Overcoming Designer’s Block :: UXmatters

Approaching a Problem from Different Perspectives

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.

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

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.

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

Viewing a problem from another perspective could potentially reveal previously unknown assumptions.

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. 

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