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Overcoming creative blocks with design thinking

Three exercises that will help you cure that good old creative block

Illustration: Yarin Ben Hamo

The archenemy of imagination, the opposite of flow, the monster hiding under a blank page: yes, it’s the devious creative block. It will sneak up on you when you least expect it, feeding off of your fear and anxiety and trying to convince you that there is no way out.

In the design world, creative blocks can be especially daunting. Creativity isn’t a linear path, rather an extremely complex one. This means that sometimes our ideas might need to get a lot worse before they get better, and that’s just part of the process. Allowing ourselves to think, let alone put into words, our bad ideas while turning off self-criticism is nearly impossible, and so it’s no surprise that it takes an outsider's assistance to save us from ourselves.

So how do we overcome these blocks? Some tried and true methods include taking a walk, meditating, changing your work atmosphere or even sleeping on it. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and many of them only work in very specific cases. It is clear that a more methodological approach is needed. Design thinking offers just that, as a non-linear process that adapts itself to creative problem solving processes. This approach is already being applied across business ventures, and as something that emerged from the creative world, it can certainly be applied to creative work too.

At its core, design thinking is all about solving problems iteratively and with the end user in mind. It helps you untangle complex processes while remaining true to your experience and knowledge. Whether you’re a writer, designer, or business strategist, design thinking has a lot to offer when it comes to creative blocks. By reframing a “block” as a problem that can be solved through repetitive processes, we open ourselves up to many activities and methods that help us persevere without the stress.

Here are three design thinking exercises to help you push through that block and unlock your next creative breakthrough:

1. Draw a Mind Map

There’s something about pen on paper (or marker on whiteboard) that helps chip away at mental blocks. It can help us visualize abstract concepts, organize our thoughts, or simply be a meditative process. But sketching things freeform can be tough when we’re already stuck.

A mind map is a more structured way of helping you visualize ideas to see how different parts of a problem overlap. Seeing the problem differently can even help us generate completely new ideas.

When it’s most useful: In the early stages of a project when you’re still defining the problem, or when you need to generate fresh ways to approach the problem.

What you’ll need:

  • Just you

  • Something to write with

  • Something to write on

  • 15–30 minutes

How to do it:

In the center of a blank page, write a problematic statement or potential solution and draw a bubble around it. From there, start drawing connecting lines out towards new ideas or solutions, which will each branch out into other related ideas, and so on.

Think of it as an informal brain dump. None of your ideas need to be perfect, you just need to write them down. A mind map can help you see how things relate, help you find patterns, and even help your mind wander (in a productive way).

An example of a Mind map using an online tool
Mind map using an online tool by Eden Platoni

2. Host a Lightning Decision Jam

Product design agency AJ&Smart uses a workshop they’ve entitled the Lightning Decision Jam to solve problems, and it’s catching on. What started as a blog post turned into a book, and even a bite sized eBook due to demand. These jams help teams break free from creative blocks in a collaborative way, and are ideal for 4-6 people. If you’re a creative working on a team and are feeling stuck, lightning decisions jams are for you.

“It’s just an insanely flexible combination of exercises, taking the best of the world’s problem-solving processes (Design Thinking/Gamestorming/Design Sprints/Agile to name a few) and crushing them down to their absolute essence,” writes creator Jonathan Courtney of AJ&Smart. Just like it sounds, the Lightning Decision Jam is a structured brainstorming workshop where team members generate and prioritize solutions. Although it was created by a product design agency, this exercise can help any type of creative team work through a block. And while managers and team leaders in particular love it, anyone can host a Lightning Decision Jam.

When it’s most useful:

You’re on a team with lots of ideas, not a lot of time, and need to make smart decisions quickly about how to focus your time. This includes design and product teams, editorial teams, and more.

What you’ll need:

  • Best for 4–6 people

  • Rectangular sticky notes and square sticky notes

  • Whiteboard

  • Sharpies and markers

  • Dot stickers

  • Timer (could be your phone)

  • 30–45 minutes

How to do it:

The workshop has eight steps — which might sound like a lot but they all happen pretty quickly. The first half of the workshop gets the team aligned, prioritizes problems, and reframes the problem in a new way. These first few steps offer great activities to generate creative ideas without a lot of pressure. You can get full instructions for all steps on their original blog post.

But perhaps the most useful and actionable steps of the workshop happens in step 7, where the focus is on prioritizing solutions. This step is great because oftentimes, it’s not a lack of ideas that holds back creative teams — it’s figuring out which ideas are important. In fact, if you’ve already got a list of solutions and just need to prioritize, you could skip straight to this part.

All you need to do is create a “prioritization matrix,” which you can draw on a whiteboard or a large piece of paper. The matrix is made up of a vertical line that measures how impactful the solution will be, and a horizontal line to represent how much effort it will take to implement.

You can then use the matrix to “map” each of the team’s ideas into one of the four quadrants. For example, you’ll end up with some ideas that are low effort and high value (quick wins!) and other ideas that are high effort and low value (toss these out). This helps you quickly identify what solutions would be an easy win, and which ideas to toss.

For more insights on how to use priority matrices in the creative process, check out this Nielsen Norman Group article on Using Prioritization Matrices to Inform UX Decisions.

3. Play a Game of Crazy Eights

Not the card game, the design game. Crazy eights is a design thinking exercise that forces designers to sketch out and share design ideas, even if they’re not perfect.

When it’s most useful:

This one is especially helpful if perfectionism is the root of your creative block, or if you’re just too overwhelmed or stressed to start something.

What you’ll need:

  • Paper

  • Pens

  • Dot stickers

  • Timer

  • People

Or, just WiFi and your computer, if you choose to do crazy eights remotely. You could also do this as a solo-brainstorming exercise and use whatever supplies you have on hand, like a notebook or even a whiteboard.

How to do it:

This exercise requires minimal resources, and can be done at any time in any place. Fold a large piece of paper into eight quadrants. The game is to spend 60 seconds (or some other amount of time) sketching a design solution on each quadrant. Then, everyone in your group shares their designs and you vote on the best ideas using the dot stickers. You could even do this a few times.

The trick is to focus on quantity, not quality, of ideas. It’s not about the perfect sketch, it’s about challenging yourself to come up with lots of potential design solutions to the same problem. This helps you explore possibilities without getting stuck on fine details.

An example of Crazy Eights using an online tool, by Eden Platoni
Crazy Eights using an online tool, by Eden Platoni


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