What Web Designers Should Do When Facing the Blank Screen of Terror
“Damn it, I’m on my third coffee already and I still have nothing!”
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
Some days just seem to be not good for work … like, at all.
And it’s hard to even tell why.
I mean, when you wake up, every day seems pretty much like every other day, so there’s nothing indicating incoming trouble. You only find out once you sit in front of the computer. You’re all set to get started doing your work and … nothing. Crickets.
Deadlines closing in. Clients asking for some new drafts. Fellow designers continuing to fill their Behance profiles chock-full of awesome work. And you’re just sitting there, facing the terror of blank screen.
Here’s what to do about it. First of all:
It’s okay, every designer faces this
Even though your peers might seem like they are on top of their projects all the time, that’s rarely the case.
We tend to get false impressions looking at their outputs only, while not getting a chance to see their inputs.
This is a case of the grass-is-greener phenomenon (Stanford University talks about it in a study). Basically, we as humans are prone to underestimating how often other people have negative emotions, and at the same time overestimate how often they have positive ones.
Just to add insult to injury, Facebook doesn’t help us fight this behavior very much. When we look at the profiles of our friends, it seems like their lives are all about joyful experiences, rock concerts, exotic trips and so on.
And it’s the same thing when looking at a fellow designer’s portfolio or other output they share with the world (e.g. through tweets and such).
At the end of the day, we all face the same challenges, and even the rock star designers often find themselves in front of a blank screen, desperately looking for some inspiration even after their third coffee.
You really are NOT alone.
But you can still probably identify with these thoughts:
1. “The cash-flow fever is starting to get to me”
Making sure that there’s enough cash-flow to keep our design business going is among the most stressful thoughts that haunt us. And especially if you just happen to be staring at a blank screen right now.
The more you think about not being able to make ends meet this month, the more creatively blocked you will be.
As it turns out, money and creativity don’t go well together.
So instead of stressing over this, I advise a rather brutal(ly honest) treatment:
Understand that your ability to put food on the table isn’t that related to your design skills.
As a designer, you make money when the client says “yes” and takes you up on your offer. Whatever happens next is just you following through and delivering the design as promised.
In other words, you’ve already made your money. Designing the thing is only a vehicle that will help you collect it.
2. “I’ve been working non-stop for X weeks now”
Maybe your lack of power today and the inability to produce anything that makes sense isn’t entirely your fault.
Maybe it’s your brain’s fault instead.
Maybe despite your best intentions, your brain just isn’t in the mood to cooperate.
This might be caused by being overworked and the fact that you’re just not giving your brain a break.
Two ways you can fix this:
- Set at least one day a week when you don’t do any work. At all. Not even answering email. The best case scenario would be not even looking at computers.
- Take a power nap mid-day on regular work days. A very interesting study by Harvard reveals that naps are one of the reasons why productive people get so much work done on a daily basis.
3. “Why can’t I get in the zone?!”
Some days are just great. It seems like work couldn’t come easier and everything just falls into place. We feel invincible when that happens. We’re in the zone.
As weird as it sounds, “in the zone” isn’t only this thing we say to ourselves when we’re feeling productive. Actual science confirms that there is a zone.
And if you’ve ever experienced the zone, you will forever impatiently anticipate getting back in it whenever you start working on a new project. In simple terms, when you’re not in the zone, you’re not putting up your best work.
Unfortunately, the zone isn’t something you can call upon (like Batman). There isn’t a big lamp with the zone’s logo on it, whatever that might be.
So instead, you need to develop your ability to get in the zone when the time comes.
This is about habits and routines.
- Routines were the secret weapon of many creative minds throughout history. John Cheever, Stephen King, Immanuel Kant, Ingmar Bergman, Ernest Hemingway, all had their routines. Find yours and stay with it for the long haul.
- Habits have another role. Whenever you keep doing something on a fixed schedule for a longer period, you create a habit and it becomes your second nature. It’s no longer a chore.
Now, why joining the two together? Basically, our brains adapt very quickly. So if you keep doing something day after day and at the same time every day, your brain begins cooperating with you. After a while, your brain gets ready to get in the zone at, say, 9:30 AM because that’s when you always start your design work.
4. “I’m on my own here, and it sucks!”
Sometimes all we need is a small nudge. Just a minimal dose of inspiration and we can go forward with the project. After all, they say that the first step is the most difficult in every journey.
But then it hits us. We’re sitting there alone. There’s no one next to us who could help. We’re on our own.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. Use that awesome thing called the web and reach out to your fellow designers for insight, inspiration, and advice to get yourself started.
First of all, you will quickly see that people are generally extremely willing to help. Secondly, you will be amazed at how different another person’s ideas can be regarding some project you’re working on right now. They will surely give you tips you wouldn’t have come up with on your own.
Just set up a meeting through ClickMeeting. Make it an audio or video meeting. Even share your full desktop and show the person what you’re working on as you go through the motions. Use the technology that’s available to you today.
5. “Am I just a slave to multiple bosses?”
This is something freelance designers can surely relate to.
The whole freelance dream is about choosing your own hours, working on your own terms, and only with the people who are a good fit for you.
What it quickly escalates to, however, is that instead of having just one boss, you have a handful of them. And they all need something from you yesterday. And they all demand your attention. And they all reach out for a discount at some point.
All this can really make your creative block even harder to break. You’re just afraid that even if you manage to get over the project you’re currently struggling with, tomorrow the scenario might repeat itself, this time with a different client’s project.
This is not good.
But I’m certain you won’t like my solution either…
It’s this: Learn to say “no” and learn to say it more often.
Probably the best advice I’ve ever received about saying “no” – and I’m sorry but I can’t remember where it’s from – is that saying another “yes” decreases the value of every other “yes” you’ve said thus far.
In other words, when you agree to take on one more project and schedule it to take place during the time you’re already handling another project, both projects will suffer.
Over time, this can kill your productivity and your results almost entirely.
6. “I’m not good enough”
We all have those thoughts at some point. It’s just stronger than us.
When something isn’t going well, we default to this kind of thinking.
But this is just a trick.
In his book, The 4-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss presents something he calls the bipolar learning graph. It looks something like this:
It outlines the ups and downs of mastering a given skill that one is serious about (like your design skills, for example) and illustrates how people feel about their progress as time goes by.
First, there’s the period of rapid growth. Then, we feel like we don’t know anything and like we’re actually deteriorating instead of getting better. After a while, we get back on track and reach our long-term goals.
Therefore, feeling that we’re not good enough is perfectly natural. Don’t let it stop you.
Take a quick break. Have a walk, relax.
7. “Should I do *this* or *that*?”
Decision making isn’t something that we’re equally good at all throughout the day. In other words, our decision making is hugely impacted by the hour at which we make the decision and also our decision fatigue up until that point.
The great minds of this world have understood the concept of decision fatigue and used it to their benefit every day.
Let’s just stick to one example … wardrobes.
Barack Obama uses an interesting lifehack for battling decision fatigue. He’s limiting the less important decisions by taking them entirely out of the picture. That’s why he always wears the same suit. Thanks to that, he doesn’t have to think about it every morning.
And do I even need to bring up Steve Jobs? I’m sure you know his black mock turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers combo.
Setting your clothes aside, how to use this concept to your advantage in other areas?
The fix is actually rather straightforward:
Do your most important and most creative work in the morning.
When you’re rested, you don’t have to deal with decision fatigue, purely because you haven’t had a chance to make many decisions this day.
8. “Wait, what am I designing here exactly?”
As a web designer, you might think that you’re designing websites.
Well … and please bear with me … you’re not. As confusing as it might sound.
Looking at the project at hand as just a website can have a negative effect on your final result.
What you’re actually designing is user experience.
This user experience needs to get people closer to their goals – the things they want to achieve – and also make the connection to your client’s goals – the thing that the client wants out of the website.
Switching your mindset from a website-maker to something more grand can open up your creativity and get rid of boxed thinking in terms of headers, footers, sidebars and other standard website elements.
Let me give you an example from history. Henry Ford had one goal in his mind – to make transportation better. He didn’t limit himself to mimicking other recognized solutions available on the market at the time. If he had done that, he would have ended up building a faster horse.
9. “My client won’t be too impressed with that…”
One of the common misconceptions among designers is focusing too much on the visuals and thinking that making things pretty is the end game.
Unfortunately, pretty doesn’t always convert.
The clients who know what they need don’t care that much for things being beautiful. The main thing they want is their goals being achieved.
That’s why your time is much better spent wondering how certain design choices you’re making improve your client’s business, rather than trying to appeal to your own aesthetic taste and making sure that the project looks nice in your portfolio.
Design is a tool. A tool to achieve certain (business) result. Don’t trouble yourself designing for design’s sake.
For example, this design at Bidsketch.com is very simple. Just a header, a tagline, and a subscription form below. Yet it achieves its goals. It grabs the visitor’s attention (notice the slightly in-motion button) and converts them right away – offering them a free sample client proposal.
This is a nice example of how design, visitor goals, and business goals all go together. In this case, the business goal is to get people to sign up. The visitor’s goal is to learn how to create better proposals, and the resource given away in exchange for the sign-up helps them achieve that goal.
10. “This desk is making me mad!”
Working in one place for too long can be very detrimental to your productivity. And especially if your job revolves around creativity and forces you to challenge yourself by coming up with new ideas.
This can happen even if you love your workspace, love your computer, your screen, your tools, desk, your coffee mug, and so on. One day, you will inevitably have enough of all that and not feel productive in this all-to-familiar environment.
A couple of simple fixes:
- The obvious – move things around, rearrange, clean up the mess, make a change. In other words, make your desk fun again. How about trying a standing desk?
- Expand. Bring in some new hardware. Like new screens, for example. It’s been proven that two screens are better than one.
- Go offline. Take out your notepad (not the app, the actual physical notepad), and try doodling something the old school way. Sometimes, all our creativity needs is a drastic change and going offline is just that.
- Leave. Take your laptop or your notepad and go to an entirely new place. Maybe a café. Maybe some co-working space. Maybe even try working outdoors.
Being stuck isn’t a fun feeling, but it really is a natural thing for anyone doing any sort of creative work. You just have to get familiar with it, even befriend it, and then find ways to overcome it. I hope the above methods will help you!
Feel free to share. What other thoughts have been haunting you when faced with the terror of blank screen?