Eight Things to Do When Inspiration Fails

Graphic image depicting a colorful woman's profile

The Secret of Getting Things Done Is to Act.

~ Dante Alighieri

Over the years, I’ve developed the following strategies for producing quality graphic design work, even when inspiration fails me.

  1. Maybe an original idea isn’t needed. Unless you are producing branding concepts, there’s a solid chance that the company you are working for has branding guidelines or some other pieces that they have published, like a website. My goal is to make sure my clients have a unified look across their marketing collateral. Sometimes it takes years of creative discipline to roll out a cohesive body of work. Upshot: We don’t always have to be creative superstars.
  2. Just start. Chase down the requirements. Open the program. Size the artboard. Put all of the required design elements in the document. Ask the questions. Add the type; run spell-check. Source photos. Put together a color scheme. Do the boring stuff. If I simply compile the design elements together on the artboard, inspiration sometimes follows.
  3. Put on some good music. Set the mood. Nothing shifts your mental energy like good music.
  4. Let the messaging, photos and logo do the heavy lifting. Our work as graphic designers is often built on the skills of other very talented professionals like photographers, writers, and font designers. Sometimes the elements are so compelling and beautiful that my job is to not interfere with the good work that’s already been done. Is the tagline so compelling that it can be the dominant element of the composition – in the perfect font? If I find the right photo, will it make the composition irrelevant because the photo says it all?
  5. Consider the visual priorities of your piece. What should be the dominant element be in the composition? The subdominant element? What are the subordinate elements? Do I need to make a phone call to make sure what the visual priorities should be? (Maybe that’s why I’m stuck; I need to talk to the client.) Sometimes when I prioritize the elements visually, the composition takes care of itself.
  6. Sketch. Most of the time, creativity is easier for me on a computer, but when I’m stuck, I’ll sketch. My sketches are famously unartistic. I only sketch when I’m trying to figure out how to get things to fit and relate to each other quickly. In my younger days, I would reference a book of hundreds of generic layouts or my morgue. Morgues are old-school nowadays, but when I was a student, our professors encouraged us to collect samples of graphics we liked, and I did so religiously for years. My morgue is still within a few steps of my desk, but I find that my creative taste is out-of-the-box, and most of the pieces in my morgue aren’t appropriate references for my conservative business clients. Lately, I’m more likely to look online for inspiration.
  7. Look online, but be careful. I never want to be accused of stealing another artist’s work, but when I’m desperate, I’ll do a Google image search to see how others have approached a similar design challenge. An image search helps avoid the slow bloated “inspiration ideas” web pages that take forever to load. The images also show up as tiles. So, you see lots of images on your screen and they load continuously as you scroll down.
  8. Vend it. Seriously. Over the years, I’ve realized some elements of graphic design stress me out. Logos are an example. I’ve found talented artists from all over the world using People per Hour. It’s inexpensive to solicit additional concepts from other artists, and it adds variety to your presentation. Vending work is a win-win because I don’t have to say no to the project, the client likes the variety, and I can sleep at night. Also, if I’m overwhelmed with managing the workload and client communication, it’s tough to be creative. Usually, vended work can be done overseas, overnight, while you get some sleep.

The main thing I do when I lack inspiration is to force myself to start one way or another. Make a mark. Procrastination doesn’t help. Ninety percent of the work is the boring stuff: organization, communication, typing, complying with technical specs, or editing existing work. Hopefully, the tips above will help with the other ten percent. We all have days when we don’t feel creative. The trick is finding a way to produce good work on those days too.

I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.

–Pearl S. Buck