January 2013

Creative flow and the state of discomfort

I find myself once again, devoid of ideas. I sit and wrack my brain for a creative solution to a user interface problem posed by a client, and there’s nothing there; no suggestion of even an ounce of creativity flowing through me.

The deadline is fast approaching, and I need to get started. I glance at the clock, my heartbeat chasing the seconds hand around, and feel my chest clench just a little. I start sketching out something rough in the hope that inspiration will hit. It feels formulaic, nasty.

Falling back on your schooling

I don’t know about you, but it’s at this point of the proceedings - when all hope and optimism is lost, and the pressure’s really on – that I return to my training and work through in a logical progression. What are the end goals, why, how, when? Mostly this becomes intuitive as you develop your craft - you don’t need to sit and analyse to the same degree as when you were a student, but if all else fails going back to the most basic steps of this time-honoured procedural approach to generating ideas might not be the most glamorous stage of the design process, but it works.

And, as you might expect, I come up with the goods and live to tell the tale. Not only that, but what had started out as despair ended up being a bit of work I can be genuinely proud of.

On reflection, those times I think I know the answer before the question has been properly explored often leads to work I’m less happy with. In fact, some of my best work is completed when I’m striking out at a solution I can’t quite grasp. I know there’s something to be found there, but I haven’t planned every detail, and there’s no discernible finesse to the process. The pressure of deadlines certainly help to provide focus (without them I’d ponder and postulate for far too long), but it’s that key moment when the panic dissipates and clarity emerges which really interests me.

Every designer yearns for that same feeling: the sense of relief and pride in an elegant, unique and liberating solution. No longer are you hunting for inspiration. Instead, your personal ‘Eureka!’ moment is revealed bit by bit as you work.

Eventually I got to wondering, “How can I create an environment where I don’t have to wade through the crap to get to the euphoria?”

A little bit of discomfort hurts in the right places

For me, when that perfect moment takes hold all else takes a back seat. I know it’s all going to work out well when I find myself desperate to visit the lavatory, but put off my relief until I’ve “just completed working up this mockup” (in fact, a 2010 study found people with a full bladder were better able to make decisions related to impulse control, like throwing down Helvetica and telling the client you’re done 1). Or, I’m sitting in a noisy coffee house, my fellow customers throwing slightly menacing glances as I sit at a table scribbling notes but I find it hard to pause and make room for others. Or worse still, cramped up on a plane or in a bus, with barely the room to open my MacBook without getting jabbed by fellow passengers’ elbows. Put simply, when that urgent sense of direction and purpose takes hold it doesn’t seem to matter what the environment is, I can’t put off the realisation stage. It has to happen there and then.

It won’t come as a surprise to you that, as somebody working in a creative field, it helps to absorb ideas from the wider world. There are real, demonstrable benefits to be gained by exposing yourself to something other than your office decor. New, fresh ideas and perspectives are just waiting around the corner for you to discover. Of course, this isn’t at all unprecedented; Paul Cézanne drew inspiration from living and working alongside poverty in Paris during the 1860s and 70s, when he had the option to fall back on his substantial inheritance.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, explains this as the meeting of two requirements to achieve peak creativity. Each of us is born with two contradictory sets of instructions: a tendency towards keeping the comfortable and the status-quo, made up of instincts for self-preservation and saving energy – such as having a comfortable home office or the reliable tools for our work - but also an expansive tendency made up of instincts for exploring, for enjoying novelty and risk, to foster curiosity. We need both. The first requirement needs little encouragement but the second can wilt if it is not cultivated. If too few opportunities for curiosity are available, if too many obstacles are placed in the way of risk and exploration, the motivation to engage in creative behaviour is easily extinguished. Sustaining high levels of curiosity, of being outside our comfort zone, is the starting point of greater creativity.

Cézanne’s peak of creative energy came from knowing he had a comfort zone, the cushion of his inheritance, and deliberately putting himself at a distance from it to embrace curiosity and see life from a different perspective.

Most interesting to me, I have found that the less comfortable the environment the greater that final realisation becomes. Ideas seem to flow more successfully and translate themselves more clearly into my design work. It’s almost as if by putting myself in uncomfortable surroundings, I’m forced to focus more fully on the problem at hand and engineer the final, purified and distilled, delicious solution. The adrenal system kicks in and my brain achieves focus, and moves into the ‘flow state’ Csikszentmihalyi sought so extensively to define.

Engineer yourself some curiosity

I’m not advocating banging nails into your temple but a little bit of non-physical discomfort needn’t hurt the creative process, and I’m increasingly of the opinion that it has the opposite effect. To be clear, we’re not talking religious flagellation here; there’s absolutely no need to whip yourself daily to fully connect with the design gods, although – you know – if it works for you...

And I’m not at all sure that repeatedly stubbing your toe in a vain attempt to stimulate the moment of clarity would have the desired effect. No, what I’m getting at is that it can help to take yourself out of your comfortable office chair, and move into unfamiliar surroundings where you don’t feel so restful or relaxed. Put yourself on edge enough to really focus your mind, and revel in the rich vein of opportunity this can produce. Challenge yourself by immersing in new environments and difficult working situations where you don’t feel comfortable. Not only will you reap immediate creative rewards, but you’ll also further your own learning and personal growth.


  1. Tuk, Mirjam A., Trampe, Debra and Warlop, Luk, Inhibitory Spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains (2010) ↩︎

Sam Hampton-Smith

Sam is a freelance designer and developer based in Scotland. As well as client work, he teaches design at UHI and writes for numerous magazines. Sam trained as a print designer with a bank before setting up his design studio in 2001.


This article was commissioned for our January 2013 magazine. Like it? View all articles, grab our RSS feed, and subscribe to our newsletter.