How to avoid creative burnout

Lots of designers experience creative burnout, but it can be avoided. Here's some great advice to help keep you in top form.

I’m a firm believer that creativity is a finite resource and something that needs to be replenished at regular intervals before it’s gone. 

Creativity, is something all creatives, from interns to directors, need to manage properly before it’s used up. If creativity is our currency, we need to make sure we spend it correctly.

We all know that designer or copywriter who ignored the ‘red light’ signal until they drained themselves and crashed. Either their work quality drops off or they start drawing blanks in client meetings. It takes a long time to recharge and recover from that, if they ever do.

Our industry is working faster than ever and there is no time for reflection. Projects come thick and fast with minimal time to fill up on new ideas. 

Be a sponge

Creatives need to act like sponges, they need to soak up what’s around them all the time. You never know what will be useful. Now, this isn’t a moan about there being less time to get work done. In fact, I think many talented creatives thrive in fast-paced, high-pressure environments. But when you’re taking projects from brief to roll-out as quickly as we do, it’s important to understand how your creative process works. 

So, in the interest of self-preservation and sanity I’ve learned to identify the ‘trigger points’ that spark creativity in myself. Some of what works for me may either be obvious or counter-productive to other people, but the point is being able to turn creativity into a process allows me to be more effective and efficient at work, without unnecessarily exhausting myself.

  • Go big I never think about ‘the project’ when I start working on an idea. I go straight for the most wild ideas with no regard for cost or practicality and then work back from there. Once you’ve explored crazy, then daring ideas seem much more realistic.
  • Zone out – My best ideas come when I’m not really thinking about the idea itself and I’m left to my own devices. It can be a tough ask when you’re in the middle of a meeting and everyone’s staring at you, but letting your mind wander can really help. There’s evidence that being tired can help creative problem solving as your inhibitions are down.
  • Be social – Having someone to bounce ideas off is invaluable. Firstly, physically speaking your ideas out loud forces you to examine them closely. And secondly, another person can stop you going off on strange tangents that take you further and further from the brief.
  • Bring on the wall – Like bouncing ideas off someone, putting your thoughts onto a wall lets you stand back and examine what works together and what doesn’t. Elements which don’t fit can either be tweaked or removed altogether. It’s becoming a designer cliché to stick design work up on the wall and scratch your chin, but it really does work. Just don’t photograph it happening.
  • Restrict yourself – I like to know what the boundaries are. “What can’t we do?” is one of the first things I’ll ask. A restriction gives you a framework to work within and, occasionally a barrier to break down.
  • Ask questions – It might sound silly but I interview myself about my ideas. I have a list of around 50 questions ranging from “How does this meet the client’s needs?” to “Have I seen this done before?” I don’t just mull these over in my head either. I write down answers to each question. If there’s an answer I don’t like I go back to the concept and work on it. It’s a little Jekyll & Hyde but it really helps.

I follow as many of these processes as possible each time I need to respond to a brief. Having a system for idea generation is vital. Taking a break and soaking up the world around you is just as important.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Pratt is Design Director at Shoreditch-based Creative Marketing agency Brand & Deliver. Rob started as a Print Designer before moving into Design and Creative Direction. Recent projects include brand identity creation for AMD Radeon and Playboy's Bunny Bootcamp to iOS apps for the BBC, as well as various digital design and advertising campaigns.