you don’t know where to begin.

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