Keith Borshak, Creative Director

How to Get Un-Stuck

Keith Borshak

Creative Director

If you’ve ever been faced with solving a creative problem, you may have run into the issue of getting creatively stuck.

I am currently working on a branding assignment for a new client. First priority is creating a new brand I.D. After immersing myself in the category and devouring the creative brief, one week in, I find myself spinning my creative wheels. I designed my first mark with the intention of creating a look that felt a little abstract; clean, contemporary, visually interesting. 

One lesson I’ve learned over the years is once you’ve got something that you’re comfortable with, put it aside. I’ve lectured designers and art directors to work on the idea first and the execution second. Creatives make little progress when we design with the exact tools that we will eventually finalize our execution, so I always encourage doing things the way the masters have, with a sharp pencil and a clean sheet of paper. Scribble shapes, lines, and figures and see where the fill and stroke of a shape take you. Refine, refine, refine, and then refine again. Doing so will keep your mind open to new ideas and executions, and above all, sketching in a pad of paper keeps you from going down a tight path too early in the process.

So now that I have one idea, I need to set that aside and start a second. This one needs to feel very unlike the first. After three days of sketching, I have nothing, or close to it anyway. And that’s when I remembered the advice I got from ad agency hall of famer Tom Monahan of Leonard Monahan & Partners. Tom had a process for getting un-stuck called 180-degree thinking. I’ve mentioned this process in previous blogs because I believe the process is just as valuable when trying to solve a marketing problem as it is in solving something as simple as being stuck on a design. 

It works like this: imagine for a minute that you work in product development for Samsonite luggage. The head of marketing tells you that she wants to revolutionize suitcase design. You’re briefed and are off to the races, only to find yourself stuck. Hasn’t suitcase design been mastered by now? What could you do that hasn’t already been done? You decide to employ 180-degree thinking. 180-degree thinking means that for just a moment, you imagine designing the very worst piece of luggage in the history of travel. What would it be? What makes it unique? Maybe it has the following design flaws such as:

  1. It’s transparent, and everyone can see everything you’ve packed.
  2. It gets itself lost.
  3. It makes your belongings smell funny when you unpack.

Any of these three would make for one heck of a lousy suitcase, right?

They would indeed, unless!

  1. Maybe a transparent suitcase could get you through TSA faster because, after all, who would hide anything in a suitcase that shows all?
  2. Or maybe, one way to combat lost luggage would be to embed a tracking device so you’d always know where your bag is, even when the airline doesn’t.
  3. Perhaps, instead of a suitcase that leaves your clothes smelling foul, the suitcase YOU design is made from material embedded with an antimicrobial agent that makes your clothes fresher even after unpacking!

Now, how do I apply this to getting myself un-stuck with my project? I simply do what the suitcase designer did: I ask myself, what would make this the worst logo that I could ever design?

Maybe the type is illegible? Oooh, I then design a mark that doesn’t rely on words around it to make sense.

Perhaps, the mark has nothing to do with this new product? 

Maybe I’ll design a logo driven solely by a type treatment unique to my client?

I’ve successfully used this technique several times throughout my career. Other ways I get un-stuck: I leave the space where I usually sit at my desk. I drive to my local airport and sit at a picnic table and doodle as planes land and take off. Or I simply go for a drive and imagine my new logo appearing on the delivery truck next to me in traffic. What does my new client’s logo look like, and how does it behave when I imagine it on a billboard along the highway?

One last bit of advice on moving past the obvious and getting beyond feeling stuck, Throw away your first three ideas! Be brave and put your initial thinking aside and see what else bubbles to the top. You may be pleasantly surprised where your imagination and a sharp pencil can take your work.

Hear more of Keith’s marketing insights every week in the Trends at Ten podcast from First Flight Agency.