Is Your Creative Process Killing You?

As a designer, you take pride in your process. And if that process has historically worked for you, your company and your clients, then you may be hard-pressed to change it in even the smallest way.

But what if that process benefits everyone except you? What if during your creative endeavors, you find yourself slogging along, barely able to stay focused or, worse yet, barely able to give a Gaussian blur about the work you’re doing and your client? Well, that’s a problem—and you need to make a change.

Before you start considering a career switch, maybe all you have to do is find the culprits of your malaise. When looking to improve your productivity, time management, office culture and environment, design tools and client management, you need to assess what works and what doesn’t. Take the following quiz to see how your current situation stacks up. Then, discover the nine common problems you may be facing—and how to fix them.


Illustration by Greg Mably

Creative Process Self-Assessment

Select the single best answer to each question below.

1. At the start of each morning in the office, you:
(A) Check email, reading and responding as needed.
(B) Look at social media, posting or commenting here and there, retweeting, etc.
(C) Get right to work designing, meeting, making calls, writing, etc.

2. Your office environment would best be described as:
(A) Cube culture.
(B) A computer and desk at home, or a laptop in bed.
(C) An open space, conducive to working alone or meeting with the team as needed.

3. When it comes to lunch, you:
(A) Eat at your desk.
(B) Skip it, or have coffee—or an energy drink—to get through the day.
(C) Have something sensible to eat, maybe in the kitchen or away from the office.

4. Outside of the office, you and your co-workers:
(A) Criticize other co-workers.
(B) Keep to yourselves, rarely socializing.
(C) Hang out occasionally, perhaps over lunch or after work with beers or cocktails, maybe even playing in a recreational softball, volleyball, golf or other sports league.

5. If given the opportunity to work away from the office a couple of times a month:
(A) You’d probably have a hard time being productive.
(B) You’d feel as if you’d been granted parole.
(C) You already work away from the office a couple of times a month.

6. How often do you journal about your projects, process, short- and/or long-term goals, along with what does and doesn’t work?
(A) Infrequently.
(B) Never.
(C) Regularly, one to four times or more per week.

7. True or False: You find yourself suffering from “creative block” frequently.
(A) False.
(B) True.

8. During the design and revision stage, how would you describe your overall mood?
(A) Satisfied by the progress.
(B) Unsatisfied by the never-ending revisions.

9. True or False: You have a difficult time telling the client “no.”
(A) False.
(B) True.

10. In order to manage scope creep:
(A) You rely on the project manager to keep the client
in check.
(B) You have no idea what scope creep is.
(C) You refer back to the proposal/agreement to stay on track, or will use change-order forms to document a project’s growth.

11. When it comes to arduous and repetitive tasks like formatting multiple images in Photoshop, how do you approach the work?
(A) You automate as much of the work as possible.
(B) You appreciate getting lost in the vortex of mindless work; it’s a nice escape from other tasks.
(C) You try to do as little of that as possible, and give it to an intern or junior staff member.

12. How often do you bring your work home with you?
(A) Most nights of the week.
(B) Every night.
(C) Rarely.

13. About how many hours do you work on a weekend?
(A) 6–12 hours.
(B) 13+ hours.
(C) 3–5 hours, or less.

14. True or False: Your company allows you to have at least one day (or more) per month to work on any project you want.
(A) False.
(B) True.

15. When you’re close to taking a vacation, how do
you feel?
(A) Stressed by all you need to get done beforehand.
(B) You rarely take vacations, so don’t recall
those feelings.
(C) Excited; you can’t wait to get away.


Mostly A: It may be time to make some changes.
There’s always room for improvement, and now is the perfect time to reassess things.

Mostly B:
You need an overhaul.
If you can’t fix what’s broken where you are, you may need a new job altogether.

Mostly C:
Keep doing what you’re doing.
You seem to have a good thing going. Still, be on the lookout for any circumstances that may get in the way of your creative process down the line.

Fixing Common Problems

Whatever your score, there may be internal factors—issues closest to you—that are getting in the way of being productive, profitable or happy. But there could be plenty of external factors that surround you as well, such as mental, physical, environmental or emotional, pushing weight down on you from all sides. Whether the issues are internal or external, be considerate of your own needs—and take action when necessary.

Even if you find a routine that works, there’s a good chance that you may need to change things up every now and then to stretch your creativity and recharge your battery. Explore these nine issues many designers face, the culprits behind them, and how you can fix your creative process to make it work better for you.

Timing Out

Problem: You find yourself lacking adequate time to get things done.


We’re freshest in the morning, especially after a good night’s sleep, so plan to work on important tasks sooner rather than later. Instead of getting lost in social media, clicking and commenting on Facebook posts or organizing your email, consider doing something that’s on your priority list first—especially if that something isn’t email or social media. If you have a design deadline, why would you want to get stuck in an email vortex?

Moreover, instead of clicking, organizing and dragging messages here and there, use filters and actions to manage email. Gmail’s Smart Labels system that sorts new email into categories such as social, promotions, updates or forums can help you put grains of digital sand into neat piles. If you use Gmail, consider enabling the feature, or using its filters to automate what gets marked as important, read, sorted or deleted. Other services such as Mozilla’s Thunderbird, Apple Mail, Microsoft Outlook and Mailbox have similar functions.

If you also find yourself taking forever to type an email, use dictation tools, such as Apple’s Siri, that can make messages or reports quicker.

If your duties include managing social media for your company, your clients, or both, then hitting social media first thing in the morning may be a job requirement. But otherwise, stepping into social media or email before doing design work will make you less productive over the long haul, and will make your design deadlines creep up and surprise you.

Getting Caught up in Cube Culture

Problem: The office feels less like a sanctuary and more like a farm, or worse yet, the office is home and you can never seem to escape from work.

Culprit: Poor space planning

Most designers prefer to work in open spaces rather than cubes, but sometimes you have no choice. Whether you work in a cube, open office or private office, if you find it’s not working, try to get out of the office altogether by asking your boss about teleworking (telecommuting): working remotely and away from the office.

Over the past 20 years, teleworking has become an option for full-time employees. For some, teleworking may happen one or more times per week. In those cases, employees are able to access anything they need from the office asset file—be it physical or digital—and share the work they’re doing with the rest of the team or clients. Meetings may happen virtually, using Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, text messaging, instant messaging or a simple phone call.

Tamara LaValla of Social Design House—which recently offered its employees the option to work remotely full time—explains why her office made the decision: “We recognize that everyone has their own working style and structure, and we want to provide freedom for each team member to set up conditions that work best for them. We feel remote working demonstrates our level of trust with our employees and, eventually, will allow us to recruit talent from beyond our geographic region.”

In addition to the comforts of your home (or beach, if you choose to work there), there can be financial benefits to teleworking, helping you save on travel expenses, dry cleaning and even health and beauty products. An added bonus: If you don’t have to deal with rush-hour traffic, you’ll find yourself less stressed out during the morning and evening.

If you’ve got the budget to do away with cube culture, make the investment, and even consider giving everyone their own private office; a 2013 study from the University of Sydney Faculty of Architecture found that private offices offer more employee satisfaction. And while working from home either part time or full time has its benefits, use caution: If you’re not able to separate work from home, you’ll feel surrounded by work at all times.


Fueling Your Creative Motor

Problem: By the time the afternoon rolls around, you’re either grumpy, tired, or grumpy and tired, and as you attempt to get things done, you can’t help but feel like you’re running through a maze.

Culprit: Poor eating habits

Issue: Skipping meals is one of the first steps toward creative burnout—or burnout of any kind. You may feel like you’re being more productive by working through lunch, but don’t do it. Instead, have something to eat, and ideally take a break away from your desk so you can rest your eyes, stretch your legs and have some time to yourself. Breakfast could also be the problem, especially if you miss it. Skipping a meal—or meals—impairs your focus, patience and precision. And, no, having a Red Bull and a bowl of Cheerios sans milk for breakfast isn’t going to get you through the morning. Have something substantial. Think carbs for energy and protein to sustain you, mixing in some good fats to help keep you full.

The adage, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper” isn’t just diet advice for losing weight. Getting a well-rounded meal in the morning—as well as the afternoon—can help keep your creative juices flowing.

Bonding Over Bitch Sessions and Frenemies

Problem: You keep to yourself outside the office, or if you do get together with co-workers, you spend time venting about other co-workers.

Office dysfunction

Having a bitch-session with co-workers can make you feel like you’re bonding with them, and in truth, it’s probably better to talk about problems instead of keeping them bottled up inside. But don’t get caught up complaining all the time. Find time for small talk about movies, kids, television, games, sports, the internet, cat videos—just something other than complaining about work and co-workers. And having an occasional lunch with co-workers—or even drinks after work—can go a long way to fortifying your team by building a sense of camaraderie. Want more teamwork? Maybe Frisbee, basketball or horseshoes can help, so long as it’s not forced.

One of my first design jobs out of college was at an advertising agency where we’d play horseshoes in a space right behind the office. I also had a stint working as a designer with a team of software developers in Seattle. When we weren’t developing software, our manager threw in an afternoon game of ultimate Frisbee or pick-up basketball. We even went kayaking on the Puget Sound, which was near the office. At both jobs, we were able to work well within the office thanks to a sense of teamwork that had been built up doing everything from water sports to Frisbee to basketball to horseshoes. And being competitive during playtime carried into the office, with each of us wanting to outdo the other. But it was a healthy competition because, ultimately, we all wanted the best ideas to win.

Takeaway: You’re not going to get along with everyone—and that includes your co-workers—so if you loathe the people you work with, get another job. When making small talk with your peers, discuss anything other than what’s nagging you at the office. And although the occasional softball league or horseshoe game may not be for everyone, think about other ways to foster team-building and competition.

Traveling Without Moving

Problem: More often than not, you find yourself feeling stuck or unproductive.

Mental block

Creative block happens, and for some designers, it can be crippling to the point of paralysis. Deadlines approach. Client meetings are on the horizon. And before you know it, you’re walking into a meeting with nothing in hand, or something you—or your staff—threw together at the last minute. For a small handful of creative individuals, this “emergence through emergency” works: They’re able to come up with something during the eleventh hour, and it’s truly awesome. But that’s rare, and for many, it’s both unrealistic and a poor way to work.

Does this happen because you’re a perfectionist? You expect what you make to be “just right.” But because you can’t make it that way, you’re unable to get started, and it’s less about creative block and more about procrastination. Consider lowering your standards. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re a 100–200% Type-A kind of designer, dial it back to 90% or even 80% and play a mental game to bring things closer to what you can do, instead of what you want to do. Or consider sharing the duties with somebody who designs faster.

If it’s creative block, it may be a result of too little information: You haven’t done enough research, or the right kind of research. It could even be the wrong tool: A computer may not be the best way to go about roughing out your designs, especially if you find yourself getting stuck or distracted, so consider going “old school” with a pencil and paper.

Maybe you’re also working in the wrong place. When I wrote my first book, I had a choice of working in my office or my home. I chose neither, and went to the library. Surrounded by other writers’ books, I became motivated to get mine written and to my editor on time.

Perhaps you don’t suffer from creative block, but are stuck doing the same work over and over again, and you’re unproductive as a result of not enjoying what you’re doing. If that’s the case, consider doing something completely different every now and then, whether it means taking on freelance projects outside of the office or working on a passion project.

Or ask your boss if you can take on a project that would normally go to somebody else. For example, Noah Smith was hired as a designer at the Charlotte, NC–based branding and interactive agency MODE, but his interest and expertise in video, as well as his willingness to ask about a job change, helped him become MODE’s videographer.

Journaling what works and what doesn’t is a great way to monitor how you work and how you work best. It will enable you to document what gets done—and how it was done—to help you avoid future mistakes or repeat past successes.

Contracting “It’s Not You, It’s Me” Syndrome

Problem: You frequently feel unsatisfied with your work or get emotionally distraught.

Culprit: Taking things personally

Emotional factors are often overlooked in the design field, especially because so much of what we do is for somebody else, requiring us to be selfless and empathetic. And while some may feel that—to borrow from Jimmy Dugan, portrayed by Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own—“There’s no crying in design,” taking your work personally and allowing it to rule your emotions can and does happen.

On the plus side, it delivers the highest of highs: “Not only did the client love my work, but I also won an award!” Unfortunately, it can punch some of us with the lowest of lows: “The client hates what I showed them, and I’m out of ideas. I suck!” Taking things too personally and dwelling on mistakes and shortcomings can make those lows wreak havoc.

Start by distancing yourself from the work. When talking with your client, do you position the work by speaking in terms of “I” or “me,” or do you go with a more team-based term like “we” or “us”? Use the latter. In terms of mistakes, instead of dwelling on them and getting down on yourself, take a look at why they happened, being sure to record ways you can avoid them the next go-around.

There’s a difference between being invested in the work and being so connected to it that you let emotions get in the way. Take your work less personally by thinking in terms of “we,” and how everything benefits the group. If and when failure happens, attempt to learn from mistakes instead of letting them overtake your psyche.

Getting Creep-y

Problem: Projects that seem to grow and grow to the point of eventually becoming unmanageable, frustrating or even unprofitable.

Poor project agreements and/or management

We’ve all been there: A project starts out looking manageable, and you’re capable of getting it done on time, even coming in under budget to make everyone look like a hero; but before you know it, one change has ballooned into a dozen more than you expected, and the project has additions that were neither budgeted for nor agreed upon. Say “hello” to scope creep, the unfortunate circumstance of having a project change from what was expected to something extraordinarily difficult and cumbersome. Scope creep hurts designers when it cuts into their budgeted hours, forcing them to put in so much time on a project that little to no profit is earned.

If you work on an hourly basis, it should be easier to avoid scope creep since you’re logging hours that the client will have to pay. But if you work for a flat fee, it may be trickier. The best way to avoid scope creep is to have a highly detailed creative brief and/or letter of agreement that stipulates what exactly shall be made, within said time, and for said fee; any changes, additions or modifications should result in a new agreement or an adjustment to the schedule and fee.

Kevin Nichols, managing principal of Stark Lean Marketing Communications, suggests that all designers—whether in print or digital—specify as many particulars as possible before the project starts, so there are no surprises along the way.

It’s important to make a proposal explicitly clear to everyone involved. If the project doesn’t need revisions or additions that a client is asking for, be sure to tell them why and, when possible, use research to prove your point.

Fighting the Wave of the Future

Problem: You find yourself spending too much time on repetitive tasks, whether related to production, pre-press or general office duties.

You’ve become a computer

Who among us wants to be a robot? If you watch any movie set in the future, where robots coexist among humans, you’ll notice that the robots are doing the arduous and repetitive tasks: cooking, cleaning, lifting one box on top of another, assembling cars or compacting garbage. When you think of your computer and apps as automatons, it opens up a whole new world of free time. Use filters and rules in your email program to have it sort messages. Have your Adobe software carry out image processing routines using Actions and Batch processing.

Try the online tool IFTTT (If This Then That) that automates everything from address book management to photo sharing to data backup. If you’re somebody who documents your work daily using photography, find a way to have it posted to social media automatically using tools like IFTTT instead of spending a lot of time clicking, dragging and posting to one site at a time on your own. And if there’s something you want IFTTT to do, but you can’t find a “recipe” (actions you want completed), you may be able to write your own.

Make the computer do the computing.

Saying, “To Hell with a Day Off”

Problem: You find yourself never able to take a vacation, or if you do, it’s less of a vacation and more of a teleworking endeavor.

You’re too committed

A 2012 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 34% of Americans work on weekends. Working on weekends has become the norm, and skipping vacation—or postponing it—is becoming increasingly popular as well. Is it because we’re “always on” with a mobile phone connecting us to clients all the time? Is it because we simply have to get things done, and we really need the weekend to meet deadlines?

Working as a full-time freelancer enables designers to work when they want, and take off when they want. Having done so for two years, I found the freedom to be extremely rewarding, since I was able to say “no” to projects as needed, and head off for a week- or month-long vacation. But not everyone can do that, especially if it’s not within budget.

Putting away a few hundred dollars here and there can go a long way in enabling you to take time off, and take a longer time off than your peers. In-house designers, especially those who are the only designer available, are in demand to the point of being indispensable. So how do you step away? Maybe you hire an intern or temporary worker to take your place while you go on vacation. Or maybe you give your co-workers—or clients—what they need to do the work you normally do. For example, set up templates in the programs that your co-workers or clients are familiar with. By supplying them with a kit of parts such as the necessary fonts, logos, imagery and color resources, as well as a style guide, they may be able to do some of your work so you can take a holiday.

Vacations are both necessary and fulfilling, so take time to get away from the office, even if it means giving your design work to somebody else. Non-designer co-workers and clients can be more capable than we give them credit for, especially if they’re given a manual to follow.

Making it Work for You

Designers spend a bulk of their time investigating what works or what’s broken. Often, we do this for our clients, eventually taking steps to help our clients improve and advance. Shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves? If things are getting in the way of you doing your job or enjoying your job, then you definitely need to take a closer look at yourself.

Looking in the mirror is difficult, especially if you don’t like what you see. But instead of suffering through the problems or complaining about what’s not working, take the time to review what the problems are and why they’re happening, and then put in the work to change. Doing so will be an investment in yourself, and in turn, an investment in the work you do.

The Creative Process Illustrated eBook: the_creative_process_illustrated_cover_1
How Advertising’s Big Ideas Are Born

By W. Glenn Griffin and Deborah Morrison
Format: eBook

You’ll Love This eBook If:

You’re interested in the advertising field

You’re a creative pro who relies on the creative process everyday

You want to see how the top creative minds develop their best ideas

Almost all design books capture the final results of good ideas, but, until now, none captured the idea-generation process in a visual way that can inspire new thinking and lead to great work. The Creative Process Illustrated does just that, posing one very important question to the top minds in advertising: “How are big ideas born?”