Designers and writers share one common problem when it comes to the art of creation or story telling; we both sometimes suffer from a phase called the “writers block” or a “burn out”, where we lose the creative energy or the drive that requires us to do what we love. A person who goes through a writers block or a burn out is a debilitating time frame, where we just completely do not have the motivation or the mental capacity for us to move forward with a particular project. This article covers how to recover from such period, and what we can learn from it.
One evening, after the Christmas holidays in 2014, I decided to watch a very inspirational, classic, and an amazing Japanese anime movie titled “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (produced and distributed by Studio Ghibli, famous for “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke“) for the 1st time since the late 80’s/early 90’s. This anime movie was a journey back into my adolescent days, and although I remembered a good deal about what the movie was about, there was an important element in the movie that completely skipped over me as a child.
The movie has to do with a 13 year old witch named “Kiki”, who is on a journey to find herself and helm her magic skills by trying to make it out into the world by herself. The movie itself has to do with independence, survival, and identity search, which KiKi has to do all on her own. Regardless of all the broom flying and witchcraft abilities Kiki has, the movie itself communicates an important message about creativity and the idealism behind losing the ability to channel the creative output you are used to.
Half way through the movie, Kiki not only loses the ability to be able to talk to her sidekick cat named “Gigi”, but also loses the ability to fly on her broomstick. This becomes a very stressful problem, because she is heavily relying on her flying skills to make deliveries for people around her new found town as her job. Her sudden inability to fly not only affects her job, but making a living obviously starts to suffer.
During this hardship, she decides to give herself a break by staying with a friend she made in the town (named “Ursula”), who happens to be a painter living in the woods for the summer. Ursula ends up giving Kiki an advice by stating that her magic is just like painting, and that when you reach a point of exhaustion or a “block”, you need not to force it, but to surround yourself with things, and places that has nothing to do with magic, but that may influence it later on down the road. This specific portion of the movie made me rewind it back to listen to Ursula’s words for myself, as it instantaneously made me realize that I needed to plan for the next possible design burn out I may encounter in my life.
My first serious design burn out came in the Winter of 2003, when I was in the mid cycle of my undergraduate studies at Art Center College of Design. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was just plainly stressed out or if I was just tired of doing anything related to design, but after careful reflection and analysis, it was indeed a mixture of being mentally exhausted and being burnt out of tapping into my creative bubble that fueled my creationism and conceptual development. The fortunate thing about this phase I was going through was that I was a student, and not actually out in the professional world. Although my grades and punctuality attending Art Center was very important to me, it is far better that I was going through this burn out as a student and not as an employee of a design studio.
Regardless, the phase was real and I had to do many things crawl myself out of this hole that I found myself trapped in. A lot of people might think that these “burn outs” or a writers block is a self made diagnosis, but only someone that isn’t in the creative field would honestly say that. The loss of motivation, the hardship of thinking in creative ways and so on is very real, and it’s not just something we can “snap” out of.
Burn out, block, depression and loss of motivation
You can coin the term in many ways than one, but the connection between being burned out, having a lack of motivation, and depression seems strikingly familiar in more ways than one. Now when I mention “depression”, please do not mistaken me for saying that it has similarities with the actual mental health problems many people face in their life time. Although the concept is the same, the term “depression” I am referring to is the sudden loss of interest in the creative world to put it shortly. Regardless of what you may want to call it when you face through it, it is important to take steps to take care of yourself.
What causes a creative burn out?
Although there isn’t an official scientific reason as to what causes it and how it happens, I can strongly say that every creative individual is different and when the creative burn out comes heavily relies on the person’s lifestyle, their rhythm and pattern of their work habits, and how they balance work and play. But like anything in life, channeling our creative energy without replenishing or refueling it will cause us to deplete it one time or another in our lifetime. Unfortunately our clients or employers cannot understand or keep that in mind, and it is up to you to keep your creative energy in check just like your fuel gauge in your car or your battery life in your phone.
My ways on how I re-fueled my creative energy
I am not going to lie to you and say that my recovery period was easy and fast because it wasn’t. After reflecting on those days recently, I realized that my burn out was self inflicted and am surprised the burn out didn’t come sooner. My undergraduate study was very tiring, exhaustive at the least, and I was constantly working on something almost 15 hours of the day with little to no sleep. I wasn’t giving my mind a break at all, because even when I was eating or out with friends, I was constantly thinking about my school assignments on a every second basis. I was under estimating myself thinking that I will never go through a burn out at all, and it was catching up to me slowly, month to month, day to day.
As Ursula said in Kiki’s Delivery Service, one of my few methods of re-fueling my creative energy was to surround myself with places, people and things outside of the creative biosphere as much as possible. I hung out with my old high school friends who weren’t designers, I read books about psychology, science, and fictional worlds, I watched movies that took me to a different place in my mind.
I also started to write short stories, long stories, and my thoughts on a piece of paper. I started to get into writing poetry, and this was also the time where I reflected and improved upon my writing skills. Although writing was a creative process in itself, but it was a different part of the creative world that helped me understand my capabilities as a person doing different creative things.
For a good 4 months during 2004, I stayed away from anything related to graphic design. I drove myself to book stores and read things I usually don’t, took the time to spend time with friends I haven’t seen during my undergraduate career, and I indulged myself in ways I didn’t get to while in school. I played video games and a lot of it, started to experiment with electronic music composition, and the most important of it all, I started to reflect on personal issues that I didn’t face while I was attending Art Center College of Design.
How mental health version of “depression” also affected me
With my reflection and analyzing personal issues, I do have to admit that I slowly started to realize during my burn out that I was actually suffering from depression to a certain degree. I got myself up to see a psychologist where I talked about my design burn out, but also stress and problems I was having with my romantic relationship at the time, and family issues I wasn’t able to talk to my parents about. Although the idea of tackling multiple fields of battle from personal life issues to being a design student was exhausting, it was a reality that I had to face during the time. Although this article is about design burn out, I do want to mention that there maybe other underlying issues you are over looking that is causing you to burn out.
The work, play, and social model
I have came up with a personal theory and psychological model in regards to the balance of work and play utilizing three aspects of life as a person. In particularly, the model is curved towards designers in a lot of ways but anyone who are in a constant struggle to find the right balance may realize that my model can work, especially when all three of the core aspects of life is converging together.
Now I know many of you might think that this type of model is nothing new, but my idea behind this model is that social aspects of life and the play aspect of life is in two separate forms. Usually when we think about “social life”, it is the same idea and the foundation as “play”, however, with this model I propose that these two should have it’s two separate entities for variety of reasons.
The social circle of the model is strictly just that, your social relationships and events that you participate in your life. Social relationships are very important in your life as a designer, as it fuels your energy for inspiration but also for entertainment and serves as a break for your mind. There are a lot of times where social relationships can be connected to work however, as many of your social relationships may turn into business partnerships, collaboration and more. It is no surprise that creative individuals surround themselves with other creatives, as we tend to lean towards hanging out with crowds that do the similar thing. I have many friends outside of the graphic design realm, such as photographers, videographers and more. It is refreshing to talk to people outside of my field, yet within the creative realm, because this fuels me interest in my own work or inspires me to do certain methods that they do.
Of course there is the social aspects of your life that has nothing to do with your profession, and this again is healthy in return. It is important to forget about work, forget about creating, and just enjoy life as it is. Being involved in other social events outside of work helps us replenish our creative energy and helps us focus on other things in life that may not be work related. Participating in sports with your friends could be one of these things, going on adventures such as camping, surfing and traveling can be another.
There is a reason why the social aspect of the circle is separated from “play”, and the reason so far is because although social activities can be labeled as part of “play”, it can also converge and transform into work related events such as networking and collaboration. But the biggest reason for the separation is explain in the next section.
The play circle of the model can be anything from sports, exercise, watching a movie, playing a musical instrument, video games, board games and more. Although the play concept of the model has a strong connection with the social aspect of the model, there is one important thing that splits the two and that is self reflection.
Weather you play video games to take a break, take a nap, read a book or watch movies, a lot of the play aspect of things can be done on your own. Independent activities is one of the most important thing as a designer. Let’s face the fact that our industry strictly revolves around the concept of deadlines and we do not have control over the time that we do not have. A lot of our job is based on other people’s time and we take action based on them and not them based on our time. Independent activities and doing things based on your own personal clock is important to embrace, because we do not get to have that type of control on our work life.
Do something when you want to do something, quit when you want to quit. If you are watching a movie, don’t be in a hurry to watch the movie and do the next thing. Enjoy it to the fullest, don’t answer to anyone. Silence your phone and have a time away. You may not be able to go on a vacation out of the country every time, but having the quiet moment in your life is important.
Of course the most prominent, important and the driving force of living life is work. As much as we have taken the time to replenish ourselves, having to work is inevitable. But the key thing here is, everything needs to equal evenly as much as possible. Work is not a negative driving force, work helps us identify who we are, helps us feel needed and productive and that concept alone has positive effects to your psychology and motivation. When you are fully replenished and your creative energy is in over drive, work naturally becomes something that we enjoy. It helps us go that extra mile to please our clients, it helps us do a good job and helps us focus to the fullest. As many study suggests, work keeps us feeling alive and thinking, and in the long run it defines our well being and mental health to the fullest since people count on us.
In reality, even though we are in our “play” phase or our “social” phase, influences and inspirations can be everywhere. It will be and should be no surprise to you that although we are watching a movie to get away from work, sometimes we think or find inspiration in films that we can use in our work place. Sometimes when you are working, all you can think about is the next time you get together with friends. Yes, things do tend to migrate over to other aspects of the life circles but of course this is normal.
And this is exactly what happened to me watching Kiki’s Delivery Service. I was watching this old anime film to just take a break from the holidays and taught me a valuable lesson about replenishing myself as a designer and how important it is to be prepared for my next design burn out. Although burn outs are a thing we will face time and time again, it is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to you. With challenges and suffering comes the opportunity for us to be better, and better shall we become.
If you cannot find motivation to do something you love doing, stop doing it. Go for a walk, look at scenery, take a nap, and sooner or later you will naturally want to do what you love doing again. — Ursula from Kiki’s Delivery Service
My name is Chris Takakura, I am an art director and visual designer servicing businesses and studios around the world. I specialize in print design, brand/identity, with a strong concentration in web design & front-end development. I am always looking to connect and be involved in creative projects, so if you are interested in my creative services, please contact me here.