10 Tips to Take Your Creativity to the Next Level

Producing amazing designs all day, every day is no easy feat. These hacks can help keep your creative juices flowing.

It’s a simple request: The client just needs “the best idea ever for a T-shirt design.” Oh, and several more customers want the same thing this afternoon. Better get cracking!

Coming up with a steady stream of fresh ideas is very difficult. Not only that, but sometimes in this industry we get bogged down thinking we can only sell customers what’s right in front of us. We don’t think much about collaboration or expansion.

We need to accelerate that creativity as much as we can. This will open your mind to new opportunities and push more designs of higher quality through your art department.

Ready? 

Tip #1: Ask Creative Questions

Some salespeople like to take the easy way out, accepting the order and telling the art team to “do something cool.” What works much better is asking the client questions to clarify what they might like and even doing some brainstorming exercises with them.

But what should you ask? Questions driven by possible design variations can be very productive.

For example, let’s say your client wants you to design a shirt for their annual company picnic. Some folks might go the traditional route and start asking questions about the activities, food, people, or locations. What if you took a completely different approach?

“What fun themes could we explore? Spaceships, animals, colors, movies, or even silly characters? Pick two dissimilar ideas from that list. Monkeys and spaceships, for example. What if the design used a monkey astronaut as the theme for the shirt?”

Discussions like these can lead to some fun, imaginative ideas to explore creatively – and collaboratively. 

Tip #2: See Things Differently

Perspective matters in how we view things. A group of people can look at or experience the same thing, and each individual can have a completely different mindset about it.

If you get stuck, one fantastic trick is to think about how some other person might view or solve the challenge. Let’s say you put a Viking in charge of the project. What sort of thoughts and design ideas might someone with that background come up with? What about a plumber or professional athlete? 

Every person will have unique ideas and make disparate creative choices. A child will think about an idea differently than a grandparent, for example. Try to pretend to be another person and look at the project from their point of view as you’re designing.

Tip #3: Start with the End in Mind

Plenty of rookie designers start out building a solid creative piece, only to discover they forgot to take into consideration the garment or production limitations. Make sure these issues are understood and ironed out in the beginning. 

But more importantly, such limitations can be the source of design inspiration. If you only have one color available to print, you will make a completely different set of aesthetic choices than you would if you had eight colors. What challenges would you have to overcome to print or embroider over a seam?

Let the impact of the technical limitations for production influence your design and creative direction. It really helps to get a handle on this thought process early.

Tip #4: Start Small and Simple

I’m a big proponent of using thumbnail sketches to work through the basic design challenges that a job presents. 

Since we don’t have all day, these thumbnails serve to eliminate ideas or concepts that won’t work. They can lead to an avalanche of interesting ideas. But you have to doodle them up first. 

All too often, designers in this industry resort to tapping into the wealth of online sources for inspiration, instead of scratching out their own concepts first. Anyone can grab an idea from Google or Shutterstock, but that doesn’t make it better. Wouldn’t you rather be known for your ideas instead of ripping off someone else’s?

Stronger designs and faster workflow are the two key reasons to use thumbnail sketches. Personally, I like to use square Post-it notes for this as they can be easily worked on, discarded, or saved. When I get to a final version that I like, I simply stick it on the side of my computer monitor for reference while I build out the file.

Tip #5: Create an Idea Generator Stack

One trick I’ve used successfully over the years is the notion of colliding one idea with another to generate a completely different outcome. It’s an easy trick to learn.

Grab a stack of blank index cards. On each, write a descriptive word. These could be colors, like black, blue, or green. Maybe other words like sharp, soft, rounded, or heavy. Some design choices could be included too, such as gradient blend, outline, drop shadow, or textured.

Then shuffle up the cards and choose a few completely at random. For the annual company picnic example, what sorts of designs come to mind if you pick “Round/Red/Metallic” 

or “Thin/Watercolor/Script”? I bet they’d be interesting, and completely different.

Tip #6: Use a Sketchbook or Journal

The best creative people are constantly doodling on something. Playing around with how shapes, letterforms, and color relate to each other has some positive benefits. Just nosing through a journal of your ideas can spark another idea and help you get out of a log jam if you are stuck.

For me, even seeing a shape, pattern, or texture can do the trick. “Oh yeah, what if we used a pattern of marching ants in the text for the company picnic design?” 

Then you can start down that road and explore how you might develop the idea further. Simply seeing something from a past project or mindless sketch can have a profound effect.

Tip #7: Explore Balance

For many designers, everything has to completely line up in a balanced and symmetrical manner. But what if everything wasn’t symmetrical? What if you created more tension and energy with asymmetry instead?

For example: Instead of the design elements being centered, weight them heavily on one side. But try using a lighter color to alleviate some of the mass – maybe with something overlapping or connecting somehow with a line or texture.

You get the idea. Sometimes freeing yourself from the grid can have great results.

Tip #8: Think Differently About Mistakes

Ideas that didn’t work are right in front of you. Think about the Post-it notes I mentioned earlier. They were the by-product of a failed adhesive experiment. Imagine if 3M had just “stuck” (pardon the pun) with their original premise and worked solely on getting the better adhesive they wanted. Instead, they explored what might be done with a low-tack adhesive and hit upon a sensational idea.

What are you doing with your mistakes? Are you learning from them and looking for other ways you might be able to put them to use? 

Tip #9: Try Something New

As creatives, sometimes we reuse the same moves over and over again. Fonts, colors, textures, and even layouts. I’m a big believer in getting out of your comfort zone.

I had a designer who worked for me once who was an absolute whiz at Photoshop, but he couldn’t draw very well at all. I challenged him to work on that facet of his game and he was able to generate even better ideas and designs. 

When he labored over a drawing, he was able to come up with a different take on what he normally delivered, and the results were incredible.

But, he had to be challenged to do it. It didn’t come naturally and he struggled at first. It was the act of trying and working toward improvement that paid off for him.

Tip #10: Physical Activity

I can’t tell you how many great ideas I’ve had over the years while mowing the lawn or when I was out running. Something about physical exertion frees up your mind to unlock a new idea.

Many people find that just going out for a walk for a few minutes can do wonders. I think it might be because you aren’t sitting in your chair, staring at your monitor. You need a fresh stimulus, clean air, and something to drive more blood into your brain.

So if you feel stymied at the thought of working up yet another killer design today, take a minute and walk around the block. Go see something new. Open your mind and let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.

You might surprise yourself. 

Read more from Marshall Atkinson and other articles from the April/May 2019 issue

View more from this Screen Printing issue