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Overcoming Designer’s Block

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
June 8, 2020

If you’re like me, you’ve probably found it difficult to stay focused and on task during these uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic has put into perspective what things are most important. Often, our design deliverables are not those things. For those UX professionals who are still fortunate enough to be clinging to their employment, it can be challenging to focus on the work in front of us—even though that work is among the few things that still seem to be within our control.

For me, this challenging period has exacerbated a problem that occasionally rears its ugly head: designer’s block. Similar to writer’s block—which I needed to overcome to write this column—designer’s block is real, and it can make completing the simplest of design deliverables feel akin to boring through rock. However, UX designers can overcome this problem. I’ve personally done so without even being aware that I’d actually unblocked myself. However, until recently, I’d never actually paused to capture what I’d done to rekindle my productivity. So, for this column, I’m doing just that: putting into words some techniques that have helped me get back on track.

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Getting It on Paper

Have you ever felt anger toward someone and had a friend advise you to write a letter or email message to the offending person, but not send it? While this would let you privately express your frustration toward that person, you could avoid permanently damaging your relationship—which could happen if you were to react impulsively. This old advice is sound. But you need not always direct the act of writing down what is vexing you toward someone else. Direct it toward yourself.

Get your struggles down on paper or type them into a word-processing document. Don’t worry. You wouldn’t have to share your thoughts with anyone. Just the act of pulling the uncertainties and frustrations out of your head and into the open—laying them bare for your eyes only—lets you see them in a new light. This, in turn, fosters clarity because you must put intention into communicating with yourself—your harshest critic. When we think about our struggles, we often see them in the form of images rather than words. Applying words to our struggles helps us to shape them in new ways, giving them novelty and improving our ability to re-engage with them.

Plus, putting your problems on paper lets you be brutally honest with yourself—without fear of judgment. Are you afraid that your lack of knowledge about a particular business problem or opportunity negates your ability to design effective solutions for it? Say so. Have you received business requirements that make you feel as if you need a decoder ring to understand them? Admit as much. Put your fears and frustrations down, word for word, for your eyes only. Let yourself be vulnerable for a while, and you may be surprised by the clarity you experience when you sit back and read what you’ve written.

Thinking Laterally

“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”—Edward de Bono

Sometimes rekindling your productivity doesn’t require stepping back, but stepping laterally into more abstract ways of thinking. If you work within a large enterprise environment as I do—even if you’re working remotely—you’ve probably experienced how much value people place on vertical thinking, which is a step-by-step process for thinking about problems on the basis of logic and data. On the surface, it makes sense to think about problems in this manner. Most of us do this anyway without being aware of it. However, lateral thinking, a concept that psychologist Edward de Bono developed, posits that we can solve problems better by thinking about them indirectly and lets us derive solutions we might not otherwise have considered.

There are many activities that help foster lateral thinking, so I won’t list them all here. But one technique I’ve sometimes used is considering what other people might do or say, then doing the opposite. This is similar to De Bono’s’ reverse thinking technique. For example, during brainstorming activities, my colleagues and I have written positive news headlines that capture the final outcomes we want to achieve. For example, a brainstorm participant might write this headline: “Acme Company Increases [Customer A’s] Productivity by 50% with Product or Capability].” Writing a positive headline is usually easy because most people prefer to think optimistically when embarking on a new challenge. Our own company’s lofty brand promises to our customers and the blustery marketing messages that constantly bombard our psyche influence us.

However, when we turn this activity on its head and write negative news headlines about undesired outcomes, things become much more interesting. Whether you do this as a group or individually, your use of certain words can reveal surprising assumptions. For example, a person might write: “Acme Company’s Promises to Customers Fall Short as [Product A] Fails to Simplify [Capability].” What promises did the company make to customers? What was the company supposed to simplify? By writing negative headlines, you can uncover more—and usually different—assumptions and expectations, which can inspire better solutions—all while alleviating designer’s block.

Approaching a Problem from Different Perspectives

It helps not only to think from different perspectives but to act from them as well. Let’s imagine that you’re approaching a problem from a top-down perspective by drawing a user flow with lines and shapes that represent a user’s journey through a user interface, showing navigational cues and decision points. This is a common approach for roughing in a user’s workflow at a high level. But at some point, you’ll need to design mockups that represent the screens within that workflow blueprint, so developers will know what to build. What are the structural elements of the user interface, the navigational affordances, and the actions that users must take? You might not be able to answer these questions readily.

So let’s pretend that there’s a requirement for users to manually save their work, which necessitates a Save command button somewhere in the user interface. Rather than trying to fight through all the unknowns from the top, instead try roughing in a Save button in a blank window, using what you know about common placements for Save buttons. This is a bottom-up approach. While you might have designed only a single button and chosen a location for it—even if a temporary one—you’ve just made a decision. Making a simple decision is sometimes all that is necessary to gain momentum, which you can then carry forth into creating solutions for other requirements about which you have less confidence. More about this later.

By being willing to approach a problem from different perspectives, you can increase your odds of finding clues that help you to solve it. If you’re stuck, try designing some things from the bottom, others from the top. Don’t feel obligated to trudge laboriously down a single, rigid path—that is vertical thinking. Give yourself permission to rotate the problem to make other precious inroads—no matter how they reveal themselves.

Using Momentum

As with physical exercise, we need to warm up our brains and creative muscles before we ask too much of them. So, similar to placing a Save button on a screen, easing into a design challenge through a minor task you know you can complete helps you to generate momentum. This, in turn, boosts your confidence. Before long, you’ll be working on the next, more difficult aspect of the problem because you’re warmed up for it.

Using momentum in your work is like applying paint to a wall with a brush. If you’ve ever used an angled paintbrush to cut in along the edges of molding or trim—no task for the impatient—you probably found the job easier if, after reapplying paint to the brush, you first glided the brush over the wet areas on which you had just applied paint before pushing it into unpainted areas, feathering out the last paint on the brush. Using the brush’s momentum favors the smoother application of paint and better precision.

Design is not different—nor is any other creative endeavor. If you get stuck while working on a difficult design challenge, pause and step back. Reassess what you’ve already done, even if its scope is narrow. Where have you freshly applied paint? Can you feather out some of the simple decisions you’ve already made into other parts of the user interface? Where can you push that paint? Refocusing on those high-confidence areas can help you regather your momentum. And, who knows, maybe you’ll soon find yourself in that elusive state of flow.

Staying in Flow

“If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”—Steve Jobs

Once you’ve built enough momentum and find yourself in that elusive state of flow, don’t interrupt it. Once you do, it can be very difficult to get it back. Ensure that you stay in flow for as long as possible. Don’t leave your desk. Silence your phone. Spin up some of your favorite music if it helps you to maintain your focus. Do whatever it takes to stay in this moment. Otherwise, if you let it, it could slip through your fingers like sand.

Being in flow is similar to floating down a stream. Let it take you. Eventually, the water will deposit you onto a rocky bank somewhere. How far downstream will you be when that happens? We’re not always fortunate enough to be excited about everything we do, but if we find ourselves in that elusive stream and stay its course for as long as possible, we are sometimes blessed with something even more valuable: vision.

If you’re struck with an inspiring vision while working deep into your task, make sure you capture it in some way—especially if it excites you. The vision might not be feasible. It could be flawed. However, such visions pull you back into flow if you let them. Who knows, that stream of flow may be a tributary to a rushing river that can take you to places you would never have thought possible. You’ll leave your designer’s block far behind.

Asking for Help

Asking for help can be surprisingly difficult because it essentially means admitting we don’t know something. However, as I described in my column, “Molding Yourself into a Leader, Part 3,” asking for another person’s help not only demonstrates your willingness to admit your knowledge gaps, it also helps you to fortify your relationship with them. Soliciting another person’s perspective is a tried-and-true approach to unblocking yourself. Others may observe and propose things that you might never have considered on your own.

Furthermore, the need to describe a problem forces you to communicate with intention, which can sometimes clarify the problem in your own mind. Like getting a problem on paper, putting words to it—even if verbally—forces you to purge what’s in your head. If you’re like me, the thoughts swirling in your head are often like chaotic whirlwinds. Give those thoughts order by letting someone else share your burden. You might find that the problem gains clarity before you’ve even finished describing it.

Taking a Break

Now, let’s assume that you’ve poured your soul onto paper, viewed your problem from different perspectives—but were unable to muster any energy or momentum—and solicited the perspectives of others. If you still have found no inspiration or clarity, the best next move is to remove yourself from the struggle for a while—if possible.

Continually running headlong at a problem can be counterproductive. We often need to take a step or two backward before we can move forward again. Give yourself this latitude. Set aside the struggle, even if for just a few hours, and find something else to work on—or take a break altogether. According to Alan Kohll, in his Forbes article, “New Study Shows Correlation Between Employee Engagement and the Long-Lost Lunch Break,” “It’s hard for employees to develop new ideas or solutions when they’ve been looking at the same thing all day.”

A challenging problem isn’t going to magically gain clarity if you continually fixate on it. If anything, doing so will only worsen your case of designer’s block, which your mental and physical well-being deeply influence. As Kohll states, “Taking some time away from the desk to go for a quick walk or enjoy a healthy lunch helps release some of this stress and improves mental well-being.”

My aha! moments seldom occur when I’m chained to my desk or fixated on my monitor’s screen. I’m often outdoors, exercising, or doing something else that’s stress relieving when that elusive muse decides to pay me a visit. Our brains are not hardwired to attack the same problem repeatedly. If anything, doing so overheats the brain to the point of burnout. Let your brain cool awhile. It is often in our stress-relieving moments that solutions can take root in the calm recesses of our brain.

Conclusion

Designer’s block is real, but it can be overcome. When you’re faced with a difficult problem or a lack of inspiration, try getting your thoughts on paper. Putting words to your thoughts—for your eyes only—lets you be brutally honest. If clarity still eludes you, try lateral thinking. Viewing a problem from another perspective could potentially reveal previously unknown assumptions. Then, when you’re ready to re-engage with the problem, use this same mindset to approach it from other perspectives. There’s no rule dictating that we follow a single ordained path.

Once you’ve gained those precious inroads, use your momentum to work more deeply into the problem. This can boost your confidence and propel you further than you might expect. If you’re fortunate, you may even find yourself in that elusive state of flow. Once you find yourself in flow, do all you can to stay in it, because it can be very difficult to regain.

If you are unable to re-engage with a problem on your own, ask someone for help. Doing so both reinforces your relationship with that person and can yield better insights. Two brains are often better than one.

Finally, if that doesn’t work, try taking a break. Our brains are not computers and cannot repeatedly attack the same problem without becoming fatigued. Getting away from a problem and doing something that’s stress relieving lets your brain cool down and allows inspiration to take root.

Perhaps you can relate to the problem of having designer’s block and have discovered some techniques of your own for overcoming it. If you have, please share them in the comments. 

User Experience Architect at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. He is UX lead for a revolutionary analytics appliance for users on the factory floor. In addition to his Fortune-500 experience, Jon has contributed his skills to a real-estate startup. Jon rounds out his time by writing and reading anything he can get his hands on.  Read More

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