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10 Ways to Bust Out of Those Creative Blocks in Your Business

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10 Ways to Bust Out of Those Creative Blocks in Your Business

ecently at Rowboat Creative, the team has been experimenting to create weather-worn prints for a large brand. “We’re not doing a typical vector or bitmap layer of distressing in the artwork file,” says Lucas Guariglia, co-founder and CEO. Instead the team is using beaten-up platens and a chemical mid-print that starts to break down the screen. “We’re forging a new method that we can also replicate at a high volume,” he says. “It’s a lot of creative trial and error.”

Ask any decorated-apparel shop owner and they’ll tell you that creativity can quickly take a backseat to all the tasks a shop requires to run. And yet, without creativity pumping out regularly and often, you’re playing a risky game of losing what makes you unique in a sea of competitors.

Back in 2006, when Guariglia and Rowboat Creative co-founder Joe Zangrilli started their shop in a basement, they hand-taped off seams and areas they didn’t want discharged. They did this for their own private label brand to mimic the look of cut-and-sew pieces and all-over prints. “It was super-tedious and took a lot of experimenting, but we got the look we wanted,” Guariglia says.

“Now, we have everyone, including our sales team, working on the production floor, so we can mix out-of-the-box thinking with feasibility for real-world, mass-production printing.”
Lucas Guariglia, co-founder and CEO of Rowboat Creative

So, how can you continue to create innovative, unique and must-wear artwork ideas when you’re cranking 24/7? How can you generate new ways to move your shop forward when you’re busy getting orders out and feeling overworked? We asked industry veterans for their best tips on how you can rejuvenate and jumpstart your creative juices at-will.

Here Are 12 Steps You Can Take to Continuously Stay Creative

1. Get Away… Briefly. 

Often, the longer you try to force yourself to be creative, the more blocked you’ll feel. Staring at your screen, focusing on the artwork specs and creating a narrower field of vision only increases your frustration. 

Instead, change your focus. Whether you start another job or do something enjoyable, you’ll help your brain to widen its view. “I need to take a break to get creative again,” says Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault. “If I let myself off the hook, even for five minutes, and start on another task or take a walk, my brain starts firing in the background with new ideas for what stumped me.”

A Stanford study found that by just walking, creative productivity increased by 60 percent. When you get away from the focused task of “creating,” you actually give your brain more data to pull from, which helps to create new ideas. 

What we know about creativity is that it’s similar to problem-solving in how the brain works with it. Once you have a problem, your brain continues to work on that problem, even if only in the background, where you’re not consciously aware of it. Your brain will process ideas subconsciously, so you’ll be amazed what randomly pops up when you shift tasks or take a walk around the building. A walk, a YouTube video, a good book or even a podcast can all be part of your creative process.

2. Just Do It!

Sometimes, it’s better to just get down to business and just start somewhere. “A lot of decorators I work with get creative blocks because of fear,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Shirt Lab Tribe and Atkinson Consulting. “The client wants something different than you’ve done before, and you’re worried they won’t like it. But you need to begin, because you need a stepping stone to get to the real magic.”

Atkinson says having a thorough creative brief that outlines what the client wants and doesn’t want can help alleviate a blank screen. “You need a launching point,” he says. “Do they want a photo-realistic design or a cartoon? Plus, when you know what they don’t want, you can eliminate versions your client will reject outright.”

"The most creative people are children because they’re playful and there are no rules. As an artist or printer, you need to be different and break out of the ‘rules’ box.”
- Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Shirt Lab Tribe and Atkinson Consulting

Since creating artwork or new decorating techniques is an iterative process, Atkinson says the best thing to do is jump in and not worry about the results. “Well, if your client wants a pattern in their logo, the first pattern might look awful. But then on the third or fifth try, you find a pattern that works,” he says.

3. Review Your Portfolio.

You’ve already created a lot of successful designs and prints. Let them inspire you if your screen is blank or you’re feeling tapped out. Look at your portfolio and see if those earlier works get the creative juices flowing. If other artists inspire your work, look at their portfolios for inspiration. 

4. Just Start Surfing the ‘Net.

While some bosses might say zoning out on the web isn’t great for productivity it can be when you’re in a creative rut. “When I’m tapped out, I go online in an investigative way, not necessarily to find one specific idea,” says Kristine Shreve, director of marketing and outreach at Applique Getaway.

“Look for trends. Focus on how companies you love use image and color. Look at who the influencers are in a particular space and how they present themselves.”
- Kristine Shreve, director of marketing and outreach at Applique Getaway

Using Google is a great way to get an overview of what’s current and what’s changing. “You’re looking for that nugget of information and inspiration to put you on the cutting edge,” Shreve says. “The idea is also to build up a database of impressions and knowledge you can reach for when you’re looking for ideas.”

5. Brainstorm With Your Staff.

You hired your staff for a reason: because they’re professionals who know their stuff. They see your customers all day and know a lot about what’s trending. Talking through your creative block can be helpful. And who knows? You may have your about-to-be-promoted, full-time creative director right in front of you.

“I talk to someone else to get their point of view. It can be someone on my staff or one of my friends online in the decorating communities that I’m part of. I often overthink, and others are glad to remind me to KISS, or ‘Keep It Simple, Sweetie!’”
Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault

Guariglia also says his team helps him see things from different angles. “My business partner and I complement each other well,” he says. “We’re all savvy and up-to-date with tech and machinery trends, and we immerse ourselves in a world where this type of production and forward thinking is the norm. I also have very successful friends in various industries. I constantly talk with these people about how they run their businesses. Hearing someone else’s hardships will usually open up your eyes to your own, but also help you work through creative blocks.”

6. Immerse Yourself in Your Client’s World (& Create Your Own).

At Rowboat Creative, the team will often immerse themselves in their client’s world to connect with the vibe they want to convey in their artwork and printing methods. “With our work in the music industry, Joe and I, as well as a great majority of our team, understand the industry and have been involved in it on quite a few levels,” Guariglia says.

“Beyond immersing ourselves into a particular artist’s world or vibe, it’s important to be conscious of everything else going on in the industry and genre. Plus, if we’re involved in multiple industries, we can cross-reference ideas for merch, so we never go stagnant.”

Guariglia’s firm offers a spectrum of full immersive experiential ideation, building, and execution, to basic volume screen-printing production. “Since we’ve created a world of our own, our clients know what they’re getting into when they come to us,” he says. “This really helps set the stage for our ideas to free flow and really push boundaries.” 

7. Keep an Ideas Notebook (or a List on Your Smartphone). 

Using your phone or an IRL journal, you need a place to jot down ideas as they cross your mind. We all know how frustrating it is to have an idea that flits through your brain and then is unretrievable. 

Many creative people swear by keeping a pad and pen by their bedside because they can jot down ideas from their dreams before they slip out of their brains. You never know when ideas are going to pop into your head. You could get inspired at any moment, by watching something on T.V., seeing an ad outside, or even just talking to a friend. This is why it's a good idea to always have something at-the-ready, where you can jot down your inspiration.

Even better, download an app for your phone that can record audio and visuals. Ideas aren’t just words. Take a picture of what you saw that really impressed you. Record someone talking when you hear something that inspires you. Then go back and listen to the recordings to revisit your creative jolt.

8. Tune Up Your Entrepreneurial Mindset.

“You don’t start off day one with $10 million in sales,” Atkinson says. “We learn along the way, as we bring in experts. But it’s really our willingness to innovate and change what we do in our shops that fuels our growth. A lot of people wait for someone to tell them to call that big prospect or to hire that new creative person. You don’t need permission to step into your entrepreneurial greatness.”

You’re in business to solve a problem for your customers and build a thriving workplace for your employees. Atkinson watches shop owners get mired in the “We’ve always done it this way” mindset.

“Take 30 minutes a week and spend time alone writing down what you like and don’t like about your shop.”
- Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Shirt Lab Tribe and Atkinson Consulting

“What are you doing with voice search? How are you improving your ecommerce site? How can you improve your profit margin? What can you change or do differently? Ask yourself these questions, he says.”

9. Be OK With Innovating… and Failing.

Lots of people are afraid to fail, or of the “I told you so” response coming from others or even themselves. However, Atkinson says the willingness to fail is a sign of creative success. 

“How many failures did you collect last year by doing new things? That’s the mark of being creative. What are you willing to do that’s different to drive a better experience for your customers and employees?”
Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Shirt Lab Tribe and Atkinson Consulting

If you think back to when you started your business, or even one year ago, you’ll see how far you’ve come and what problems you solved along the way. “Don’t think about why you can’t do something,” Atkinson says. “Focus on why you can do it. You can get that client or become sustainable. When you fail at something, you’ll eventually succeed, and that success might be your major market differentiation.”

10. Be OK With Getting Outside Of Your Comfort Zone.

Even though Rowboat Creative has been in business for more than 15 years, Guariglia believes that a business is never fully refined. “But that’s the most attractive part to me, building a vision and scaling it,” Guariglia says. “Our team is so confident now that we can make anything happen that we’ll commit to a project without knowing exactly how we’ll execute it. We follow through time and time again that we’re OK taking chances.”

Remember, creativity isn’t something you can force out of yourself. But, there are ways to prod your creativity and help get the ideas flowing. Ultimately, everyone’s different and what works for one person may not work for another. Try as many of these as possible and see which works for you and your shop.

Jan 10, 2022