Who hasn’t ever hit a creative slump or hit that extraordinarily rough, occasionally ego bruising, patch of writer’s/artist’s/musician’s block where you find yourself face-to-face with a project thinking to yourself “okay, now what”? The question is, how to get out of it. That was the question Alex Cornell an accomplished designer and musician himself, posed to other leading creatives, such as graphic designers Nicolas Felton and Tom Muller, painter and erotic artist Audrey Kawasaki, legendary typographer Erik Spiekermann and NYTimes.com design director, Khoi Vin in his blog post entitled “Overcoming Creative Block” on ISO50.com back in February 2010.
The post touched a nerve, eliciting hundreds of comments. Fast forward two years to the present day and what started as a blog post has become “Breakthrough!: Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination,” a soon-to-be released book by Princeton Architectural Press. Edited by Cornell, “Breakthrough!” promises “90 proven strategies” for overcoming “creative block.” Cornell was kind enough to answer some questions on how the book came about and share his personal experience with what he aptly describes as “the murky wave of creative nothingness” in the book’s preface.
Q1. What prompted you to turn the initial blog post into a full-fledged book?
Alex Cornell: I was very excited with how well the blog post ended up doing. It was and continues to be the most trafficked post on ISO50. A few weeks after the initial wave of interest and blog coverage, I heard from Princeton Architectural Press and they ran the idea of turning it into a book by me. It had not occurred to me—in fact I considered the “project” complete given the post had done so well—but once I talked to them about it further, it was clear that there was definitely a book to be made.
Q2. Can you talk a little bit about the structure of the book (i.e. set up as anecdotes or “how to”) and who should read it?
Alex Cornell: The book contains strategies from 90 different artists, musicians, designers, etc. Each person contributed one strategy on how they themselves get past inspiration ruts. I anticipate the audience for the book to be as diverse as the set of contributors. Anyone from a graphic designer to a chef should find a multitude of the strategies inside helpful for their own creative process.
Q3. Which strategies for “unblocking” most surprised you?
Alex Cornell: There are a lot of surprising strategies actually. Some are hilarious, and just crazy enough to work, while some are very analytical and serious, the result clearly of much reflection. You’ll find everything from the standard advice to get away from your desk or take a bike ride, to the more adventurous solution like hitchhiking to Mexico or blowing all your money on an expensive hotel for the night.
Q4. It’s hard to believe that someone so multi-talented ever runs into creative block. Is there an area (music, design, writing) where you tend to experience it more or less than the others?
Alex Cornell: Absolutely. Music is the most block-ridden creative medium for me. There are times with melody creation where I literally have been working for years, hopelessly, seemingly never to find the way around a songwriting block. Conversely, I can generally think of a concept for a video at all moments of the day, on command, so maybe that’s the tradeoff for never being able to think of a workable melody.
Q5. Have you tried any of the strategies people posted?
Alex Cornell: I have indeed! While the book doesn’t come out until this October, I’ve been sourcing the strategies contained inside for the better part of the last two years. So I’ve been neck-deep in strategies for a while now. There are some that were immediately effective, “why didn’t I think of that” kind of stuff, and some that I’ve found helpful at moments of creative last resort. I feel like it’s almost unfair that I’ve had sole access to this resource for so long!
Q6. Was there one big “take away” or an overarching idea that came out of your discussions with people on how they deal with creative block?
Alex Cornell: I think the biggest takeaway is this: no two creative blocks are alike, and therefore a diverse array of strategies is necessary to be well equipped to handle what might come your way. The book is meant to be a powerful addition to that array of personal strategies for creation.
“Breakthrough!: Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination” is published by Princeton Architectural Press and is available for preorder on Amazon US and Amazon UK. In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out the original post. The variety of approaches presented for getting past creative blocks are equal parts instructive and fascinating. A favorite for me is Michael C. Place’s (aka Build).
Lastly, we want to hear from you. Do you have a favorite strategy for overcoming creative block?