Designing Through the Storm
Issue № 220

Designing Through the Storm

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I am a terrible designer. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say that there are moments when I’m a terrible designer. We’ve all experienced low points, and whether they’re caused by tight timelines, hostile clients, infighting, personal disasters, or something else entirely, we have to find a way to work through them.

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What works for me#section2

It’s hard to be critical of your own work when you have your nose to the grindstone. As a designer who also manages a team of desigers, I’ve had the opportunity to test several techniques for working through slumps, beating burnout, and coping with creative challenges.

Your own personal paper trail#section3

Establish your goals and document them before you begin to design. This doesn’t necessarily mean composing a full-fledged design specification, but it helps to have written notes on hand in the later stages of a project as a sanity check. Ideally, your notes will be part of a larger documentation structure that includes some form of creative brief, project management documentation, and up-to-date client feedback and sign-off notes.

Your personal notes can consist of both words and images that encapsulate two distinct types of ideas: subjective goals such as “The result should look elegant, yet mysterious” and objective goals such as “The result should avoid large clumps of text and small fonts.” It’s helpful to maintain both of these lists as aids for realigning your work with the original project objectives along the way.

From big to small#section4

As with any other design project, you’re probably going to start with big, rough concepts and then move forward with refinements after obtaining client approval of your general artistic direction. Even on projects with very tight schedules, you’ll still want to get documented approval before you fine-tune, lest you wind up with a concept that’s judged “unusable” at the last moment.

Keep client communication balanced#section5

I like to send mockups, layout schemes, sample markup, photographic ideas and mini-prototypes to project stakeholders at short intervals to solicit feedback. Even if no one is tapping on your shoulder for a progress report, I recommend resisting the temptation to complete your masterpiece in a vacuum.

If you’re not getting enough feedback or are nervous about approval and the project stakeholders prefer not to be bothered, adopt the shortest mutually acceptable feedback cycle. If, on the other hand, you have a client who wants to micromanage every color change and typeface tweak, you’ll probably need to push back a little so that you have time to focus on the design itself as well as the client’s input. Which brings me to my next point…

Break between iterations#section6

I have a tendency to do my best work first. If my initial ideas aren’t approved, I can end up in a spiral of decreasing quality and increasing quantity in my quest to comply with client requests.

After my first criticisms roll in, it’s important for me to step back and take some time to internalize them. If you’re like me, you’ll need to try to understand the motivations for the revision requests and patiently consider your response before moving on to the revision itself. This also gives you time to develop a well-reasoned argument if you decide that you need to push back.

If you’re sure that the client has missed an important point or made a decision without understanding the potential consequences, you’d be remiss if you didn’t make a calm, diplomatic argument for your point of view. In many (if not most) instances, you’ll be overruled; such is the nature of client services and professional design. In those cases, you’ll need to take a deep breath and figure out how to refocus on the problem in a way that meets the client’s requirements.

Never design to prove a point#section7

Then there are those nightmare projects (and stakeholders) that challenge your ability to be reasonable. At a certain level of frustration, it’s tempting to turn around and give your critics exactly what they’re asking for—a literal interpretation of the suggestion that highlights its weakest aspects or contradictions.

This benefits no one, and you won’t get the “I told you so” moment that you’re after. In reality, the client almost invariably loves the very comp you’ve created to show them the error of their ways. If you’ve made a clear argument and still lost the battle, it’s time to move on and begin brainstorming creative ways to fulfill the request without compromising the project’s aesthetic integrity.

Seek inspiration#section8

Often, when I find myself struggling for a new angle on an old concept, all I need is a source of inspiration. It’s a simple tactic, but one I often overlook—particularly during moments of stress.

Grab a fashion magazine, revisit your favorite website, or even dig out some promotional junk mail from the trash; whatever it takes. Your peers, your role models, and your competitors (in short, your environment) can all help you think differently about the problem at hand.

When your work isn’t working, tell someone#section9

Your client wants the project to succeed. If you’re having trouble and you’re not sure whether your concerns amount to real show-stoppers, stay on task and give yourself a deadline to make a stronger assessment. At that point, you should be able to say confidently that you are either on the right path or off-course; if it’s the latter, it’s time to talk to your project manager. The key is budgeting enough time into the project to take action.

One of your manager’s main responsibilities is to provide the resources and support you need to do your job—provided that you articulate your needs promptly. Sometimes you have to spend more time or money than originally allocated for a given design task; as long as that’s the exception and not a habit, most managers will understand.

What works for you?#section10

The above practices have helped me and the designers I work with stay productive and creative even in stressful circumstances. They certainly won’t work for everyone, though—perfectionists may need to learn to let go instead of being more focused, and some designers freeze up after feedback instead of going into a frenzy of rushed revision.

So let’s talk about it. How do you get yourself back on track when something goes wrong? Project and team managers, how do you help your designers produce consistently great work when morale weakens and obstacles arise? What tricks have you learned for managing the client-communication side of the design process when things get tense?

About the Author

Walter Stevenson

Walter Stevenson has a rich background in web design, internet marketing, and project management. He is a visual communications manager at a healthcare services company in New Jersey and maintains his professional biography at

39 Reader Comments

  1. You are of course right to caution against the use of the “I told you so design”, I find myself struggling with this almost daily. Of course I have produced some seriously lacking design work.

    What I don’t understand though is why people bother asking you to do something for them, when all along they think they could do it themselves.

    Well? why don’t you ~sigh~

    Also a great point is inspiration. You have to keep filling yourself up so that there is somthing to give out.

  2. Getting outside for a stroll in the fresh air can help ‘reset’ your creative brain, although it’s sometimes difficult when you’re running short on time.

  3. I enjoyed reading the article, it’s full of useful advice.

    With regard to David’s comment, I am very much a _pacer_. When I’m working through a problem in my head, you can usually find me wandering aimlessly back and forth somewhere in the office, mumbling to myself. A change of scenery is often the best way to get myself to look at a problem in a new way.

  4. Giving yourself a break for a timeout is a great way to give your brain a rest and get your creative juices flowing. It’s amazing what a change in scenery can do for your inspiration.

  5. Good tips. Thanks. 🙂

    Often when I try to make a designs (mostly as practise for myself) and I jam up beign creative and stuff, I take a break and redesign an older project or another site I find redesigneable (usually I keep these to myself). It sometimes gives me ideas and inspiration for the main project I’m working for. 🙂

  6. I certainly agree that it’s good to take breaks.

    Our team regularly takes walks, when it’s not too hot outside. This gives us a chance to discuss something outside of what where working on, get feedback on a particular problem, or talk about the latest ALA article.

    Whatever your choice, taking a break is crucial to keeping yourself sane and your ideas fresh.

  7. Your are very right about your thoughts about proving a point. It just won’t work.

    I almost got to the point where I wanted to prove a point but then resisted to do it. Instead I looked at my suggestions, looked at what the clients wants and tried to figure out a way to fit both together.

    Now you may think that it’s just a compromize. No, during that process I realized that even my thoughts had some problems and therefore the mix might work even better than my initial draft.

  8. my boss asked me if i can do 1 design per hour one day without putting much effort on details. i thought that was impossible. turns out its a good way of just sketching and dumping ideas. the result was something out of the box. this is more like the subconscious working thing.

  9. I’m curious about Gab’s comment regarding designs per hour (per day). Gab, was this your boss’ idea of _iterative design_ or just was it just a _brainstorming exercise_?

    *DPH for Iterative Design*
    I ask because I would be pretty concerned if your supervisor was trying to compress the creative process into hard intervals like ‘an hour’. For some projects, it might take an hour just to understand the client’s objectives and preferences, much less putting pen to paper. For other projects, I might have a design slapped out in ten minutes, drinking coffee with my feet on the desk for the remaining fifty.

    *DPH for Brainstorming Exercise*
    A design per hour might might be a little more reasonable benchmark if the stakeholder’s goal is simply to experiment with a fixed number of ideas giving equal amount of time and attention to each one. Having said this, I would watch out for _filler_ designs — spending the dedicated hour fleshing out an idea that didn’t have legs.

    Clarify this point for me. I’d like to understand what level of design you were expected to produce at the end of hour…

  10. Yes it was more of a brainstorming exercise.. Just trying out different looks and different layouts based on the client specs/content.

    I understand what walter wants to say. That type of design exercise I mentioned varies depending on the project and which stage you’re at in the development process.

    I guess my point was sometimes it just helps not to think about how to design something. Let ideas flow freely. If you find or discover something you like and you know it would work, start building on it.

  11. When I hit a wall in terms of creativity, I don’t do any work for a couple of days – no design, no brainstroming – I just let the deadline creep up on me and then Eureka! I get some good ideas and finish the work on time. This ALWAYS works for me – whether I do it consciously – on purpose or sub-conscioucly.

    I’d like to add one more thing though – when you say that goals should be established before beginning – instead of just the design and project goals, it helps to set some goals on how to deal with the client as well – observe your client carefully and learn how they react to your aggressive advice / humble recommendations / technical explanation to support your recommendatin etc. It will give you a very clear idea of whether the client wants you to be creative or just wants a scribble on a piece of paper according to his / her pre-conceived notions. It’s saved me a lot of time.

    Get everything in writing – especially the approvals – is the best advice I’ve received from my ex-boss. It’s a no-brainer but it’s surprising how many time I find myself almost saying “It’s ok, you’ve confirmed over the phone, you don’t really need to send an e-mail.”

    I work remotely with almost all my clients. If something goes wrong – and the client replies via e-mail – the best way to calm down is to pick up the phone and give them a call. Apart from the fact that you just might find out what the real problem is, the client will know that you are interested in setting things right – delayed communication is as good as no communication. Sometimes, however tough it might be, just grab the phone and TALK to the client.

    Like there’s no telepathy in love [ you have to tell the object of you affection that you love them – OUT LOUD ], similarly, there is no telepathy in design!

  12. Thank you for the very thoughtful feedback, Naina. I’m curious about your first comment:

    ??When I hit a wall in terms of creativity, I don’t do any work for a couple of days??

    What do you do if you don’t have the luxury of a couple days, or even a couple hours? I’ve definitely been in a few situations where the deadline is hard and fast, and holding out for a “Eureka!” epiphany just isn’t an option. Maybe a client is willing to pay you a premium for a _rush job_, or a you find an opportunity to work on a quick-turnaround project that will earn you considerable prestige (a brand name). How do you manage quality when time is constrained this way: do you try to buy more time from your client, just put your head down and start iterating through design concepts, or something else entirely?

    Also, your approach to managing the relationship with the customer is on target. We’re lucky there’s no telepathy in design — since that keeps the human element intact!

  13. This was exactly what I needed to read and “hear” today. I find myself up against a short deadline this week and the client was about to drive me crazy. But after the first draft shots were sent, the client loved the idea and I feel a bit more confident in my work.

    For rookie designers like myself, self-confidence is a huge hurdle to overcome. However, finding helpful reads such as this and a site like A List Apart, definitely helps me cope and endure.

  14. It is very interesting for me to learn about how other people handle their inspiration slumps. Most of my design work thus far has been for personal use, so I’m not sure if my methods would work in a professional setting or not. I find that a great deal of my inspiration comes from other mediums and works of art. I’m the type of person who can listen to music while he works quite easily, and oftentimes I find myself incorperating into the design my own interpretation of what I am hearing. Sometimes it is the lyrics, sometimes it’s the melody and the musical patterns within – othertimes, it’s simply a distinctive sound. Regardless, I somehow conceptualize it into what I’m working on and, to me, at least, the influence becomes quite visible (at the time.) Sadly, I can not for the life of me remember what I may have been listening to when looking back at previous work! _:(_

  15. Music can be a great source of inspiration for design, no doubt. The problem is that sometimes I get so caught up on the head-bobbing glory of a particular song, I start to only ‘feel’ the impact of the visual design when that audio track is supporting it. I take off the headphones and revisit the sketch a day later and, “Oh–this isn’t as hot as I thought”.

    For that reason alone I try to avoid listening to music for visual work, or I work on a design while listening to more than one song. Then I’m sure I’ve instilled the visual piece with more than one emotional perspective. After all, _emotion_ is the thing that’s carrying over from the musical experience to the visual experience, right?

  16. I’ve definitely learned to take a step back and a day off from the project after recieving feedback from the client. Sometimes a client can make suggestions you view as an affront to your artistic integrity, but if you just take a pause and come back to it, sometimes you’ll see that something they suggest might be on the right track.
    Another recent discovery is that if I’m getting nowhere in front of my computer, putting pencil to paper can really help.

  17. Music is definitely an inspiration for me personally when I’m in a slump. I have the same problem Walter has though… I find myself “head-bobbing” to the music and not focusing on what’s in front of me too often. This is especially true when I’m listening to a brand new record that I’ve never heard before.

  18. I loved the article, and the ideas that are coming out of everyone. I’ve actually once gone ahead and designed something out of near vengence, after locking horns with the client for 5 months. I’m not proud of it, and not only is it not in my portfolio, but my name is nowhere on that site either. Not something I would do again. I’d rather walk away from the client after something that horrid, recommend another designer, than comprimise myself like that again.

    Music helps me, but not for the type or quality of music. I use it more for white noise, to let my conscious self consentrate on the external stimulus of the music, while the brain within churns away undisturbed. This also works with skateboarding (yes, I’m in my 30’s, yes I picked up skateboarding), as the conscious mind has to focus intently on not breaking my neck, while the subconscious has a chance to do its’ thing without me interfering. Snowboarding, to an extent, has the same effect.

    If I’m in a slump and find myself staring blankly at the screen, feeling my brain ooze out of my ears, and there is no pavement or snow around, I tend to put on trance, or something white-noisish, grab a glass of wine and pace, talking to myself. Or, if someone comes in the room, to the cats.

    Often, the pacing and muttering help more than the wine. But there have been nights, up at 3am, when tremendously loud music and a glass of wine have snapped me out of whatever creative stupor I was in.

  19. I have done this a few times (years ago), and ultimately all I ended up with was work I do not want in my portfolio. Sometimes it’s hard though when the client is adamant they want that image in the background behind the text and the titles on the side fading in and out…

  20. You raise an excellent point: the integrity of the _portfolio_ is hand. That’s not something you want to compromise, so it’s worth finding a mutually-acceptable solution for yourself and the sponsor.

    I just have to remind myself, “No one said it would be easy!”

  21. Boy I wish I had read this article before starting a design project with my client. I am a rookie designer (although I have been designing for 8+ years for personal/volunteer projects) and dealing with my first ever client. She was very adamant on the specifics of the design and micromanaged everything from font face to graphics. Although I appreciate that she was going for a specific look, I still feel that the original designs I came up with were light years more attractive. In the end she was happy with the design that we decided on, however I’m feeling less than happy with the project (not something I would be proud to display in my portfolio).

    Any advice on how I can avoid this in the future?
    While we were meeting, I worked on making modifications to the design right before her eyes so she could see how things looked like right away. Was this a bad thing to do, or it is better practice just to take notes and work on the design independently? What should I do about age politics? I am still very young with little professional experience, so I felt that the client’s older age gave her an advantage.

  22. I had a client who micromanaged me as well. I am including that site in my portfolio, but now I’m wondering if it’s appropriate, when describing the project, to say something like “this site was built to the exact specifications of the client” or “this client allowed me a great deal of creative license.”

    Any thoughts?

    Also, I’m another one who works best up against a deadline. Unfortunately, it’s my _own_ portfolio site that’s suffering from my current creative block.

  23. I like Julie’s suggestion (“this site was built to the exact specifications of the client”?). Would it be appropriate to include something like this in my portfolio write-up? At least then I would feel a lot better about displaying it in my portfolio.

  24. I find its wise in some cases to keep original designs for your folio before they were changed by the client, likewise any work which was cancelled for whatever reason. I admit this is easier when presenting a printed folio as opposed to a site but static page mocks can also work.

  25. I completely understand the urge to include not-so-strong pieces into your portfolio if you’re starting out. You want to show some quantity and breadth to your work, and I agree it’s at least worth trying the line “this is an example of a site I built to the client specifications” — that’s a can be a great tactic, see if it works for you.

    I would only caution against becoming too comfortable with caveats such as these; in other words make sure they don’t become a design cruch. Not everything in your slide deck has to be a piece of unquestionable perfection, but try to define and maintain a certain ratio of high- to mid-quality work. I feel comfortable with a 70/30 mix, what works for you?

  26. I’ve found it beneficial, especially in dealing with freelance clients, to sometimes demostrate the entire entire creative process on a particular project. There have been a few times where a potential client enjoyed one particular solution or treatment of a particular something & wondered how I arrived where I did. Since I essentially keep all of the particulars of a project in one bundle, I can go back & trace the steps it took to arrive at that point.

    So while the finished project might not be that thrilling & something that you don’t feel acsentuates your strength as a designer, maybe there is another angle to that project that you can emphasize over the design like managing the overall project? Sometimes, and there are those times where selling your elite concepts might be a little a too much for certain clients to wrap their heads around, which is why I think it’s important to demonstrate range from the simple to the extraordinary.

    I also think it’s important to not shy away from the micromanaged projects but rather use the parameters your fed to help fuel your creativity. Don’t get caught up in the my ideas are far better than the clients’, but they can’t see it… the true test of your ability will be to produce the best possible work under scrutinty & within sometimes heavy boundaries…

    Just my couple of pennies…

    Also I find that when the creative lightbulb fades out, I try to lend some energy to doing something that either I’ve never done to get the excitement built up again or trying to look at something mundane through the eyes of someone else & try to figure out how they see it, might lead to something interesting?

  27. I find some of my best times to really get creatives things done is on the train on the way to and from work. I live in Tokyo and the trains have tons of ads, funny passengers and other points of inspiration. I’ve found it works for design, copywriting, even IA work. My lesson learned here was that often the least obvious places to work can really help get those juices flowing; away from coworkers, deadlines and other reminders that this is a job that has to get done. It’s ironic that sometimes the work place itself is the worst place to get work done.

  28. I’m a student of design and I have observed that my peers and I are constantly mobile when we are working. Personally, I jump between coffee shops and campus lounges, using them as hot-spots for creativity.

    It’s probable that laptops and Wi-Fi have made the next wave of designers dependent mobility. As artists, we seek a current of inspiration – an idyllic environment for exploration and expression. What could be more freeing than changing your location on a whim in the middle of a work day?

    I enjoyed reading this article because it shows that there are many other habits and practices that can recharge and refresh one’s creativity. Soon I’ll have to leave behind some of the luxuries a college lifestyle offers the design process – but now I can replace them with tips from experienced professionals.

  29. Walter mentions keeping notes handy as a sanity check and to keep in sync with the original brief – thats _certainly_ something I’ll be trying to teach myself….

    When I’m not working for “the man”, I spend a lot of time creating interactive PHP-driven sites (games, utilities etc) to amuse friends and family….and of course myself! Anyhoo, I have a tendency to get massively caught up in the excitement of the project, and as my mind wanders in fifteen different directions – solving all my IA issues at once – I often find myself neglecting/re-inventing the clever piece of presentational content I applied to another page the week prior! My shins are black&blue from the amount of times I’ve kicked myself recently ;D

  30. I worked for an incredibly mean-spirited business owner who treated web design (and designers) like an assembly line (with near cookie-cutter design principles) while treating clients like cattle. For the nearly 7 years that I survived within this company, I learned how to design quickly but not creatively (and rarely to the customer’s total satisfaction). I’ve sinced moved on and now I feel trapped in the ‘hurry up and get it done’ mode that I’ve become so familiar with and suffer from design sterility.

    Many of your responses have been an eye-opener to me – thank you all for your perspicacity. I now feel that there’s a balance between the ‘step back and survey the situation’ and ‘get it done now’ paradigms we face as service providers. But is it possible that being in an environment that crushes creativity for such a long time make breaking free from such boring design principles an impossibility? If not, how would I approach this dilemma. I yearn to expand my creativity but find myself repeating familiar habits over and over again.

  31. I have to admit, the design ‘crisis’ was something I thought was just me. I find it really hard to design at my best when I am being nagged, pressured or I simply don’t have enough time – but that is often the way it is. It is great to get some advice about what to do to keep the process going

    I have done the ‘I told you so’ design, and sure enough, that was the one the client liked. I should have known!

    I was reassured to hear about the best design happening first and then having them progressively deteriorate afterwards. I find that so often, but then get nervous thinking that I must be ‘cheating’ if I manage to turn out something in double quick time.

  32. Hi Kevin. To your question:

    “??But is it possible that being in an environment that crushes creativity for such a long time makes breaking free from such boring design principles an impossibility???”

    I was tempted to answer this question directly, but I found “a great link about breaking bad habits on another web site”: that you may find helpful. All the same rules apply and I think the author lays out some simple, helpful steps.

  33. I’m a one-woman web design AND web programming shop. The key frustration there being the AND. It’s tough to switch between debugging hundreds of lines of PHP code and creative design work.

    A break of some sort is absolutely essential to make the switch. Sometimes, I have to admit, a weekend is just the thing!

    As for creative brainstorming, when I have trouble with the creative process, before or after feedback, I do just start playing with things: color, brushes, shapes, whole layouts. If nothing else works, that seems to do the trick.

  34. I was stuck in a similar rut with a former employer & found a great deal of life in doing pro-bono work for non-profits. More often than not, it was just the outlet & spark I needed to keep forging ahead. They enjoyed the creative process, they enjoyed being part of the development process & we both learned a little something. They learned some interesting ways to draw up solutions & I learned that there is always something, somewhere that will spark you’re creativity; sometimes free reign is that breath of fresh air.

  35. Different client’s have different expectations of a designer, and that is something that I address before hand.

    If they are expecting you to simply be a Photoshop monkey at their disposal then the relationship will be tested during the design process.

    But if you let the client know exactly what the design process involves beforehand, then you could avoid potential confrontations further down the track.

    The most important thing I make clear with all my clients is this simple fact: Their personal tastes have nothing to do with how the design should look. Although this might seem shocking, it usually always gains immediate respect points in my favour.

    And if they want to direct the design process from start to finish, then they do need a Photoshop monkey — not a professional designer. Because anyone can point and click where they are told, but a professional designer puts serious thought into where those points and clicks go and what their output will be.

    One of the most common misconceptions a designer faces (even I fight this on a daily basis) is that our job is nothing more than to make something look pretty. When you hire the services of a professional designer, they will produce something that is in the best interest of the client’s company and target demographic — regardless of what the CEO’s favourite colour is.

    As a side note, and this might make an a interesting case study, last year 3 of my web sites were nominated for West Australian Design Awards, and this year one design was nominated for the same award.

    Call this coincidence if you want, but those very 4 designs were the only ones where the client has said “go nuts”? and not interfered with the design process at all.

    I don’t like to think that is a coincidence. But it does validate my theory that as a designer I must be getting it right and it is the client who is wrong.

  36. @ Michael Ott

    “The most important thing I make clear with all my clients is this simple fact: Their personal tastes have nothing to do with how the design should look. Although this might seem shocking, it usually always gains immediate respect points in my favour.”

    I agree wholeheartedly – The first thing i do with my clients is send them an estimate proposal along with a document explicitly stating what they should expect from me and what i expect from them.

    Guess what it says I expect…

    “Design freedom, I am the professional designer not them ”

    – if they don’t like it they can kiss my ass. My name is on the line and i’m not going to let another client piss on my painting.

    hehe – what a rant

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