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Whatever the medium, it’s blank as blank can be. You’re idea-less. For a graphic designer, finding yourself creatively challenged is akin to stepping into the void, lost and floating aimlessly in a dark netherworld.

You need a spark. A jumpstart. Something. Anything.

But first, where the heck does creativity come from? Is it inherent – a talent and ability within a person from birth? Or is it a learned ability?

That question has raised more than a few opinions from several notables including the aforementioned, Malcolm Gladwell. In his book, Outliers, he posed the theory “… idea is that the most notable creative individuals practice for at least 10,000 hours before becoming experts. That’s to say, creativity can be learned, but unless you are exclusively practicing your artistic skill full-time, eight hours a day, five days a week, for at least five years, you won’t become a successful artist.


Malcolm Gladwell

Conversely, David Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and author of Old Masters and Young Geniuses, brought forth the idea that, perhaps, there is an age discrepancy in older, successful creatives. He found that an artist’s success and how old she or he is when they attain success is a function not of the artist’s skill but of methodology.

The Case Of Mary Shelley
Consider Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus, who was a mere 18 years old when she started writing the book. It was published two years later and is credited by many be the first science fiction novel. She did have a couple of great writing coaches in Lord Byron and the poet, Percy Shelley (who she later married) during their famous summer in Geneva that spawned Frankenstein. If you’re not familiar with that summertime creative soiree, grab a copy of the 1986 movie, Gothic. Suffice to say, the Shelleys, Byron and John Polidori (yes, Polidori was a real person and not simply a screenwriter’s creation) were the consummate hippies of their day. Groovy, man. Peace, love and intense storytelling.


Mary Shelley

Shelley had little writing experience at 18, but she had a monumental amount of life experience. Sadly, however, most of it was rather negative and death-centric. It appears, at least in Shelley’s case, her writing talent was inherent and not learned. She seems to have oozed creativity, intelligence and the ability to string together nouns and verbs, along with other grammatical niceties, in an astute, yet terrifying, manner.

Gladwell clarified his theory by stating, “Practice isn’t a sufficient condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.

Creativity, it seems, can be learned, but only to a certain extent. After that, inherent skills and talent take the helm. When all the ingredients come together something magical happens.


Creative Commons logo, image source: Flickr by nnen

From my own experience, I’ve played guitar since I was 13. Allow me to rephrase that. I’ve played guitar since I was 13 and I still stink after 42 years. Well, okay, perhaps I’ve gotten a wee bit better.

My son, however, is pretty much a musical virtuoso. He’s brilliant with a guitar. And, it’s not because he’s my son. Okay … maybe a little bit. He also writes music, records and performs. He’s the type of person who can pick up any instrument and start playing it. Seriously. Guitar; bass; drums; trumpet; mandolin, viola and piano, to name just a few.

What musical ability I have is the result of practice, play and practice more. It’s a learned ability gleaned from 40+ years of calloused fingertips and the sweat of my brow. My son, however, demonstrates inherent musical talent and abilities. Even though I taught him basic guitar skills, I still have no idea where his talent came from. Perhaps it came from playing Gershwin to him nightly, ante partum.

The Quest for Renewed Creativity
Now that you know a small part the creativity back-story, what happens when it takes a hike?

Relax. Every designer goes through a dry spell at some point when ideas are scarcer than hen’s teeth. Inasmuch as it feels like it, your creativity probably isn’t gone. It’s just taking a bit of a vacation. Fortunately, there are some tried and true tactics and techniques to recover misplaced creativity. Here are a few.

  1. Free Doodling
  2. Take that nice, clean piece of paper and do what designers do – sketch, doodle, scribble. Doodling, by definition, is unfocused and unconscious. It’s what you do when your brain is otherwise occupied. That’s where the beauty of the doodle comes into play. While you’re thinking about this or that, one step away from daydreaming, unexpected ideas, forms, shapes and such magically appear on that nice, clean piece of paper. One idea or thought often leads to another and the next thing you know, bingo! You’re creative again.

  3. Become An Alpha Designer (and a theta one, too)
  4. Unleash alpha and theta brain waves with the power of tunes. Music is widely believed to stimulate creativity. Odds are, that’s because alpha waves trigger creativity and theta waves inspire learning, relaxation, imagination and the dream state. Then, of course, there’s always the chest-pounding effect of turning your stereo up to 11 that can be mind-altering.

  5. Dream A Little Dream
  6. Speaking of the dream state, a bit of daydreaming has been shown to boost creatively and problem-solving. So, close your eyes and let your mind wander where it will. You might just find a brilliant idea waiting for you.

  7. Immerse Yourself In Color
  8. Green is a good choice. It’s been shown to increase motivation that can help with mental enhancement. Understanding the psychology of color can give your mood a change and that’s often a good thing when it comes to creativity. Red has been shown to increase blood pressure and heart rate. It’s also the color of dominance and linked to success. Blue does the opposite and tends to lower blood pressure, heart rate and has an overall calming effect. So, when you need to change your mood, change the color of your surroundings.

  9. Lose the Excuses
  10. Thinking negative thoughts is sometimes unavoidable, but negativity is a creativity killer. Thinking you can’t be creative because of this or that, you need thus and so, etc. is focusing on failure from the get-go. Try your best to keep a positive mental attitude. Yeah … not always easy but give it your best shot.

  11. Change Your Surrounding
  12. Get up and get out. This advice comes from a card-carrying hermit, but it’s sound advice. Routine and habit are additional creativity ruts we can dig for ourselves. If a designer is a creature of habit, that rut can get pretty deep and tough to crawl out of in a creativity quest.

    Go someplace new. Read a riveting book. Vonnegut comes to mind. Your daily routine is, frankly, a rather predictable and often dull thing. Same old, same old. Shake things up. Take a leap of faith, get up on the other side of the bed and start your day with an attitude of adventure.

    Maybe it’s a simple thing like trying a new type of cuisine or driving a different way to some regular destination. The point is to do things that are a little out of character for you. Having a new experience is one of the surest ways to boost your creativity.

  13. At The End Of Your Inspiring, Adventurous Day
    Reflect on your new experiences as you lay your weary head down. Now is a good time to consider your creative-problem-at-hand. Your brain is primed for problem-solving while sleeping.

    As a matter of fact, a study by Sara Mednick, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System, and first author Denise Cai, graduate student in the UC San Diego Department of Psychology, shows that rapid eye movement sleep (REM) directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleep or wake state.

    “We found that – for creative problems that you’ve already been working on – the passage of time is enough to find solutions,” said Mednick. “However, for new problems, only REM sleep enhances creativity.”*

Time, Creativity, Scher and Picasso
As graphic designers, we have good days and bad days when an idea is nowhere to be found. Follow the above methods and you’ll jump start your creativity and be ready to tackle a project and display your brilliance to your clients and their audiences.

Finally, remember that creative ability isn’t dependent upon time spent. For graphic designers, creativity is dependent upon having a clear understanding of the client’s problem, their audience and the client’s goals. With understanding comes wisdom. In this case, wisdom means making appropriate, smart design choices that will solve a client’s problem and have impact on their audience.


Citi Logo

Most graphic designers are familiar with the Citi logo designed by Paula Scher. As the story goes, Scher went into a meeting with the client, talked a bit and then designed the new logo for Citi on a napkin in just a few seconds. Now that’s understanding the client.

A similar story about Picasso has been told for years. A woman saw the artist in a park (or café, depending upon the version). She went up to him and asked, no, demanded him to draw a portrait of her. In a single stroke of his pencil, he was done, having captured her essence. When she asked how much she owed, Picassio replied, “$5000.” After she got up off the floor she asked how could a portrait that only took a couple of seconds to create cost so much. Picasso replied, It took a few seconds … and my entire life.

Words to live by.

*Source: Let Me Sleep On It: Creative Problem Solving Enhanced By REM Sleep,