Conquer Creative Blocking

It's time to embrace some turmoil

It’s the night before you’re supposed to have the design ready for your meeting in the morning, but for some reason, you’re drawing a complete blank. Nothing seems to fit. Your ideas, although usually spot on with amazing WOW factor, are falling flat on this project.
What do you do to get past this brick wall that’s robbing your brain of its usual piss-n-vinegar creativity that you have come to rely on? (Piss-n-vinegar; noun, an attitude and style of approaching a creative challenge with that quirky sideways method that makes clients’ heads turn.)
What have you done in the past to shake it off? Did it work like you wanted it to? If your answer is, “No, I can’t seem to get over the wall,” then you may find some ideas below that will help you overcome creator’s block.
I would like to share with you the foolproof tools I have developed over 40 long years of struggling to stay on the cusp of providing creative solutions.
Yes, yes, yes, it’s all about you right now. Finally, an educational self-help article that is focused solely on you. What you want, what you need. You are the machine that’s not running as it should. Let’s focus on you, and you alone . . . and only you at this moment.

Sourdough, piglets, and turmoil

To get your head in the right place to understand what I mean, I’d like to compare this creative dilemma to another process that you can relate to. If you have any experience with how sourdough bread is made or what makes it different from regular bread, then you understand that a “starter” is used to begin the transformation of the flour, salt, and water. That is what makes all the difference.
Once mixed and left at the right temperature, it creates all sorts of turmoil within the dough as it transforms it into the wonderfulness that makes sourdough so delicious. Without the starter — and without the turmoil it creates — no magic occurs.
I’m sure you saw this analogy coming—and you are most likely saying “NO! I don’t need a starter or manager as you described it. I need ideas, direction, or a way to get back on the creative bus again.”
And yes, you are right.
You don’t need a starter to transform you. All you need is a little regulated turmoil to distract your brain. I have come to understand and appreciate the power of pre-planned turmoil, and it’s exactly what your brain needs when it’s blocked.
I’m talking about you taking control of your lost, wandering, zero-idea gray matter and purposely putting a specific, welcomed, high-level-mental-stress distraction into your moment, your day, and the way your brain thinks.

“I needed inspiration. The logo I wanted to create would have some sort of big game rack, along with a waterfowl reference. I was stumped. How would I incorporate elk steaks with a goose graphic. I was completely stumped, and I was running out of time to spit out a winner.”

What might that look like? What are some of the ways to disrupt your locked-up thinking process? You may be thinking of a few of your own, but first there is something that I must go back and address from the start of this article. So, put your turmoil ideas on the back burner and pay close attention to the following information…
Remember what I started out with in this article? It’s still Sunday night, and you are still stressing hard. It’s not like you haven’t been productive with this project — you have; it’s just that this time, your brain is done, broken, worn out, and tired. It’s been a long week, and not a single great idea has come to fruition, and the clock is ticking. You keep saying to yourself, “If I don’t come up with a bombshell idea, I could lose my promotion and what would be…”
BAM! Your door suddenly flies open and interrupts your self-analysis of how dire your situation is. There stands your wife, soaking wet from the rain, holding onto a screeching, wet, muddy piglet.
Yep, cute as a bug’s ear and obviously scared, bewildered, and cold. Your home is near the route where feedlot trailers frequently travel, and from time to time, piglets wiggle between the slats and fall out of the trailer, hitting the ground and rolling to a stop in the median. Well-meaning, big-hearted citizens will rescue the piglets so they don’t get run over, and that is exactly what your wife did tonight, and the piglet in her outstretched, wet hands was proof.
By now, the kids are up, all the lights are on, and this tiny, squealing pink squeezebox has alerted the entire neighborhood to his presence in your home. So loud! I mean this little guy is a squealer to the 10th degree and the kids, of course, are insistent that this is the family’s newest pet. Your golden lab is terrified of it and won’t stop barking, and your cat is nowhere to be found (but you are sure he is now marking every spot in the house).
Then, just as your wife sets the squealer down on the hardwood floor, it poops and pees, and now you have a small lake of extremely pungent pig urine, two overly-excited kids, a dog that’s hiding under the picnic table, and a cat you won’t find for days.
You are now in a full-blown illogical conversation about the benefits of owning a pig when just last night you had both promised each other to never bring home another orphaned animal. However, your wife is now using all of her professional training as an attorney to back you into a corner on why you won’t be more reasonable about this. By now, your bride is walking around the house, holding the screaming piglet at arm’s length, with little turd-lets falling to the floor, followed by your two adorable children (who now think you are totally evil).
So, as the piglet parade is heading to the spare bathroom tub to give the new family member a bath, you head to the garage to grab the mop, bucket, and floor cleaner. As you head back out the door of the garage, your head is nearly ripped off its shoulders as you strain to re-see what was captured by the corner of your eye.
“What the heck,” you murmur to yourself. “What was that?”
You slowly and purposefully step back into the garage, and you stare in the direction of what you saw.
It’s that swing set slide you haven’t installed yet, from last year. But how strange is this? It’s sitting on its side… yes, on its side… and you say to yourself, “Wait a minute — what the heck?”
You hastily put down the mop and bucket, and you take notice of the slide. The slide with its two rails, when on its side, looks very much like a missing puzzle piece to you. The hair goes up on the back of your neck as you realize this is the exact shape that you have not been able to visualize for the design project you have been struggling with.
BAM! Just like that, you are inspired, and you have an idea to expand upon. So, you finish mopping up the kitchen floor and quietly leave your family to tend to the wounds of the piglet. You sneak back to your desk and begin to expand on that shape you saw in the garage — that slide — and suddenly, that’s it! You’ve got it. Creative solution found… Done!
But wait, you have walked past that slide in the garage a hundred times, yet it never jumped out at you as being the source of a new creative idea, so what happened this time? Why did it catch your eye like it did, this time in particular?
The reason this happened is because your brain was provided with a new, completely unrelated bit of turmoil that wiped clean the creative blackboard of your brain. You had no choice… your wife was standing there with a very alive, squealing piglet, leaving your brain with no choice but to participate in piglet-fest and forget about your frustrating design challenge.

The right kind of turmoil

And case in point, did your brain follow along as the story evolved about this totally unrelated event? Even my editor was probably wondering where I was going with it. Could you see the wife standing there, with a squealing, wiggling baby piglet in her outstretched hands? What was the look on her face? My lack of creative writing ability aside, were you able to visualize the kids in their pajamas? You envisioned all of that in your own mind as you read the words I placed on the page. This story, in essence, provided a great example of how easily you can distract your brain from the topic at hand — if you have the right kind of turmoil.

“It took me about a day – of complete blank stares at the screen before I decided to go outside and clear my clogged brain. I-beams… skinny body with top and bottom flanges. I was stuck… I was not able to look beyond the narrow shape. Oh sure, the final result looks so easy to have come up with. Most well-planned projects do when they meet the clients objective. I tried to explore every option to keep the shape skinny, but with no reasonable way to do it and still meet UL/NEC600. The only option was a thicker sign shape… with room to move inside of it. I considered myself lucky as the client was agreeable to the shape and design once I explained how UL and NEC600 approvals needed THAT wider shape in order to be approved, and fortunately, the client agreed with it.”

You may have been distracted by the words, but the “state of turmoil” most likely didn’t occur. If I hired Stephen King to help me write that piglet story, perhaps a heightened sense of turmoil could be achieved. He’s got the ability to write in such a way as to cause great turmoil in your imagination.
For brain-erasing turmoil, however, you need something real, close, and pertinent to occur. Otherwise, you simply go back to where you left off. The live piglet is the type of “turmoil” I am talking about.
However, we can’t just sit and wait for a piglet to land in our laps, so here are a few of the piglet-style tumultuous ideas that I keep on a shelf in order to clear my head. They work for me. I am not saying the things I do will work for you in the same way — not at all. What I am asking you to consider is the process of pre-planning your turmoil for situations just like this. With a list to pick from, you won’t have to go to the trouble of inventing one in the moment.
This is my fun turmoil list I can refer to when I am struggling with creator’s block:

  • Personal fear of heights — this could involve watching videos of those insane individuals who stand on the top of antenna towers, holding on with one hand and taking selfies. Just watching a dozen or so of those videos puts me in a place of complete mental turmoil.
  • Mother-in-law just called — she is in town and will be at the house in two hours. I now have two hours to make the house look Gramma-visit-clean. I really had to jump into cleaning the house on a microbial level with a tight deadline, and I worked up a sweat, which provided both mental and physical turmoil for me.
  • If I can clean it to showroom clean, some person in town wants to buy my Jeep for $1M — I imagine that and make it a point to micro-clean my Jeep, which is not as easy as it sounds where I live. The point is, it’s more physical activity combined with mental strategizing as I let my brain run wild as it considers all of the accessories I might get for it. I even write down the ideas as an additional way to distract myself and focus on the new turmoil.
  • Volunteer at an animal shelter and contemplate adopting a new pet — but promise yourself you won’t as you clean out pens and take pets for walks. This, for me, would be a mind-warp, as I fall in love with every dog I meet.
  • What would your turmoil list look like?

One last point I want to make is that this only works if the turmoil is significant. If your brain even tries to think about the project, you are not utilizing a dynamic enough kind of turmoil.
Here are a couple of things that might help:

Mental hijacking

I place myself into a scenario that involves some crazy, deep-seated idea that is important to me in a purely selfish way. This is where I get to have fun with either a quirky idea or a concept where I know what I want to create, but I haven’t taken the time to play with the ideas yet.
I then fall back onto the skills I have come to rely upon and that I really enjoy to take my brain to a new place where those skills can shine with a topic in which I am fully confident of finding a creative solution. Even if this is just a fun exercise, the point is that if I let my brain go deep into something like this, it frees up the creative side.
NOTE: I choose something weird, crazy, and bizarre that is outlandishly wild to wrap my head around. Why? It’s simple. For me, I need it to be silly, crazy, and a little off-beat to draw me in. I believe that complete brain engagement is required — just like with a new piglet — and you have to keep your brain distracted long enough to actually forget about your challenge all together.

Change of environment

I remove myself from the room or area in which I have experienced so much non-success. I feel it’s nearly impossible to change my headspace unless I physically go to a better, happier, or more visually interesting place. I work from home, so it can be a challenge sometimes. However, by doing this, I can better focus my attention on the turmoil that I have chosen from my pre-approved list.
You may stumble at first, but if you work at making turmoil something that you welcome and enjoy in a weird, brain-rocking kind of way, you will find it works incredibly well. Ideas will magically appear when you least expect them to if your brain’s blackboard is wiped clean. This has worked for me for years, and hopefully, it will work for you as well.

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau (shar-bo-no) started his career in the sign industry in 1985 as Charboneau Signs. He initially focused on hand-lettered signs, windows, and vehicles while also providing logo design and graphics. As years passed, he expanded into the world of electric monument signs, combining his eye for graphic design with his mechanical aptitude. He utilized the internet to provide his design services to sign companies around the country, providing remote assistance with design, fabrication, and installation drawings of all types of electric signage. In 2007, he became a contributing writer and the technical advisor for monument signs at SDG magazine. In 2017 he published the Pre-Sale Sign Survey Field Guide. In 2019, he started Storm Mountain Signs and the Sign Design Institute, which offers design training for new sign designers. He is reachable at Matt@StormMountainSigns.com or 970-481-4151.

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