Keep your design work fresh with top tips from leading designers.

Designers can’t turn on inspiration like a tap, but the quality of their commercial work must remain high at all times. For anyone working in a design discipline, this is a familiar problem.

The trick, of course, is to avoid creative block and professional ennui. People have various methods of staying at the top of their creative game, but before we look at some specific approaches, we’ll examine the nature of creativity itself.

One key problem for designers is that at first glance, having a signature style and remaining creatively fresh can be uncomfortable bedfellows. Martin Roach, founder of branding group Epitype says that the key to handling this conflict is to “harness a philosophy rather than a style”.

He explains: “At Epitype, we try to make every word and line within a piece of work have a purpose, because every mark and word has a meaning to the recipient. This gives us a philosophy and, arguably, a style. But many styles can adopt this philosophy.”

Branding expert Jason Thorne echoes the sentiment, saying that he always puts ideas first, and style second, “as this provides the most opportunity to stay fresh”. He adds: “If you’ve become well known for a visual style it may be hard to avoid being pigeonholed and lead to an over reliance on style over substance.”

Digital illustrator Patrik Blomqvist, who is based in Sweden, believes that creativity is “a matter of finding new concepts”. Style, he says, should grow organically from this, “but the idea or solution is always the central part – not how you accomplish it”.

“As long as there is some substance and spontaneity to your work, your ‘style’ as a conduit will always feel relatively fresh,” agrees illustrator Adrian Johnson

Keeping an open mind is important, too, says Isil Onol, resident designer at the University of Huddersfield. “I don’t mind taking on projects that are considered low-profile or irrelevant to my portfolio, to re-establish my style, or learn something completely new.”

Of course, a designer’s creativity isn’t only important to the designer themselves – it’s also of special interest to clients, who are paying to see creativity at work. Yet the client relationship itself isn’t always conducive to inspirational work, as creatives are often asked to churn out work that’s similar to previous projects.

For any designer, it’s crucial to avoid falling into such a creatively sterile cycle. James Deeley and Taylor Cresswell form a senior creative team at design studio Conchango

Deeley believes that the secret is to remain true to your creative self, but stresses that this “takes experience, and the balls to be able to challenge the status quo”. He adds: “We believe you should always start with a blank piece of paper, as ultimately your clients will respect you for it.”

Team up

Cresswell, meanwhile, says that the best way to stop yourself churning out the same thing again and again is to work with someone you trust who’ll be honest with you, “as it’s an excellent way to weed out the trite, the bullshit, the done-a-million-times-before and the plain dull”.

Adrian Johnson believes that “a healthy relationship with a good art director” is the best answer to this problem – but, pragmatically, he also accepts that inspiration isn’t always what the client is paying for.

“In advertising in particular, more often than not you’re employed to create veneer – you’re commissioned to apply your style to someone else’s concept. But I can accept this, especially if I’m being paid loads of money.”

Jason Thorne argues that you should build in the chance to hunt for inspiration early on in the project. “Creatives must look at ways to influence the briefing stage. It should be possible for a motivated creative, account or business development director to persuade the client to take a more creative approach if it will improve their return on investment – which it invariably will.”

As far as purely practical ways of boosting creativity are concerned, collaboration ranks highly on most people’s lists. “Many creatives are lone wolves,” observes Patrik Blomqvist, “but collaboration almost always gives a result that is above and beyond what you can achieve on your own.”

“Trying to explain your work to other like-minded people can quite often have a profound effect,” says Adrian Johnson. “Sometimes just talking about what it is you’re trying to do without drawing it can trigger other ideas.”

Isil Onol agrees, saying that self employed designers in particular can suffer, “because they fall into the trap of defining the design process as an individual journey”. This is not a trap that has snared freelance illustrator Ulla Puggaard, as she chooses to share an office space with other creatives.

“Illustration can be a very lonely affair, which is why I am part of an active working studio – it’s both fun and everyone feeds off each other. In our studio, we have had Web designers, illustrators, architects and designers.”

Personal ambitions

Keeping up non-commercial work is another tactic that many designers adopt to hang onto their creative muse. “Personal work is, for me, vital,” says Adrian Johnson. “Self-initiated projects provide a cathartic release from the day-to-day commissioned work.”

“Keeping the gene pool healthy by being diverse is a good tip to keep out of trouble,” advises Austin Cowdall. “There’s nothing uglier than illustrators copying other illustrators.”

Martin Roach agrees that noncommercial work is “a key strategy”, but says that the perennial lack of time is a barrier to producing work that doesn’t pay. He does have a compromise solution, though: “Self-promotion is a good area to explore, as at least there is some return in this.”

Not everybody agrees that personal work can boost your creativity, though. Jason Thorne says, “Personal projects can quickly become self-indulgent and end up lacking the sense of purpose a commercial project brings. In the wrong hands they can actually hinder ability and finding fulfilment in commercial projects.”

Whatever strategies designers have for keeping their work fresh and inspiration flowing, there will be times when ideas simply dry up. What then? Austin Cowdall disputes the notion that inspiration can just vanish, as so many creatives fear.

“It’s not that ideas don’t come, it’s that we reject impulses to do things out of fear. If ideas won’t come then just do an illustration about it. That’s the joy of illustration.”

“I make sure I’m working on at least four creative projects at any one time so I can keep moving and asking questions, but if that fails, I get a good night’s sleep,” says Martin Roach. “Sometimes, doing nothing is what you need to do.”

A fresh perspective

Conchango’s Taylor Cresswell says that when he and his colleagues hit a brick wall “we take a step back”, adding: “We try answering the brief a different way. We’ve tried it wrong, corny, sarcastic, cheesy – that way we free our minds from our own inhibitions. Sometimes if we then turn that inside out or back to front, we get a glimmer of a great idea.”

His colleague James Deeley believes ideas “don’t come from sitting in front of a monitor or from trawling site after site looking at what other people have already created”.

He continues: “It’s about having fun. If you’re stuck, don’t think about work, give yourself a mental break. Then there’s red wine – that always helps.”

“We all get that feeling of being snow-blinded by the blank page,” echoes Adrian Johnson. “Go away and come back to it. Sometimes, if I do something that has nothing to with the project I’m struggling with, like going for a run or to the record shop, it can trip something off in my subconscious, and all of a sudden ideas come from nowhere.”

Johnson also believes that designers should cultivate the broadest range possible of cultural influences. “To be an illustrator whose only interest or influence is illustration is not healthy. Too many young illustrators are directly influenced by contemporary illustration, and as a result you see less and less genuinely interesting work.”


For some, rediscovering creative zeal demands drastic action; a good night’s sleep or a trip to an art gallery just won’t cut it. Noted Toronto-based digital illustrator and author Derek Lea has reached this point in his career, and is seeking an entirely new direction.

“I’m backing away from illustration because I’ve been at it for almost 13 years, I don’t see the income potential getting any better, and I see the market going downhill,” he explains.

Lea was at the forefront of the digital illustration boom in the mid-1990s, and his expertise in the field provided the springboard for the hugely successful Creative Photoshop book, now in its third print run.

But a cocktail of creative dissatisfaction and ever-dwindling profitability means that Lea has downed his Wacom indefinitely, to concentrate on other areas. “I’m going to stop and reinvent my style,” he explains. “I’m tired of sitting in front of a computer, and I’m really interested in painting more.

“I’ve gone back to university to do a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art. I intend to earn no money for a while. Before I even think about what clients I’m going to go after, I just want to work on ideas and figure stylistically where I want to be.”

Lea is uninspired by much of the work he is asked to do. “I do stuff for a leading US magazine that pays really well, but they hire me to do work that I’m tired of doing. I can do it quickly and well and keep them happy and make a load of cash, but creatively I’m really not into it.”

And don’t even mention globes. “If I have to do another globe covered in zeros and ones I’ll go fucking nuts. It’s got to the point where when a financial magazine contacts me I don’t even have to ask what they want.”

Financially, Lea says illustration is less rewarding than in its digital heyday, but that his workload as a freelancer is every bit as onerous. “I’ve got a young family and don’t want to spend all my time either working or working at getting work.”

He feels, too, that the status of illustrators has decreased. “I see the place of illustrators as respected artists diminishing to a degree.” This explains his desire to seek an entirely new direction using traditional fine art techniques.

“I’m really inspired by the Pop Surrealism movement in the US,” he explains. Also dubbed the ‘lowbrow movement’, this populist movement has its roots the worlds of underground comix, punk music, and other subcultures. “People working in this area are having their illustrations displayed in galleries. It blurs the line between illustrators and artists.”


“Inspiration creeps into my head when I’m at my least conscious of it. It usually arrives after I’ve been banging my head against a wall all day and then decided to cut my losses and go home. Then, on the Tube, when my thoughts are just beginning to normalize, up pops the answer. It’s disconcerting to know that all your best ideas come independently of any kind of discernible thought process – and that Tube-based offices are entirely impractical.”
David Pearson, book cover designer

“I find a lot of inspiration from being with loved ones. My experiences with my girlfriend, family, and friends give me new outlooks in my work.”
Jeff Huang, illustrator

“I take inspiration for my colour work from movies. Masterpieces of cinematography such as Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol and Fernando Meirelles’ City of God use colour grading in such a way as to leave the viewer with a sense that goes beyond the image on the screen. Grading pulls the many disparate shots in a film together and gives them a certain unity, but when every different scene is literally a canvas of subtle hues and shades it becomes a visual feast and evokes far more emotion.”
James Digby-Jones, creative director, Saddington & Baynes

“I subscribe to loads of RSS feeds, from Flickr groups to other sites and blogs like FFFFound. Also, I’m always doing experimental work, as that really helps me to learn new things and then use them on new projects.”
Fabio Sasso, illustrator

“I stare at my pad until an idea forms. Then I throw that away and do a better one. Inspiration can come from anywhere... brainstorms, Google, dreams, people-watching or doing the washing-up. The one thing I do know is it’s always in the last place I look.”
Matt Page, digital group head, Start Creative

“We find inspiration in everyday life. There is so much to learn from actively engaging and experimenting, finding new experiences, in subcultures, in pushing boundaries and meeting new people. Inspiration is all around.“
Shilo co-founders Jose Gomez and Andre Stringer

“For me, inspiration can come from anywhere, I think the secret is being able to transform something you may have seen or heard in one world and enable it to inspire the basis of this thought within work you may have going on at the time. My ears and eyes are always open!“
ATTIK co-founder Simon Needham

“What I find inspiring is knowing what I’m about to create didn’t exist until a tiny thought sprouted in my imagination.”
Isil Onol, resident designer, Huddersfield University

“I’ve seen some terrible work come from creatives who think they know it all and refuse to work with others, because they think they can’t learn any more. There’s always something you can learn from collaboration.”
Taylor Cresswell, senior creative, Conchango

Top tips for tapping your creativity

  • Get back to your core principles – what made you want to do design in the first place.
  • Treat limitations as opportunities.
  • Keep asking questions.
  • Take a holiday – getting away from day-to-day routines for a while will mean you come back to your studio refreshed. Even a break of a few hours can help – read a book, visit a gallery, play some music, watch a film, dig the allotment.
  • Relax. You’re your own biggest critic, so seek opinion from people you respect.
  • All designers feel creatively jaded from time to time – it’s part of the deal, so don’t let it get to you.
  • Open the windows.
  • Eat or drink something tasty or nutritious.
  • Turn your machine off. Draw a picture instead.
  • Look at the problem upside down, or try doing a sarcastic or corny version. If nothing else, it might make you laugh, which is always a good thing.
  • Take a risk.
  • Your professional life is not separate from your private life. Be aware of your highs and lows, and work around these as far as possible.
  • Relearn design boundaries thoroughly, then rebel – see what happens when you break every design rule.
  • Remember, you’re the expert, so don’t be easily moved if you believe in an idea.
  • Challenge yourself, by trying to improve in areas where you consider yourself to be really good.

Illustrator Austin Cowdall says: “I live by the ancient illustrators’ code: ‘Always be prepared’ – I’ve turned jobs round during blackouts, on a park bench when I lost my keys, up bamboo scaffolding in 80-degree heat with a government TV news camera in my face. Illustrators should be like water, and find a way through the cracks.”

Digital illustrator Derek Lea is turning his back on his art, to seek new more fulfilling creative directions. He says: “Different clients have hired me based on different signature styles. I am not ashamed to say that certain styles have been cash cows. High-tech globes, dollar signs and flying bits of info, in a streamlined 3D style have provided endless streams of cash over the years. I am fortunate that I am in a position now to walk away from this work that I find completely mundane. It is still in demand but I just can’t do it any more. I would rather shoot myself in the head than illustrate another globe or laptop.”

“There are plenty of illustrators working under pseudonyms doing work in total contrast to the work they may be known for conventionally,” says Adrian Johnson. “Personally, the work I produce is what feels natural to me; it would feel weird to betray my own graphic sensibilities. Changing the way I work simply to answer a brief or to order would be out of the question.” Left Boneless, a personal work by Patrick Blomqvist.

Personal work from Isil Onol.

After the Rain, a piece by Patrik Blomqvist reinterpreting a Dalí painting.

Elephant, a piece by Adrian Johnson.