Beating the Dreaded Design Slump

If you work in any sort of creative field, you’re going to fall into the occasional rut. Your work feels repetitive and boring. Uninspired. You find yourself taking convenient solutions rather than best solutions. Or, maybe you just can’t think your way through a problem and you have no solution at all. Your brain starts to slow down. You churn on the same thought patterns for unreasonable amounts of time. You’re just stuck.

Getting stuck sucks.

In my (albeit limited) experience, design slumps in Instructional Design are both a curse and a blessing. It’s challenging because you can hit roadblocks in just soooo many different areas. Visual design, writing concise copy, developing good learning outcomes, interactions, the list goes on. But, the flip side of that is why it’s good. If you get stuck on one aspect of the design, it’s almost assured that you have another part of the project you can switch to and try and make some progress.

Let’s talk about a few strategies you can use (and I’ve used in the past) while designing to break out of a slump.

Admit that it’s a Thing

It can be difficult to accept the fact that you’re in a slump. You’re a professional designer after all—shouldn’t you be able to do this consistently every day?

No.

Despite our best efforts, we get tired. Life distracts. Hocus Pocus, Focus Interruptus.  Even the most seasoned professionals in any field have periods of time when they don’t perform at their peak. In order to invoke strategies to move past the slump though, you’ve first got to own up to it. Admit that it’s ok, and move on towards fixing the problem.

Change your Focus

As I alluded to above, one of the great things about Instructional Design is that when you come crashing into a brick wall on one aspect of a project, it is often a relatively simple matter to divert to another segment of the project for a brief period of time. This diversion of focus can get your brain functioning in different ways, and help cut though some of the mental Gordian Knots that you’ve created for yourself. It’s probably not even out of the question that you’re working on multiple concurrent projects, so shifting tracks to another one entirely can provide a nice mental respite.

If you promise not to tell, I’ll share a secret with you.

Shhhh. Be very quiet.

One such diversion is how this blog post was birthed. I was smashing my brain against the wall trying to solve some technical challenge or another in Blackboard—I’ve blocked out of my memory what exactly it was—and was looking for something else to do. I checked our Model eLearning content calendar and saw that this week’s author had abandoned ship there was an opening for a (hopefully) interesting post on the design process.

So, while it may not be the best content I’ve ever created, it’s at least getting the train moving again with something else—which dovetails into my next point.

Allow yourself to Suck

You’re not at your best. It’s easy when that happens to just toss everything in the garbage as sub-par work, or worse, just keep iterating on the same thing over and over again to try and make it good. Or even worse still, succumb to the tyranny of the blank page, and be so afraid that what you might produce is going to be junk, that you don’t even start. You’ve got to allow yourself the freedom to work and fail, and trust that you will eventually get your swing back.

If you’re lucky, you work as a part of a team. They can give you honest feedback and encouragement on your designs to help pull you back up. After all, you’ll do the same for them the next time they hit a slump, right? Show your work to people, remember that you’ve done great work in the past, and know that you’ll do it again. You’ve got this. Design is always iterative and collaborative—for this brief window, you’re just iterating and collaborating a bit more than usual.

Don’t lose faith in the process.

Take a Break

Maybe it’s just not working. You’ve hopped to different projects, showed work to people, iterated the walls off the thing, and it’s just plain awful. Maybe you just need a break. Whether is a long lunch, a long weekend, or even an extended vacation away from the office (if your schedule allows), give your brain some time to re-adjust and re-center.

As we talked about when meeting project deadlines, breaks are great for helping your brain to tackle a problem from a different angle, see the pieces in a different light, and use any other cliché you’d like to talk about problem solving.

So give yourself a break, in more ways than one.

Do you have any great tactics for breaking out of a slump? Any good ways to end blog posts other than asking a series of questions? Favorite types of donut? Let us know in the comments and on Twitter.

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