Feeling Stuck? Design What You Don’t Know

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Previously Smashing Magazine’s Typography editor, and currently on the Experts Panel, Alex Charchar has had his writing published and referenced in some … More about Alexander ↬

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Didn’t fresh ideas arrive without being asked for? Why did I have to wait until the last moment to even notice, wait until moments before these old dented ideas have to be presented? Now it’s none of these things. Now it’s different. Now it’s quiet with muted color. Now it’s something I just do. No, it’s worse. Now it’s a job. It’s not my work, it’s my job. It’s a job, and the ideas don’t arrive like they used to. I keep designing what I know.

Many of us struggle silently with mental health problems and many more are affected by them, either directly or indirectly. It’s {Geek} Mental Help Week and we would like to help raise awareness with a couple of articles exploring these issues.

Where is it?! It has to be here somewhere. It use to be so easy. What happened? Somewhere, somewhere, somewhere. That idea is somewhere. It’s here, it has to be. This is where I’ve always found it. But there’s nothing. The only shapes I find here are well worn and boring, dints still obvious even with fresh paint. Oh so boring. So boring and so often used because they’re just “fine.” Too easily used. Too easily reached for and offered up as if they were new again.

Didn’t this used to be easy? Didn’t fresh ideas arrive without being asked for? Why did I have to wait until the last moment to even notice, wait until moments before these old dented ideas have to be presented?

Wasn’t this a passion? Wasn’t this a calling? Wasn’t this something I sprung from bed every morning to race to the studio to do?

Now it’s none of these things. Now it’s different. Now it’s quiet with muted color. Now it’s something I just do. No, it’s worse. Now it’s a job. It’s not my work, it’s my job.

It’s a job, and the ideas don’t arrive like they used to. I keep designing what I know. I’m stuck.

Recommended reading: How To Maximize Your Creative Energy

What Stuck Is Really Like For A Designer

Sound familiar?

We often think about being stuck as not having anywhere to move. But for a designer, this is what stuck really looks like. It’s emptiness followed by panic, days before a concept or first proof is due.

It’s reaching for old familiar ideas, ones used far too often simply because they’re reliable, even if they make for boring shapes. Whatever solutions might be offered up to the client’s problems are often interchangeable. Client names and logos could be swapped and the difference would be indistinguishable.

Without being creatively stretched, our skills take little time to silently atrophy. Before long, memories of excitement become all too distant. The misguided hope that the next project will be better starts to kick in, but the same situation is repeatedly found, so the same solutions are repeatedly used.

Being stuck means no movement, and no movement means that the creative waters of our minds grow stagnant.
Being stuck means no movement, and no movement means that the creative waters of our minds grow stagnant. (Image credits)

Luckily, this can be solved with the most boring and obvious of things.

What Causes A Designer To Feel Stuck?

The longer we work, the bigger our box of tricks gets. We start to learn what will work for a client almost every time, what most clients don’t like, what most clients are fine with.

When desperate, we rely on those tricks in place of exploration and research, just to get the work finished and out the door. But before long, we are relying on them too heavily, then perhaps completely, rendering our creative legs useless as we find height atop of our empty little tricks. Alternatively, such stagnation may settle over us because of arrogance. We might allow our ego to fill up the space in our brains left for new knowledge and consider ourselves full.

We might think that we’re done with our education because we’ve graduated, won an award, gained some recognition or simply found a job. We forget how our skills developed in the first place — within a storm of unknown outcomes and a thousand wrong solutions. We forget that we need to understand and challenge our limits, that learning means being willing to be wrong and to try again, over and over.

We stop learning; we get bored. We fall into a rut and get stuck. What we need in our work is a little novelty. No tricks, no work made up of shortcuts alone and no ego — no, none of these — we just need some curiosity.

Want To Get Moving? Design What You Don’t Know

Writers are often given the advice to “write what you know.” Weaker wordsmiths would consider this justification to simply write what’s in their head. Their ego will suggest that they already have within them what’s needed for the next great novel.

Smarter writers, the ones who take their craft seriously, understand that to write what they know means to know many things, and to know many things means to deliberately subject themselves to a barrage of experiences. It means visiting the country in which a short story is set to understand the culture found there, not just relying on weak memories or a few Google searches. It means calling the local pharmacy to ask a few questions about how certain drugs work in the body if it’s central to how a main character dies.

It’s to put yourself in unknown places and routines so that you can find new sources from which to draw inspiration. The advice should almost be “write what you don’t know.”

I’ve always been amazed by the similarities between writing and design. They’ve often felt like two sides of the same card to me, and the advice for one often translates well to the other. So, what of the advice to write what one knows? What good is this for the designer?

Design what you don’t know.

A blatant copy, but it makes our point well. Design what you don’t know. Find your limits, push them with education and experience, and perhaps avoid that burnout and stagnated-career feeling.

Seek Out Your Limits, Know Them, List Them

Do you know what your limits are? Do you know what you don’t know? Do you have them in front of you? It’s not enough to have a vague idea of what you’re not comfortable doing. You have to make a list, to plan your education and your efforts.

A list: That’s our not-so-obvious obvious solution.

Such a list can provide an enjoyable stability and direction. It’ll stop you from stumbling through ignorance, wildly throwing your arms out hoping to clutch some knowledge to keep from falling again.

Go wild. This is your fantasy list; this is all the things you ever wanted to learn about your profession. Leave nothing out, include big and small, and cover the whole gamut. Write fast and with passion.

Patterns will emerge, little groupings and relationships. You’ll see what little classes you can structure for yourself, and you will play both student and teacher. You’ll be lucky for it — being both will make you better at both. Add to it every time something comes up during a project that you avoid because it confuses you, anything that makes you genuinely nervous to think about. Be specific. “Make website responsive” isn’t specific, but “How do I target specific resolutions?” is.

The benefit of getting granular isn’t just that it helps you avoid easily stumbled-upon distraction, but that it gives you things to test and to develop a very short feedback loop around. It let’s you test-break-repeat. We have to seek out the difficult and uncomfortable if we wish to grow. This is what has to be on our list — not the things we know how to do well already; there’s little to learn in practicing such things repeatedly.

In practice, concepts are defined, given shape, can even be manipulated, all while being tested. Don’t fall too hard into the trap of reading without doing, of adding items to the list without ever crossing them off. Make sure as soon as you have even the roughest idea of how something might work that you start trying to make it do so.

You have to do things, even when you do them poorly — especially when you do them poorly. Like those well-considered writers who know their stories well because they’ve lived them, because they’ve focused on what they don’t know so that they could write about such things like it was old knowledge — like them, we need to focus on designing what we don’t know, what we don’t understand.

Push Your Limits To Never Feel Stuck Again

All it takes is one thing from our list to lift a project from dull to interesting. Just one tiny thing. The first project you do might only benefit from your learning one small thing, but the second will be improved by what you learned previously and the new task that you’ll tackle for it.

One new thing per project. Some might consider it selfish to use clients’ projects as a means to give yourself an education, but I think it’s a perfect testing ground. It will give your daylight hours more meaning, something to bounce out of bed for.

Personal projects are a great place to learn, too, but the energy available to us outside of our normal office hours is fleeting. If you’re to work on client work anyway, why not derive more benefit from it than just a bit of money?

Cross off the items on your list as often as you can, as quickly as you can, with as much fury and energy as you can muster. It might not feel like much, learning one small thing at a time, but it’ll add up quickly, and it’ll give you a fun little challenge to solve every day. It’s a wonderful thing to experience.

Joyous Ignorance And Worlds Of Possibility

When we’re learning something new, we feel as if a world of possibility has opened before us. We’re wonderfully ignorant of any boundaries. But as we learn more, we make that world smaller. No wonder we can sometimes feel uninspired and stuck.

We rely too easily on what we’ve learned that we don’t add to our mental “need to learn” list. But it’s in lists that we can escape that stuck feeling and once again expand the world of opportunities. Exploring othis list gives us new glasses through which to see the world before us, enabling us to open new doors and gain new experiences. Boredom has never been found when exploring exciting new worlds.

This is all a bit circular. It sounds as though I’m suggesting that shortcuts, which is really knowledge well known and experienced, aren’t to be trusted, and so what you should do is focus on what you don’t know until it’s… well, a shortcut.

The truth is that nothing is wrong with shortcuts. It shows experience and knowledge. The problem occurs when one relies on the same set of shortcuts, the same set of tricks, never adding to their set of skills. For whatever reason, once our skills reach the point at which they are no longer challenged by our clients’ requests, we tend to let them stay where they are.

Few clients are sophisticated enough to know how complex our work can be, so they ask for simple solutions. Our human-natured desire to find the easiest path gives our ego the excuse it needs to simply let these sleeping dogs lie. Why try harder? But before long, the ego that granted us the easy path starts to gripe when we walk down it too often. Somewhere in the pit of our souls, it begins to cry havoc that we aren’t being used for worthy problems.

Vibrant Waters Of The Creative Mind

The waters of the mind stagnate when no new currents of knowledge pass through them. The silt, which is movement made visible, falls to the bottom when undisturbed. The waters sit still and before long are rendered lifeless.

Only through knowledge and new experiences will the waters once again come alive, allowing a vibrant crop of new species, new ideas, to grow and call your mind home. It’s only through the introduction of new ideas that our mind can transform from stagnant pots of water into vibrant ecosystems.

This requires work, a constant and caring tending — not great movements once a week, nor month, nor year, through hollow and meaningless retreats, self-development programs or committees or, worse, the occasional reading of a how-to article, quickly forgotten.

No, only through gentle stirrings daily will the waters of your mind remain lively and fruitful.

How does this work start? The short version is easy enough:

  • List everything you want and need to learn.
  • Read just enough to start experimenting with these listed curiosities.
  • Always find a place in your current project to apply a new experiment.

Write your list, tend to it regularly, and the waters will never go still. If you’re lucky, you might never find yourself stuck and bored, browsing your library of those faded and dented shapes.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, il, mrn)