Even if you aren’t a designer there has been a time when you are creating a flyer or preparing a document and you find yourself stuck. The idea started out great, but the implementation is falling flat. I was listening to the Let’s Make Mistakes podcast (warning – they are explicit) on my way to work the other day and they were discussing this very topic. Fear and ego, they argued, are what keep us from putting down the metaphorical shovel and saying “This isn’t working. I need to rethink this.”

As a designer I agree that I too worry about stopping when I’ve been working on a project for a while and admitting to myself that it’s going nowhere. I think the ego part comes in because I want to make something awesome. The fear is that if I stop and either ask someone else for input or go take a break and then start the brainstorming process all over again I will miss a deadline or make someone upset…I could make pages of lists really. And – If I say I can’t design this does that not make me a designer? It’s almost an “emperor’s new clothes” situation. Pretending everything is fine feels safer. It really isn’t though.

Another interesting point they brought up is everyone else can usually tell you are stuck. Well, maybe someone who doesn’t do the kind of work you do might be fooled for a little while, but when you don’t email them back after repeated update requests they may start to suspect something is up.

Alright. So what do we do? How do we get out of this hole, get this task or project done, and move on?. Here are a few things I do:

  • Print it out, pdf it, rotate it. – Does it look different when you see it printed out or upside down? This may jog your brain into editing mode.
  • Go get a drink of water or tea or something
  • Look back at the brief or your own notes. Did you not take any notes or make any sketches? Now is the time.
  • Do a quick 5-10 minute brainstorming exercise. Word Association, mind mapping, pictorial doodles on a white board.
  • Think about what the opposite of a successful comp of this would look like. A herd of pink unicorns giving a thumbs up to a product screenshot with multiple lens flares? Knowing what the comp isn’t is often a good way to get more ideas churning.
  • Work on something else. Most of us have several projects going at once. Pick something else that you can work on while your brain continues to chew on the design disaster.
  • Talk to someone else. Show them what you are doing, what is working and isn’t working. Then listen to what they say and sketch up or make some notes.

The most important thing of all is to stop when you notice you are stalling out. Pilots know when to take emergency action when their planes stall. Designers are professionals too and should have their own emergency procedures for a safer and smoother flight.