7 ways to get out of a creative rut

"You can find inspiration in anything," said Paul Smith. And he's right, of course. But how about we get specific, because whether you're in a creative rut, suffering from writer's block, or just not quite cracking that brief, sometimes you need to take direct action. 

As Design Bridge's creative director of brand language, I have seven top tips to help you to get rid of creative block and unleash your creativity. So whether you're stuck on a particularly difficult rebrand, website or logo design, or something else entirely, read on to discover what to do about it.

01. Meet your public 

People at a food market

Take your headphones off and engage with the real world for a free dose of inspiration

Okay, Okay, you hate your commute, we all do. But try to see it in a different light. Take out your headphones, put down the Kindle. Listen to people's conversations, their opinions. Think about why they've chosen the shoes they're wearing, the lipstick they're applying.

Take a trip to parts of town you've not ventured to before and walk among the markets and parks to bus stops and stations you wouldn't usually wait at. You won't get to grips with what motivates people in the real world by sitting at your desk.

02. Be inspired by the inspired

David Bowie in Labyrinth

You should always embrace your inner Bowie

We've all got our secret creative crushes, and I say embrace them. If you're a sucker for Starck, or a bastion of Bowie, go all out. Buy the books, listen to the music, see the films, wear the fur coat. 

Sometimes it helps to have a creative middleman (or woman), because then you can trace their inspiration 'ancestry' – see what led them in certain directions and explore where they'll take you.

Whenever I'm really stuck for inspiration, I'll grab Diana Vreeland's books and off I go, to the end of Prohibition for Tanqueray, or the suave gentlemen's clubs of Piccadilly for Floris. When it comes to journeying into your imagination, it helps to have a travel companion.

03. Get thee to a bookshop

Person reading, surrounded by books

You can never have enough books

Bookshops are as much about images as they are about words. The cover of a book is effectively a poster, drawing you in with intrigue, with beauty, with an abstract encapsulation of a narrative. The pages inside are rich with story, information or opinion.

In a bookshop, you can see just what succeeds and fails in design – which covers grab you, which titles provoke, which illustrations cause your inner magpie to take flight. If you'd like to know more about book cover design, then see our post on how to design a contemporary book cover.

When first pitching to Fortnum & Mason, we said that we wanted to think of its ranges as we would editions of books, intertwining visual wit and expert storytelling. That thought (and a long-term love of her work) prompted our later collaboration with Coralie Bickford-Smith on Fortnum's honey range; through her delicate illustrations of hives, flowers and foliage, the story of each flavour is told with the same elegance seen in Coralie's beautiful work for Penguin. 

My favourite book haunts? Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, Strand Books in New York, Richard Way in Henley-on-Thames and Blackwell's in Oxford. I never come out empty-handed.

04. Go shopping

Shopping trolley charging down a supermarket aisle

Shops can be an ideas goldmine; you don't even have to buy anything

In our industry, the consumer is king – so behave like one. Get out into the supermarkets, the department stores, the delis. Watch how people behave in front of products, advertising, shelf wobblers. Let your eye be drawn to different finishes, patterns, typefaces, copy lines. Think about what they're saying to you. 

Got a brief to rebrand an eco-friendly handwash company? Head to a chemist to look at the shelves – is the colour green always earth-friendly? Or is it more clinical than that?

Try to decode some of your own assumptions and behaviour. Take photos, buy things, and when you get back to your desk, make mood boards that really encapsulate what you saw (see this post for tips on making mood boards). What themes emerge? You'll be amazed at what a supermarket sweep can stir up, even if your brief is for something you wouldn't even buy off the shelf.

My top of the shops? Wardour News, any decent stationery shop, the whole of Whole Foods, any large Boots, John Bell & Croyden in Wigmore Street, London... I could go on.

05. Go running

Person running

Going for a run can give you a great opportunity to just think

I began running to benefit my waistline, but I've kept running because it's good for my mind. I run without music, and I plod along with no concern for any improvement in speed. It's the meditative process of putting one foot in front of the other that really helps me overcome any creative rut.

On runs I've come up with the thrust for whole presentations, written backs of pack, come up with design routes – all without the presence of a laptop. I've won awards for the things I've thought of midway through a lap of Chorleywood Common. 

Running is a lesson in persistence, in self-motivation and timing – all vital in our industry, where good ideas sometimes simply have to happen on demand.

06. Let the eye travel

Manhattan from above

Get out of your comfort zone and head somewhere completely diferent

Nothing beats getting out of your comfort zone. Heading to somewhere where the air smells different, where the streets echo with another accent and where even the sirens have a different wail is the ultimate awakener for the creative brain. There's no way we could have created our Guinness Africa work without actually going to the bars of Nigeria.

But you don't even necessarily have to go far – I defy anyone to go to Dungeness (Kent, England) and come away unmoved. In fact, take any brief, and most destinations can offer some sort of excuse for a visit. 

You'll never see colour quite like you'll see it in Italy. Berlin is six cities in one, each loaded with incredibly emotive stories and signage. And my heart will always belong to New York, where the subway system alone makes you think differently about design. Travel may not be cheap, but, as they say, it'll always make you richer.

07. Don't think about it

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it might just prompt you to get off your chair and into a more creative way of thinking. I've sometimes even found that not thinking about the brief for a solid hour has been the best way to refocus my mind on the task in hand.

An esteemed colleague and I once brainstormed a list of our top 10 TV detectives one night when we really should have been working on a pitch, but it was the light relief we needed to then get on with the job. The fundamental thing is that when you're stuck, don't panic – take action.

This article was originally published in a 2017 edition of Computer Arts, the global design magazine. Subscribe to Computer Arts here.

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Holly is creative director of brand language at Design Bridge. She began her career as an art director but soon her love of language prevailed. Recent work includes 'all things wordy' for Guinness, Tanqueray, Fortnum & Mason and Lipton.