Articles

The 7 Stages of Creative Burnout

by . July 15th, 2014

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That project you’ve just accepted could be the death of your creativity. Creative burnout can be defined as that heavy feeling of exhaustion and lack of interest in the work that you do. Creative Burnout tends to be particularly heart breaking because artists are very passionate. There’s a thin line between the work we do for fun for the work we do to put food on the table. Smashing Magazine has talked about Workaholicism in the Web Design Industry, a practice that’s common – and often leads in Creative burn out. It happens. Here are some of the stages that a designer goes through:

 

THE FIRST STAGE: SHOCK & DENIAL

“Do I really have to do that much today? That’s not that bad.”

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Yes, that towering sprawling mass that you call a to-do-list – that’s yours. Your fingertips recoil in scrolling pain at the sight of it. Flicking down your fancy iPhone app and staring each itemized task. Everything is high priority and due in the next hour. Each notification flaring red and vibrating – telling you that something is due and you really have to call those clients right now, yes now – all three of them. They wanted to update the company blog and they’ve managed to take the whole website down. They’ve accidentally uploaded a picture of their cat as the cover photo of the company facebook, and they need you to change it ASAP. They need to make the logo bigger. It’s the final, final item – I swear – after a few revisions.

It’s not terrible. You’ll plow through it. You always do. You can handle this, you have a double monitor set up and that gives you all the power. Using this magical CSS framework and new coding language will cut everything in half and you are the king of the world. You’ll lose a few hours of sleep tonight, but that’s okay. The rewards are greater. These projects are bound to make my career.

You have another E-Mail to design some posters for this Craft Brewery that doubles as an EDM Indie Rockband – how can you say no to that? How can anyone?

THE SECOND STAGE:  PAIN & GUILT

“I’ve forgotten what sunlight looks like. The only light source I have is Retina Display.”

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Your friends are wondering where you are. Why won’t you come out with them to have a beer? You haven’t called that charity you were supposed to the design-that-logo-for in-an-embarrassing-while. You haven’t tweeted in a week – have you died? Your followers are concerned. You’ve blown off your niece’s 6th birthday in favor of working on an app for this revolutionary start up. You can’t take your partner out because you have to do the finishing touches on the A/B testing. Yes, the color of that button is paramount to my worth as a designer. It’s completely important. Your hands are starting to hurt at tweaking Bezier Curves on your pretty hand lettered piece. One more texture. One more hour. One more layer style. Soon it’ll be perfect. This is your life, ending one pixel at a time.

Maybe I should shift careers? Is this work getting to the point of Spec? Am I getting paid? What if I don’t get paid? What if I’ve been wasting all my time for nothing?

Maybe I should design an App.

THE THIRD STAGE: ANGER & BARGAINING

“It’s the client with the problem.”

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No. It’s not your lifestyle that’s the problem. How dare you even suggest that? Of course not. Take it back. It’s the clients. They don’t know what they want, or their brand or their company – and they have no place telling you to do their job.  You will not make the logo bigger, it is perfectly responsive and aligned to the optimal point in your golden-ratio. Also you’ve  created the Logo in code and not in an image program, so making it bigger really difficult. They have no sense of aesthetics. That font is ugly. So, so – ugly.

Maybe I can buy another one. Of course we have to get all the families. The users have no idea what they’re doing either. The interface is really straightforward, they’re just doing things wrong. They aren’t exploring. It’s not my fault if they can’t appreciate this beautifully crafted parallax scrolling masterpiece. It’s the coffee. It doesn’t have the decency to be decent. A/B testing is so stupid, the client is going to look for an in-between anyway. Why do I have to do any of this? Internet Explorer should just be shelved. Seriously. It’s not the load time that’s the problem – it’s their shitty internet connection.

Does it really have to look good on a desktop? Everyone has an iPhone anyway. Everyone.

THE FOURTH STAGE: REFLECTION & LONELINESS

I need to set things straight.” 

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You’ve completely isolated yourself. The only social interaction you’ve had is in the form of Behance comments to that picture you posted months ago and through the version history of that thing-you-posted-on-github. The projects are nearly over and there is darkness underneath your eyes. But the reward is that things are almost over. Sleep. Sleep sounds terrific. You need at least twenty five hours. You should maybe binge watch something on Netflix and chill out in a Slanket.

You know that on the last sprint of total creative bliss you’ve over extended yourself. Your mouth is full with how much you’ve bitten off and couldn’t chew. Your schedule has been a juggling act, your time a balancing one. There is a subliminal fear in the back of your head that lurks, it wonders if you’re losing momentum by taking in one day of rest. Don’t listen to it. Your hands are itching to do something but all your head is doing is pleading you to stop. You subconsciously itch for that bouncing animation thing that Illustrator does on the dock before you open it. You never want to look at the program again.

In the silence of an empty e-mail inbox  – slowly, you ask yourself: Maybe I’m burnt out? 

You’ve heard it happening to designers-better-than-you like a mythical sickness you could never catch. You’ve always thought of it as something that most definitely happens to other people. You’re burnt out. Say it out loud because admission is the first step out of the creative firepit. Admission is how you break out.

THE FIFTH STAGE: THE UPWARD TURN

“I’m in a rut, but I can get out of this.”   

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You know that there’s a problem. Now how do you solve it? There isn’t a manual on creative burn out because each person handles it differently. There isn’t a textbook on getting your mojo back. So what do you do now?

Ask yourself some questions. How did I get this way and what was the point where I could feel myself getting exhausted? Which was the project, the revision or the piece where I wanted to rip my hair off? What could have been done better – what can I do better if I had the chance to do it again? What part of the creative brief did I misunderstand and how do I make sure me and future clients communicate ideas better? How could this have been improved? What parts were over-designed? What things could I have spent less time on? How can I work harder?

Try to find your passion, again. Once upon a time, you could look at what you do and try to remember why you do it. If there is one thing the Design Industry is never short on – it’s passionate people. There’s a drive in there that you need to kick start again. Creative fields are such a niche industry because the thing we do in our downtime, is the same thing we do all day. The repetitiveness can make the whole scenario feel bleak. A break could help. A hobby that has nothing to do with creating. You should experiment with styles, try something you don’t normally do. Pick something up.

Finish a Work in Progress or Find a Passion Project. Do something on your downtime without money in mind. Write that book. Make that website. Add another chapter but don’t put pressure on yourself. Don’t set a deadline. Invent. Do a series. Make something playful. Try to find your creative freedom and fall back in-love with what you do.

Do what works for you. Meditate, take up a sport, go on dates, cook, discover a great new song and put it on loop or travel. Disconnect. Take a break between jobs. Get your head refreshed. Whatever it takes – it’ll be better in the long run if you come back to things with a refreshed train of thought or perspective.

THE SIXTH STAGE: RECONSTRUCTION

How do I make sure I never have to go through this again?” 

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You’ve now at the point where you’ve decided to never go through that again. Now you go through the steps of prevention. Learn to start saying no.

Before you take on anything, you have to ask yourself:

  • What are the long term impacts of this project to my career?
  • Is this Client someone I want to have a long term relationship with?
  • Am I doing something I’m interested in? That I’m passionate about?
  • If I accept this project – what will I learn from it?
  • What are my gray areas of knowledge – and how long will I take trying to master it?
  • Do I have to do this alone? Does the company I’m working with have budget for more than one guy? Can I bring in a Designer/Dev/UX guy?
  • If I read between the client lines how much work am I really doing?

THE SEVENTH STAGE: ACCEPTANCE & HOPE

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The thing is with burnout – is that it puts you in a terrible place, mentally. It’s extremely disheartening to be out of touch with a passion, so the sooner you recognise what it is – the easier it is to move forward. At this point, you should just admit it. It was a funk. You figured out what caused the funk and now you just have climb upward – because there’s literally nowhere else to go. If you keep re-evaluating, re-prioritizing and going back to what makes you passionate about your work – Burn out is something you can avoid.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Julya leads the double life of being a graphic designer and a writer. Some of her favourite things in the world are nicely kerned typefaces, bubble tea and nerd humor. She holds the world record for watching the film Inception more times than necessary.