Overcoming design roadblocks

It happens, sometimes you can be stuck starting a new design, here’s some tips that aim to help overcome the challenge.


Overcoming design roadblocks (featured image)

When starting out on a new project or being newer to design, getting your ideas to be what you visualise can be difficult. Whether you’re new or are aiming to broaden your specialism you’ll find some things more challenging. In this post I’ll share some tips of how I approach these challenges.

Starting a new skill requires patience

I received a few emails which made me feel like this would be a good topic. It’s also a good reminder to myself to write this. As you can go through stages where you can’t quite create what you visualise.

When you find things being more challenging than you thought, it’s important to remember you’ll get somewhere in time. You can’t know everything and part of it is being comfortable knowing that. It’s through these challenges you learn and grow your experience. Without challenges it becomes boring.

Use different constraints to help

Some of the things I mention within will contradict each other, because you will need to approach things in a mixture of ways. Using different constraints and having patience can help see your vision through.

Sometimes you don’t know what to learn

There’s lots of reasons you can struggle. Being an aspiring illustrator and someone who wants to be better at art in general, you can find yourself not knowing what to learn or frustrated when things don’t go to plan.

Slow down

One of the most important things I can recommend is slowing down. You find difficulty because you want the instant gratification of designing something good. Slow down and let the time taken be what’s necessary.

If you’re new to designing, be it altogether or for a particular industry, it will take you longer. Your trial and error will take longer, there is nothing wrong with this, it’s the opportunity to learn.

It’s important to reflect on your learnings. So note them down, keep your sketches, wireframes anything that shows progress.

Start somewhere

It can sometimes feel overwhelming when starting out. However, getting something down is what you need to build momentum. It doesn’t have to be in a blank canvas, it can be as small as noting things down.

I have found it extremely helpful over the years to write notes. From what the main goal is, to what elements must be part of what I design, summarising research, what the brand image is, etc.

Writing these initial thoughts (and repeating them) allows you to process them better. By having the thoughts on paper you don’t need to remember them. It frees up focus on producing the work.

Don’t be afraid to start again

This is one thing I will say is vital. You may have had a great idea in mind, but you can’t make it work. This may not be down to your skill, it might just be the idea doesn’t work.

Consider the following

  1. What are you trying to achieve?
  2. Have you imposed a constraint that is too strict?
  3. Is the use case different to what you expected?
  4. What have you learnt so far?

The reason I consider these questions are, for example, when I was making the new logo for this website, I wanted to also make it into an illustrated version. I was happy with the logo overall and reasonably happy with the illustrated approach.

However, when it came to placing it in the design in reference to the sketches I had done, it didn’t work. It didn’t work because the space felt awkward in the surrounding area. I recognised this and completely changed my approach and was happier for it.

Sometimes you need to see an idea as far as you can, but once you realise it’s not working, think about why. Again, document this as progress.

Try things out and don’t be afraid to reevaluate

With so many ideas floating around it can be difficult to choose which one to go with.

  • List all ideas with detail for remembering
  • Start with any idea
  • Sketch a rough version of it
  • Note any key points
  • Move on to the next
  • Repeat

The key is speed, you may repeat yourself and things not look too different. That’s fine, you’re iterating and making progress.

Some ideas will be poorer than others, but you have to go through those to get to the good.

Start small

You’ve probably noticed there is an emphasis on sketching and notes. An artist doesn’t immediately embark on a full scale drawing of the scene they have in their mind. It would more often than not be wasteful.

They start with small sketches. Moving quickly, to figure out where all the main components of the scene go. If the drawing features people or objects they will try different compositions to figure out lighting, focus and proportions.

Sketches can help you to understand where to head

Equally you should have things you can rely on to get a better picture. It’s a way of visualising quickly, with a significantly lower time investment. Sketches allow you to visualise something without it being in your mind. You can throw ideas away without feeling like much has been lost if they don’t work.

Jump about in your process

The value in having a process is clear. It’s a set of steps you follow to ensure the best quality of work and nothing gets missed. However, with designing websites, you need to jump about the process to get a feel for your ideas.

If you want to experiment with some visual style or wireframes quickly, you should. It’s something I struggled with, you can see people who do great work and explain their process and feel like it always works.

This is down to two things; the way they present their work and it simply doesn’t always work out that way. It’s important having those steps, but you may need to revisit them and approach them in different ways.

Become familiar with the details

You can read about design techniques, styles or processes, but without intentionally designing using techniques you wish to understand better, it will be difficult to learn the intricacies.

It’s important to practice these techniques outside of your work. Use side projects and challenges for yourself to practice them. You’ll gain a greater understanding and be able to draw upon techniques quicker in the future.

Don’t let inspiration rule you

Inspiration can be both your best friend and worst enemy. It is a form of research, you can use to back up your initial options and inspire ideas. However, the one thing I’ve always disliked about inspiration is the things you’ll see are never going to be what you output. So you’ll always have some level of dissatisfaction, unless you separate yourself from it completely.

That’s the point here; inspiration shouldn’t rule you. Once you’ve got the inspiration needed you need to step back and forget it. Take a break and then come back to your work.

Practice deliberately

This is a topic in of itself, but taking the example you want to be better at a particular skill within design. For example, typography, there is a lot to understand. You can understand the rules and the principles behind good typography. Without practicing, learning from your mistakes and understanding what you need to improve from the repetition.

Vectors are free

Aaron Draplin says ‘vectors are free’ and that’s something to remember when designing. You start out making something and you’re going to change direction slightly. Duplicate it and work on it.

Now you can iterate in many directions without worry of being able to revert. It’s a simple mindset change, but it’s really helpful.

Take a break

Breaks are important, whether that’s a walk or sleeping on something. It’s important you come back to a design with fresh eyes. If you’re struggling with your vision, but have something almost there a break will be good for you.

There has been many times I’ve left a design and come back to it after a nights sleep to carry on and make improvements that I’m happier with.

Not only this, but prolonged breaks and recognising when you’re pushing yourself too hard is key to your creativity.