“Abandon normal instruments”: Sideways strategies for defeating creative block
Session facilitator(s): Katie Park, Alex Tatusian
Day & Time: Thursday, 9:30-10:45am
KATIE: Hello, everybody. We’re going to get started in just a minute. If you’re coming in now, take a seat with other people! With other human beings. Okay. Hi, hello. Thanks for joining us for this session today. My name is Katie. We both work at the Marshall Project and I am a developer who works on graphics and platform and, like, feature storytelling projects.
ALEX: And I’m Alex Tatusian and I work on design projects.
KATIE: So regardless of your role in a newsroom, whether you’re, like, working strictly in art or design or on the technical side or on the reporting side, you’ve probably encountered a moment where you felt stuck, inability to get through to any no ideas that you’re excited about. Even though having the creative process can feel squishy at times, it’s hard to get times where love springs forth from my writing! I find having strategies for the way that we think can provide a kind of foothold to kind of gain a map around creative problems.
ALEX: So first things first, we’re going to try a little bit after discussion and dialogue with most of you guys. We’re going to take you through stages of problem-solving them when you get stuck on your next project. So at your first session at your tables, if you could, we could take about seven minutes was shes we’ll let you loose and we want you to consider these two questions as a group, one of them, of course, is what does it feel like to experience a creative block whether it’s a story, a platform project, et cetera, and number two, why do you sort of get into those situations. What things kind of come up to cause it, please designate one person at your table who will come up at the end to recap after every session and they will share whatever you find after each one. So stick with them.
KATIE: And it could also help someone to be designated to take notes, but I’ll let you decide what feels best for you. All right. Let’s get started.
- We’ve got about three minutes left. So still lots of time to talk.
- You’ve got one minute left. So start wrapping up your discussions.
- All right. So we’re going to start sharing around the room now. So we’re going to ask each of these groups ask one person to share one or two of the kind of big findings that you guys discussed because we have transcription going on in this room, if you could, when you get up to talk, if you could speak your name for Stanley our wonderful stenographer, that would be a wonderful help. So let’s go ahead starting back here.
AUDIENCE: So with the sort of experience of creative block, one of the analogies was, like, from the graphic model of Lost in the German Forest.. Another analogy is big empty space in your brain where you want to be. A certain amount of terror that can’t be tapped out creatively. Potentially, like, two different types of left out of desperation. Like, finding an idea. I need something I’m working on. Or working on stuff that you already are working on.
KATIE: Awesome. Thank you. And our next table.. And if you could say your name before you talk.
Hi, I’m Andy Roberson. Like, we said a lot of the same things. Like, a lot of us felt really struck and TKRAEUPBLD and couldn’t move ahead and it was caused creative block for a reason. And part of the reason we can’t move ahead is to do better and do something that’s more unique and we can’t find it and, yeah, it’s hard to search for something where we’re stuck in a routine.
KATIE: Yeah, that it’s real. I feel that! Next table?
My name is Jason Cowk. So we talked a lot about before she. One is pressure to get something new. Pressure for innovation. And kind of along the same lines, pressure to have something really good. Like, if it’s an important story then you don’t want to, like, write, like, give your editor a first draft that’s mediocre. And along the same lines as that, we talked about there have this positive feedback loop of feeling just like blank and that causing feelings of helplessness or frustration. And that feeding back into itself. Just try to have something even if it’s just organizing a solution, or if it’s wanting a really precious story that just affects people.
ALEX: Table back there.
AUDIENCE: I’m John Michael and front of things likes fear, anxiety paralyzing, for the why, one of the major themes, the trinity if you will, the first is environmental. So maybe unobstructions in the office, or company preventing you of getting what you need or what you like. Second one is not enough constraint. So you’re thinking too big because you’re trying to learn how to bring you back down to earth. And the third theme is related to self-doubt related closely with profession, jealous, et cetera.
ALEX: Table over here.
My name is Morsiad. Like, a lot of times, the word fear was mentioned at our table, procrastination, feeling like you’re inept, feeling you need to leave your job, feeling, like, depressed, or feeling like hitting a blank kind of on the spot kind of feeling. Why, again, that word fear came up again. But also lack of confidence, like, also thinking about a problem like, a much bigger scale than it really has to be.
ALEX: Do you find that your fear is coming from yourself, or institutional forces, like, competitors, or fears like that? I’m asking you.
[ Laughter ]
AUDIENCE: It’s my why are demons.
ALEX: And this table?
So I’m Katherine McMahan. We had a lot of similar themes but one of the things that we talked about was this code-switching fatigue. A lot of people are doing multiple roles, so a lot of your effort is switching up between what those roles are where it’s a developer and a designer or a graphics editor or a traditional reporter and really trying to navigate switching between those roles in addition to thinking creatively. And on that same theme, you’re working with people who mind understand the what it takes so the pressure that they’re giving to you, or the collaboration, there isn’t that much empathy, so you’re not doing a lot of educating around what your role is instead of thinking about the problem and solving it together, and that can lead to a lot of self-doubt, a lot of imposter syndrome, a lot of questioning, “Should I be here; is this worth my time?” And then there’s this piece of either burnout, or lack of inspiration, or is this — is the assignment even uninspiring? Like, what kind of external factors can also impact how you feel about the work that you’re doing.
ALEX: Thank you so much, guys. So the next I think we wanted to take you through some problems that Katie and I have experienced and also some people that we really admire and some ways that they’ve solved some creative-block problems in big projects.
KATIE: All of those feelings that you voiced have come across many, many times. We’re not alone. We’re all together in this loom.
ALEX: To give you a sense of some of the breadth of things that inspire Katie and I over the last year, we just put together a quick slide of a bunch of different kinds of work both in development and design which we both do in print lab, in food. I see some mood cakes at the bottom there. Landscapes, things that we’ve seen out in the world. Text messages, just to show you the breadth of the places that I think if you open yourself up a little bit, you can really feed into your own work. So leave that up for a quick sec and then we can’t walk you through a quick challenge that I faced. At the Marshall Project, we published sort of on criminal justice almost exclusively if you follow us. We had a story come up a couple of years ago that was particularly sensitive. It was a difficult story to work on.
We had one of our educators writing the propensity of sort of young men who have autism and the propensity to have access to child pornography and the ways that it brings basically in competition with the criminal justice system, and how they’re sort of treated. And it was a very difficult story to work on for a lot of reasons but there’s, obviously, a lot of extremely topics there that we wanted to treat with respect and compassion but also it was a really good story. It was a big feature and it led to art, and things visually in a way that I think would resonate with people and tell the story accurately. One of the challenges to the story ended up being was that because it was so sensitive it was basically impossible for us to partner. We’re basically a small non-profit newsroom. It times sometimes hard to pay for art, photos, videos, et cetera, in some you can find a specific embroiderer or designer to work with you. So I was tasked with how we were going to design this piece ourselves and I was sort of very set on this issue. There’s sort of a lot of things to consider.
I was sort of sitting there one day as we do, and I came across this video which I wanted to share with you guysed. This is a skateboarding video about acid drops. If you’re familiar with skateboarding videos, they’re usually trick, and fish-eye lessons. And rough angle. This isn’t that at all. I’d like to show you it.
[ Video ]
So this video’s different from a lot of different videos. One is a personal investigation. It’s not sort of about your ability but the creative person wanted to describe getting to the personality and the interior they introduced people to skateboarding in an impressionistic way because it felt important to me because we weren’t really able to access our subjects when we photographed them. And those illustrations might be a helpful way of telling the story.
So, immediately, I was really sort of taken with this. I thought it would be an interesting set of tools to think about in how we were going to take on our piece. And I set about drawing up some illustrations. Whoops.
So my thought was that if we could sort of take this, like, really, really — the energy and the emotion and the dynamism and contain it into a few simple frames into an illustration instead of spreading it out into an entire piece. Instead of creating an animation or a sort of presentation built out of that entire style. We might be able to contain that energy throughout this illustration and capture both the sort of, there’s kind of a naivete and a blunt honesty in the story of not understanding the severity of accessing child pornography due to developmental issues, societal conditioning, and et cetera, but also, the sense of shame, the complete sort of terror and struggle that we wanted to capture throughout. So that ended up — I’ll quickly scroll through a couple of them here. But we ended up doing a treatment that was essentially centered around these. So sort of throughout the story, there were literal aspects of the SWAT teams descending on these people who really were not aware of what they were doing and they’re sort of interfacing with the public. They’re shamed within their families.
There’s this sort of complexity of your findings of this spoke abouting of communities when they were really shunned by physical communities by their perceived disability was our way of explaining how they got there, and yeah. This was a solution that I think worked really well but I think it came from a place that I totally was not expecting, right, I totally stumbled into it. I think also, yeah, Katie would have a very different different time from her time as a videographer.
KATIE: I really loved how much the content from the Marshall Project which is all about criminal justice is all about skateboarding videos because I really love that a lot. So one of the things that we heard a lot from the groups was this problem of not having enough constraints or kind of having limitless opportunities. I do have the tendency to think that some of my best opportunities are in a blank canvas with infinite time and no one’s telling me that I have to do a certain thing. I just get to work on what I want. But that’s really paralyzing when you’re faced with the ability to do anything. It’s hard to even know where to start; there’s too many options. So I actually find that a lot of my favorite ideas come from my moments where I have kind of stripped limitations; where I don’t have infinite limitations. So if we take a look at this project, this was from when I previously worked at the Washington Post. I was working an evening shift and this landed on my desk the night before this huge report about the CIA interrogations dropped. It was just me and one editor in the office and I was trying to throw something together on the fly and my editor was looking over my shoulder and I was basically trying to apply different styles in the CSS inspector to those, like, little numbered lists to say, what if we could make them red! What if we could make a red box! And I typed something wrong, that stretched the border and it was a total mistake and he was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, I like that. And we ended up taking that mistake, that accidental idea, and running with it. And that was the finished graphic. Edited, obviously, as it could show. It wasn’t that impressive in progress. I think accidental mistakes can do a lot for you.
So at the Marshall Project we worked on this huge immigration package on immigrants in New York. And it was a bunch of different interviews and profiles with a large number of immigrants from New York and we didn’t have the time and we didn’t have the budget to assign a photographer to go out and shoot everyone’s headshot or everyone’s portrait. But also this was a piece that had, like, a really bold cohesive design. It had, like, a very clear identity. It would look wild to just take a bunch of courtesy photos from 20 different sources and put them into this page that otherwise had a cohesive identity. So Alex and our photo editor actually did some brainstorming and came up with this idea of asking the subjects for their selfies, and applying this monochrome filterrization, and pixelsized version to them. That brought it into this kind of cohesive designed approach. And personally I think they remind me a little bit of the low res photos that you take when you go through import or immigration that I think was totally unexpected, unanticipated sort of aspect of those photos.
ALEX: We also wanted to look at how people worked at our previous jobs and current job. One reason and ways that our developers and designers were finding interesting was business Bloomberg 2015ish and afterwards looking like this. A lot of these were treated digitally, as well. They were known for four or five people there that really changed the course of editorial design. Bringing the humor of the Internet to these treatments that otherwise were sort of kind of boring, like, to be honest.
They were sort of a bunch of recent art-school graduates these are, like, Tracy Maud, a designer, people who landed in New York to work at Bloomberg and ended up describing in interviews, there was a good one with AIGA, if you guys want to look it up, about what it’s like to just come out of art school and landing at this incredibly rich art firm and how we’re going to bring our art design and sensibilities to this design without losing ourselves, because as you know, Business Week wasn’t doing so well at the time. This is Tracy,, I’ll read quickly, to take one example: anyone who’s worked at a magazine knows the struggle of making stock photos not look stocky, and the welter of bizarre imagiary of the stock houses contain such as women crying while making salads or middle managers linking arms in an empty fields. Those images are also a reflection of the Internet, literal mash-ups of search terms, meant to be easily discovered… so having heard some of our examples and some of the people we admire, we were interested in hearing from you guys, obviously, in groups how you approached these problems, how you encountered them. So we talked a little bit earlier about what actually happens in the field. Now we want to talk about what is it that you do when you come up against this wall. What do you do when you’re creatively stuck, firstly and foremost, what was the weirdest place you’ve found inspiration. So we’re going to take, again, six or seven minutes or so, and then we’ll give you another warning and then take a minute to share.
[ Group Work ]
ALEX: We’ll take another two minutes, guys.
KATIE: That one minute warning. All right. We’re going to bring it back to the room and share all the things that y’all talked about in your groups. The last round was kind of dark. People talked about fear, and self-doubt, and demons, and hopeful this one will feel a little bit more uplifting and inspiring. Maybe we can go the opposite order than what we did last time so we can start with this table.
AUDIENCE: All right. I’m still Katherine McThan. So for what do we do when we’re creatively stuck, there’s a lot of looking for inspiration outside of the field that you work in. Taking a break, taking a walk, rubber-ducking. Explaining the problem as if you were explaining to a rubber duck what’s going on. Looking back on things that have inspired you in the past where it’s word books or poetry. One person would write poetry in that style just to think creatively about things. We went down a conversation about different types of inspiration. So specifically in your social feed, making sure that you have different voices there. We were specifically talking about sewing and how a lot of the inspiration was from a very specific body type and then actively, and intentionally going and looking for other voices that might inspire you in other ways. We didn’t have a ton of time to talk about the weirdest place that we found inspiration but just video games, museums, just a lot of ideas come to us in the shower, or in the bathrooms and just kind of letting inspiration come when you least expect it.
KATIE: So thank you. Our next table.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, so what do we do when we’re creatively stuck on that question. Like, a lot of people said, we talk to people around them. They start working on something else. The timer effort came up. Using the timer, or Post-Its, too, to chart down ideas that you have and try to make sense of them. Drawing bad ideas and, you know, committing them to, like, paper to kind of, like, come up with more bad ideas and then hopefully some good ideas. Yeah, so that stuff came put up so the second question, like, you know, going to an art museum, or a place that you’re used to — were you on shrooms?
AUDIENCE: No. I wouldn’t have come back.
KATIE: All tactics are valid.
[ Laughter ]
AUDIENCE: All kosher. Maybe a roadtrip happened. So you’re, like, understanding, like, ideas out of that, which is amazing. I go to a lot of magazine stands and I flip through magazines. Some of them are boring but some of them lead to something good. Baseball game came up which is amazing. Baseball or bowling.
KATIE: I love what you said about drawing out bad ideas and committing them to paper because sometimes I’ll have, like, a ton of bad ideas running throughout my head and I’m like, well, I gotta push those aside but there’s something really tangible of putting that in front of you, or you can just actually say, I can set this aside, or sometimes an actual good idea comes out of that.
AUDIENCE: So I need to talk about also committing a bad idea. Making sort of decision, sticking with it, good or bad, going for a walking. Sleeping. You can put it off for a little bit. Looking through early versions, and looking for a review process, and being very honest. Having that no expectations so that people don’t feel put off by that. And committing to that so that people are not cruel in a critical way. Looking at video games, movies, children’s books because they explain things that can be really complex. Processing out loud to people who are come from different disciplines than you do. And just writing if you don’t want a lot of space for something bigger. Weirdest places we just kind of mentioned them. Pop culture, TV, Stranger Things, you know…
ALEX: Great, thank you. And this next table.
AUDIENCE: This is Jason. So we talked about taking mindful walks and talking to someone that’s not really like, in your area of expertise. You get a fresh perspective on it and force yourself to reframe your problem. And then, on influences, there’s, like, a traditional, like, keeping listsed of, like, end-of-year crowd stuff, like, awards and just to kind of see how other people approach the same problems that you had and make it yours. And then there was also, like, less-traditional influences, like, memes and baseball cards where it’s, like, a creative thing where you can try to, like, get down to the base principles behind it. The base, like, step they had to make to do that and then particularly what your problem is.
KATIE: Sounds good, thank you.
ALEX: And this group here.
AUDIENCE: Hi, I’m Bobby. We also talked a lot about going for walks. We talked about not waiting for inspiration to strike; but going out and looking at things that are tangentially related to what you’re working on and doing that. We also talked about being a part of an accountability group that meets weekly and everyone in that group is from different industries. Different businesses all are working on different projects and that keeps them accountable, and helps them problem solve, and act like a bridge for each other. We thought that was really, really friggin’ cool. In terms of real places of inspiration one of the things that I mentioning was looking at video games on YouTube as a weird place because they do a lot of narrating of what they’re doing, and you get a ton of interesting engagement. And yeah.
ALEX: Thanks, guys. You over here?
I’m Allison. We talked about what to do when you’re creatively stuck. Collaborating with others other than being alone in your head. Again, walking away from the project, and doing something else, or just going for a work. Rubber-ducking. Or, like, if you’re kind of by yourself, you know, as you were saying, as you’re writing a story and you’re stuck about where to go, kind of be meta about it and say, I’m stuck, this is an interesting idea and the answer to this question was this, this and this, and something meta like that might eventually lead you to where you might go to next and delete the stuff that was meta part of it. Doodling. Kind of changing the format. Maybe do something on your computer, or doing it by hand or sketching it out might just tap into a different part of your brain. There’s always the sort of waiting for the deadline pressure. I like the idea somebody else said setting timers like pomodoros, like, in this bucket of time I will do this. Yeah…
KATIE: A lot of people mentioned rubber ducking. Is there anyone who isn’t familiar with that term? Cool. Would somebody maybe… Ally, would you mind sharing what rubber-ducking is?
ALLY: I think rubber-ducking is something you use in the programming world is you go up to somebody and you just talk to somebody about what you’re doing, and their job is to basically nod at you and you will eventually come to the consideration on your own for some kind of an inspirational trick.
AUDIENCE: Do they know they’re rubber-ducking?
[ Laughter ]
KATIE: I do have a coworker who I will go to and say, “Hey, I need a rubber duck.” And so there’s a mix of those things.
NOZLEE: And sometimes you say, be a rubber duck for me
KATIE: Awesome. So basically we’ve talked about a lot of strategies just now that are going to — you may have actually seen these on those little slips of paper on the table. Feel free to look through those. So those are from a set of props called oblique strategies. Back when I was on the visuals team at NPR. I had a ton of conversations with my coworker, Wes Lindamood who talked about oblique strategies which are to promote creative strategies. They were created in the ’70s by Brian Eno who you may know as a an made the musician and graphic producer, and Peter Schmidt who’s a graphic artist and I think they were originally literally cards on bamboo that were about literally getting around getting stuck and they would keep these in the recording studio so they could keep them for the production process. I think you’ll usually hear about oblique strategies in the context of being used to create records. Like, I think artists who have used it include Coldplay and David Bowie but I have found them useful in all sorts of thinking.
You’ll see some on here thankful very specific to music but they definitely are not all and, in fact, some of them feel like they’re completely unrelated to music or unrelated to anything, really. A couple of the oblique strategies that we really like: do nothing for as long as possible. What are you really thinking about just now? Reverse. A line has two sides. See what I mean about not really feeling like they really have anything to do with music. And this is my favorite: honor thy error as a hidden intention.
I will say that they’re pretty wacky. They can feel pretty abstract and conceptual sometimes. And it’s sometimes hard to combine that to practical work but what I find is they provide a constraint or a way of thinking about a problem in an unusual way.
ALEX: So let’s talk a little bit about, like, why it matters to think about a problem in an unusual way in the first place. Like, bring an Orthodox thinking to an editorial situation dealing with very serious subjects. But it can be really helpful to introduce arbitrariness to non-arbitrary problems and one of the reasons we think that is is when we replace the context in which we encounter these problems whether it’s your manager or it’s awards season for some of us, or a design language at your institution or a deadline, when you replace those things with a sort of informal and arbitrary prompt, I think we find ourselves less likely fulfilling those demands, but the check boxes that our peers are setting for us, and more thinking about the surprise engagement, and what it feels like to be a leader, or a good reporter which are, of course, good perspectives. One really full conceptual and also literal tool that we wanted to introduce to you was the labyrinths. So we often think of labyrinths as big, hedged wall mazes, like the Minotaur at the end of one, and the giant at the other end. But in the ancient days, they would be flat on the ground and so the idea would be that people would walk around and around them with big spiritual or problems in mind and there was a feeling that you could achieve a highly meditative state in which you could think much more freely about this problem but I think it finally came to symbolize the journey through life. But once you start walking, and you stop thinking about where you’re walking because it’s sort of given out for you, you’re able to think more freely. More recent science has started to show that there’s a portion of the brain occupied by motor skills that is liberated in some way that’s turned off so you’re able to use more of your cognition and other areas. That science is very bad but that said, but I think sort of the helpfulness of thinking about the tool that way, thinking about the breaking the creative block that way could be really useful.
A helpful one is, too, is it’s really easy to walk a lot. This is one that I really use. There’s this great website called worldlabyrinthlocator.com and I think it’s a good place to find ways out of that block and thinking about ourselves as audience again, and how we make print websites, and print publications, and thinking about ways that are not happening in the industry. Just a quick background. On the top left, that’s the Chartres Cathedral in France. And the right on the left is in Orange County — where is that, Los Angeles… this is very close by actually. I know it looks crazy and European and whatever, but they’re often all around you. Many of them are open 24 hours a day. This one on the bottom left I’m going to show. That’s at the University of ain’t Thomas in the gardens up there, and there’s more in Minneapolis. And I’m definitely interested in doing that while we’re here if you guys are interested.
KATIE: Labyrinth meetup!
ALEX: So we wanted to end our discussion here. We have, again, as Katie mentioned a bunch of open strategies scattered about your tables. So we wanted you to look through some of these. Talk about them with each other and try to get a sense of whether or not they resonate with you and your process when you’re thinking about a creative block that you have, or that you might have and how might that strategy be used in the future or how have they been used in the future if you did encounter and try to take down a couple of them for discussion at the end that you can sort of take us through in full so we’re going to give you another seven minutes or so and come around in a bit.
[ Group Work ]
KATIE: So we have one more exercise for you to do and just so we can maximize the time to do that we’re not going to do a present-to-the-room discussion. But let’s see. But these oblique strategies are pretty cool. Like, a lot of you voiced those ideas already when we were talking about ideas of to get together creatively for fun stuff but they don’t always apply to the work that we do so what we want to do is create a news-nerd list of oblique strategies for journalists, things that have helped you, or helped yourself in what you do or what your coworkers do. So to get us started are a couple of ideas from our brains: print it out. Set a series of five-minute timers which I have right here, and make two distinct things overlap. You want to share yours?
ALEX: One is doing something completely unrelated, which you shared which I find really helpful. This video which I will not click on which is extremely disruptive. It’s an yeah, and, of course, going outside and looking at things in the physical world and not on your screens, hugely important.
KATIE: So we’re just going to take the next 15 minutes to talk about, like, the strategies of your own and if you could write them down with the markers on the big 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, whatever you want, if you just want to pile a bunch up and bring them up at the end, or if you want to bring them up one at a time… I think I’m going to ask you to place them on the table at the end here so as people go through the discussion, they can look at them. And what we’d like to do is compile them into our own deck of news-nerd strategies. So, yeah, it’s 15ish minutes. Go forth. Feel free to work together or by yourselves.
[ Group Work ]
ALEX: All right, another 15 minutes.
KATIE: All right. So we are at 10:44, which is the last minute of our session. So if you could just jot down the last strategies that you have and if you could bring them up to the table near Stanley, though don’t crowd Stanley too much. Very hard at work. So, yeah, we just wanted to thank you all for being here and sharing your ideas with us!
[ Applause ]
This goes to the etherpad so it has the links to the slides to the projects that we shared and fun other things. And if you want to keep the other little cards, feel free.