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  • April 19, 2012

Rut-Roh! I'm in a Design Rut

Last week, while plugging away in Photoshop—tunes blazing through my headphones, pixels flying from my fingertips—it hit me. Decorative Illustration I was in a design rut. I’d grown complacent with my pagination arrows. Countless times, for vastly different sites, I’d relied on the DIN Bold arrow character. It’s a sturdy, hard-angled, utilitarian arrow, perfectly suitable if I quit web design to design highway signs in Germany, but not the quick-fix solution for all my arrow needs.

How did I know this was a rut? I hadn’t had a monumental, “I can’t design anymore” breakdown. This was subtle. A seemingly small detail showed me that even though I was still happily working, my wheels had stopped turning. I’d found a cozy, reliable solution that didn’t need questioning. Sure, this was just an arrow, but I wondered—how many of my best practices are outdated?

Relying on old, reliable ideas stops us from thinking critically and being deliberate in our work. It prevents our best ideas from ever surfacing. These ruts are dangerous.

Identify Your Ruts

“More often than not, I’ve found a rut is the consequence of sticking to tried and tested methods that don’t take into account how you or the world has changed.” —Twyla Tharp

Imagine the first time you heard a song you love. Maybe the beat was infectious or the dramatic buildup really blew your mind. If you listened to that song 52 times a day for a month, the impact would be lost. The same goes for recycled ideas. The first time I used the DIN arrow was on a website for a museum. The arrow looked like the wayfinding signs in the museum. Hey, that made perfect sense! Once.

To identify ruts, we need to challenge our instincts.

Take a moment to analyze your work and your work habits. Notice any patterns? Perhaps you’re a slave to Proxima Nova, love pointy ribbons, or have been using the same grunge brushes since 2008. Maybe you’ve found a process that’s worked for you through the years, and you’ve found no reason to switch it up. In the past, my unquestioned devotion to the 960 grid led to many redundant, subpar layouts. When our best practices lose potency, it’s time to rethink them.

Generate Lots of Ideas

Once we’re identified these ruts, we need to act on them. We need to create and test new ideas.

My belated New Year’s Resolution is to get into the habit of generating ideas. I won’t belabor the importance of sketching. We all know this is a valuable tool. That being said, I know when I’m under a time crunch, I sometimes forget about the value of producing lots of ideas.

Keep your brainstorming focused. Assign yourself a time restriction, required quantity, and very deliberate task. “I’m going to spend half an hour, sketching 60 arrows.” Don’t scrutinize until you’re done. Usually my ruts result from choosing the most practical solution first. The benefit of setting a time limit and quantity is I don’t have time to censor my ridiculous ideas. That’s where the good stuff is hiding.

Use tools that are malleable and help you generate ideas quickly. When choosing fonts for a project, I used to rely on whichever font I had on my machine because of the taxing task of surveying web font sites and purchasing fonts that ended up being less than ideal. Might as well just stick to the basics, right? TypeCast is a tool that lets designers try out font pairings rapidly. It gives me the freedom to change my mind if a font isn’t working, and has made that task way easier (and more fun).

Collaborate with Others

Of course, the best ideas aren’t produced in a vacuum. Even if I sketch for 24 hours straight, my head can’t come up with ALL THE IDEAS EVER or even the best idea. This is why I work with other people.

Ask other people to challenge your ideas. This is a great way to edit the results of your brainstorming session. Maybe someone else will find potential in a sketch and push you further.

Some of the best perspectives I get are from people outside my discipline. If I have an early sketch of a design, I run it by a developer to see if they know of any interactions that can improve my idea. Recently, I was working on making a home page carousel that was feeling flat, more playful. When Allison, on my team, suggested incorporating using Sequence, a jQuery plug in, the carousel got the joy it was missing.

How do you work on generating better, more deliberate ideas? How do you battle through a design rut?

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