6 stages of the creative roller coaster – and how to cope

Creative projects can be a rollercoaster of emotions, with towering highs and crippling lows. It’s ok to feel fear at some point: indeed if you don’t, there's a good chance you’re not pushing yourself enough.

Inspired by the description in creative collaboration book Make Space by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, Fred Deakin – professor of Interactive Digital Arts at UAL and ex-Airside founder – outlines the six stages creatives typically go through on challenging projects, and how to deal with each.

01. Excitement: the promise of the new

Being on the cusp of a new idea, or being presented with a fresh creative brief, is probably one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating parts of the creative process.

The possibilities seem limitless and you've usually got the time and leisure to frolic in the creativity of it all, at least for a while.

What to do at this stage

Make sure to enjoy it and let your inspiration fuel and guide you. However, you should also ready yourself for the inevitable fall from grace.

02. Confusion: the step into the fog

When you really get stuck into the project, you'll begin to feel the initial glow start to slowly fade and the reality of the undertaking gradually seep in.

You quickly realise that there are so many more things to think about than you originally anticipated. The enormity of it all can feel overwhelming.

What to do at this stage

Too much thinking at this stage can be poison. You need to break through the fog by doing and/or making. Get straight to sketching and mocking up quick and dirty prototypes. Use the creative momentum to steer you away from the quicksands of complexity.

03. Hope: the moments of clarity

The fog lifts and you feel like you've got it all figured out! The creative angels are calling you home. Take caution here. The road ahead might seem clear, but you might have missed the bigger prize still a few sketches and mockups away.

What to do at this stage

Push to find the path forward, but remain critical of the clarity you stumble upon. Don't fall into any false sense of security. Challenge your own thinking to reach the best result.

04. Despair: the crisis of confidence

What were you thinking? Who do you think you are? You can't do this. You're a failure. Useless.

What to do at this stage

You can and should mostly ignore these inner-goblins. You can do it. In fact you already are doing it! Move on. Keep creating. 

Play to your strengths by using your particular skills to push the project forward. Hitting a wall may be a sign you need some outside perspective or help from someone with complimentary skills to your own.

05. Acceptance of the creative compromises

As the deadline begins to loom, you slowly realise you're not going to be able to do it all. As you begin crafting the deliverables, you find everything takes longer than you expected.

What to do at this stage

You know you will have to make compromises. Be brave enough to stick with what will make your project special, and be wise enough to let go of the rest. More doing and prototyping may help you come to these conclusions.

06. Relief: the finish line

It's all over. It nearly killed you, but you did it. It feels good, but in the sweetness there may be a lingering sense of anti-climax.

What to do at this stage

Take time to celebrate your accomplishments and reflect on your process. Know what you want to do better next time.

You know deep-down you're not really done anyway. Go back to the start if feel you inspired to. If not, move on to bigger and better things soon.

This is an updated version of an interview with Fred Deakin during two-week creative workshop Modual.

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Julia Sagar
Editor-in-chief retail

Julia is editor-in-chief, retail at Future Ltd, where she works in e-commerce across a number of consumer lifestyle brands. A former editor of design website Creative Bloq, she’s also worked on a variety of print titles, and was part of the team that launched consumer tech website TechRadar. She's been writing about art, design and technology for over 15 years.