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How to Avoid Sticking in a Design Rut

Design ruts are the commercial artist’s equivalent of writer’s block. Sometimes you just seem to reach the end of your creative rope and can’t imagine thinking of any more good ideas.

Fortunately, all hope is not lost in these situations as there is plenty that you can do to both prevent and/or recover from a design rut. Today we’ll look at some different ways your creativity could potentially become stagnant and what to do in response.

Types of Design Ruts and Possible Solutions

There are several ways your designs could be suffering from a mental block. Think carefully about each of the three examples below and how they might apply to the work you’ve done recently.

Complete Blockage

This is by far the most severe. In this type of rut you simply stare at the screen for minutes on end without even knowing where to start. When you finally begin working, you quickly find that you hate everything that you try to create. These are not the symptoms of a design rookie who isn’t quite sure how the process works but rather a seasoned professional who has simply burned out.

As implied above, this type of rut usually results from being overworked. Many people imagine that designers have remarkably easy jobs that require only a slight harnessing of the innate ability to make everything beautiful. However, good design ideas do not always burst out automatically from even the most gifted designers. Design can be quite a mentally draining profession and burnout is an extremely common problem.

One of the best possible fixes for complete burnout is to find a way to take a break. This is applicable for both the short and long-term solutions. Short-term, step away from your computer completely for a few minutes and take a quick walk. This can provide a much needed mental release and will leave you much more refreshed than a Twitter break. Long-term, take a vacation. A week of traveling, relaxing or good old fashion manual labor can be immensely helpful and will provide your brain with some time to reset itself before returning to work.

Style Stagnation

Becoming stagnant in a particular design style is extremely common. While it is in fact a good thing to develop your own style, something that is uniquely you, becoming too dependent on a certain look is a great way to get labeled as a one trick pony.

It happens to all of us in the smallest ways. You find a gradient, layer blending mode or font that you particularly like and start incorporating into almost everything you do. Sooner or later you begin to notice that everything you’ve created in the past year features Helvetica Neue on a minimalist white background with a strict 960 grid.

This might be great for a while but sooner or later you’re going to come across a client that hates minimalist design and wants something fluid, organic and colorful. As a professional designer you should be able to conform to the needs of various projects and adjust your design style accordingly. As you become style stagnant, this task becomes more and more difficult.

To prevent style stagnation, make a conscious effort to avoid using resources, colors, and methods that you used on your previous project. Find sources of inspiration that completely contradict your way of thinking and seek to incorporate aspects of these designs into your own work.

Quick and Dirty

The quick and dirty design ruts evolve out of the need to meet deadlines. If you’re in a constant rush to get things done on time, your work will begin to suffer as a result.

This is often evident in the little details; both by their presence and absence. Really great design often showcases the tiniest finishing touches that really make the design shine. For instance, Collis Ta’eed of Envato is fond of placing single pixel strokes around various parts of his design to create a nice but subtle edge effect.

If you’re suffering from a quick and dirty design rut, the little details could either be completely absent, leaving an unfinished look to all of your designs, or sloppily thrown together, resulting in a look of amateur craftsmanship.

The solution for this rut is difficult to implement. Obviously, the answer is that you need to slow down and spend more time finessing your designs. However, if you’re constantly under the pressure of impossible deadlines, spending more time on the design may not be an option. The first thing you should consider, especially if you’re a freelancer, is loosening up your schedule a bit by demanding more lead time from your clients so that you can really spend the time designing that each project requires. If this is not an option then you’ll need to examine your workflow in detail and see where you can make cutbacks. This could mean scaling back the scope of your projects, thereby reducing the necessary planning time and increasing the available implementation time.

True Inspiration

One sure fire way to preempt design ruts is to constantly look for inspiration. The online design community is ripe with inspirational posts and lists, but I fear the content is consumed in such a casual manner that little is absorbed.

I’ve seen a lot of critiques lately regarding the shallowness of list-type posts on design blogs. I can see where these critiques are coming from but I’m inclined to think that these posts are in fact quite helpful to real designers and much of the shallowness therefore lies in the way the posts are read and not merely in how they’re compiled.

Stop Browsing, Start Learning

What I mean by this is that the average reader scrolls through a list of well designed sites or excellent uses of typography and appreciates the quality of the work without absorbing the underlying principles because they aren’t spelled out as they are in a theory-based article.

I propose that we designers attempt to return to the mindset that we were in upon first discovering that such a thing as a design roundup existed. Before the excitement gave way to numbness from overexposure, we appreciated these lists as a fundamental tool to help us broaden our horizons and create better designs.

When you see a list that you like, take the time to really go through and examine the examples that inspire you. Think about how you can incorporate parts of the designer’s mindset and style into your current or next project. Use a visual bookmarking service like ZooTool to keep good designs on hand and neatly categorized. Also be sure to take note of anything you see that doesn’t work so you can avoid or improve upon it in your own designs.

Before starting a new job, jot down ideas for the direction you’d like it to go and then look through some supposedly useless design list articles for inspiration that really nails the goals you’d like to achieve. Rather than mindlessly skimming hundreds of designs until you happen upon one good enough to ripoff, instead come up with your basic concept before you conduct your search and then find ways to mix and match good ideas from other designers as a means to support and inspire your ultimately original work.

Great Resources:

Now that you’ve heard my argument for a better way to read inspirational posts, go out and find some! Here’s a quick list of great places to go for inspiration when you feel yourself approaching a design rut.

Abduzeedo

Abduzeedo is one of the single best places online to find a never ending stream of amazing inspirational design work. Their daily posts and designer spotlights never cease to remind me to venture outside of my design comfort zone.

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Ember

Ember is an inspiration driven social network where users can share things they’ve found or created with other designers. It’s free to join and overflowing with great design ideas.

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CSS Galleries

Though among the shallowest of inspirational sources by a skeptic’s definition, CSS galleries continue to provide web designers with fresh ideas and the ability to spot rising trends (either to capitalize or avoid them!). Use these great tools to find anything from color schemes to out of the box navigation ideas.

70 Beautiful Handpicked CSS Galleries

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Tutorials

Though traditionally intended to educate, tutorials can be a rich source of design inspiration. Don’t merely skim the tutorial and look at the result though, actually go through step by step with the author. Doing this will force you to think like another design as you try to understand the implementation of methods that aren’t your own. This will open up new ideas and possibilities the next time you’re designing something on your own.

TutsPlus
The best place for free tutorials for web design, Photoshop, Flash and everything in between is definitely TutsPlus. Check out all their free content and consider signing up for a Plus membership to get access to even more content.

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Conclusion

If you’re currently in a design rut, I hope this article has provided you with just the jump start you need to get out. Use the comments below to let us know what you do to recover from a creative block. Be sure to leave a link to any online resources you find particularly helpful!