As an art director, I’ve sat at my desk countless times staring at a blank page, simply unable to start a project. The brief comes in, I get excited, I start imagining all the killer things I’m going to put together and then… nothing. My mind goes in a million different directions.
Sound familiar? If you’re a fellow creative, chances are you’ve been here, too. Knowing where to start can be one of the hardest parts of any assignment. One thing that helps me get past that brain fog is to start with strategy—not just passively reading through the strategy that my team has put together, but actively engaging with it, clarifying it and sometimes challenging it.
Here’s the thing: Strategy and creative work better together, not as steps in a sequence, but as an ongoing collaborative effort. Sometimes when I feel blocked, it’s really because I have a question that’s unanswered or a random hunch that needs validation. That’s when I go into strategy mode and parse it out.
Here are a few ways that I’ve integrated strategy into my creative process with successful results. But don’t see these as steps you need to take to succeed, but more as tips to try out if you find yourself stuck in a rut.
Cover Your Bases
First, ask yourself: Do you really understand the objective of your project? Is your goal clearly defined? And if not, what can you do about it?
Sometimes, we as creatives can be afraid to ask questions for fear that we may look unqualified. But fear of failure can be debilitating to the creative process. Don’t let your self-doubt prevent you from getting the information you need to succeed.
You need objectives that are clear, realistic and measurable. You will have an impossible time creating without a good, detailed and straightforward brief. If you’re missing important pieces, work with your team to fill in the blanks.
Define the target audience, or else you will end up creating for your favorite audience—yourself. Figure out what the audience needs, why your client is uniquely positioned to fill that need, and how you’re going to connect those dots.
And finally, input input input. Get consistent feedback before you spin out of control. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your strategist and ask for their opinion on a work in progress. It will help you stay grounded and understand the paths you need to take.
Have Fun with It
Embrace the journey and enjoy it. Not every project is going to be the most interesting one, and those are often the most difficult to begin… but you can get it there. Seek out great ideas, explore unexpected places, stay up to date on what other creatives are doing, and assemble all that knowledge into combinations and solutions you feel proud of.
A great way to get over a creative hump is with a push from someone else. Find work you love and ask yourself why it’s good. Think strategically and critically about it: What do you think their goal was, and did they meet it? Who’s their audience, and what are they saying about it? Does it just look cool, or does it have a purpose? What human insights have they tapped into, and can you borrow or build on that?
As they say, great artists steal. But you need to steal with intention. Filter out the things that are merely flashy or trendy—they often become quickly obsolete or don’t work at all. Find ideas that will truly serve your project by thinking like a strategist and working backwards from your goal. This can help you find a brilliant idea, even one that goes above and beyond the project guidelines (and delivers kick-ass results).
Find What Makes Your Work Special
In the age of social media, so much of what we see is repetitive or inauthentic. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but nothing is preventing you from evolving it. As you research and collect inspiration, keep a record of your observations and ideas—even ones that may not fit what you’re working on right now.
Jot down random things in a notebook or on your phone/tablet. The best ones tend to come when you least expect it, and you never know which ones will lead to something great. Sometimes a speck of an idea evolves into “the One.” So don’t be afraid to bring it to the table, no matter how small. Banking your ideas not only keeps you from forgetting them but can also give you a head start the next time you’re brainstorming.
Share notes, stories and projects with your teammates and create regular discussions that keep you on your feet. Create relationships with your coworkers and know who to go to when you need a boost.
Making this a part of your daily routine will help you see how your thinking is evolving over time and what makes your perspective unique and valuable. In other words, you can really hone your creative strategy.
Don’t fear the blank page or the brain fog; eventually, they come for all of us working in a creative field. Having a strategy for solving creative problems will help you keep sight of your objective and avoid feeling stuck.
Remember: define your goals, ask questions, be open to unusual and unanticipated ideas, critically analyze the things that inspire you, and most importantly, enjoy the ride!