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Cognition

Help, I’m stuck!

I looked at my screen from far away, went for a walk, and took a break. I find myself pushing around the same elements in Photoshop in different arrangements with no success. I’m focused on requirements, but letting them dictate my choices. Time is running out. It feels like there is no room left to experiment—that it’s just time to get the job done. My comp’s arrangement isn’t working. Is it too late to come up with something fresh?

When I get stuck, it feels like the worst time to start blue-sky thinking, but actually, it might not be such a bad idea after all. Per Newton’s First Law of Motion: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. When I get stuck, I’m usually in that state of uniform motion. This is when I need an external force to push me out of my unsuccessful orbit. Here are a few strategies I’ve found over time that help get me unstuck:

Give yourself permission to play and take chances

This seems counter-intuitive, because time is of the essence, right? When I get stuck, it’s usually because I’m censoring my ideas before I give them a chance. One way to play without losing focus is to set a timer. Give yourself five minutes to think of five ideas, or ten minutes to outline your concept in writing. Setting timers gives chances to mess up, but only for so long. More importantly, doing so prevents me from editing too early and helps me make connections I couldn’t see before.

Bring (your) fresh eyes to the project

Fresh eyes can point out what’s not working quicker than anyone else. My colleagues have written about the benefits of switch design, but swapping a comp with someone isn’t always possible. In these cases, I return to the brief. As projects progress, a more narrow view of the initial concept can take form. This can be limiting. Refreshing my brain with what I’ve set out to do can sometimes eliminate the tunnel vision I’ve developed, giving me the vital missing clues that can help me develop the big picture.

Find what is working well

I’ll find the one thing that is working well about the design and… change it. Change at this stage can feel like moving backwards, but that one thing that’s working could be precisely what’s holding back the rest of the system. Sure, those perfectly-proportioned and innovative buttons feel like the best thing I’ve created in a while, but maybe they’re not the best solution for this design problem. My favorite thing might be working really well for me, but might not be working at all for the context of the project. Saving these bits somewhere else (perhaps posting on Dribbble) can even help ease the pain of deleting them outright.

Running on a tight timeline? Maybe it’s time to set a mini timer, refresh your brain with what you’ve set out to do, delete your favorite part, and make some new connections.

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