Abandon Normal Instruments”: How We Spent SRCCON Fighting Creative Block

Why we get stuck in creative ruts; strategies for finding a way out.

Artifacts from our session.

Shortly after SRCCON 2019 delivered its closing remarks, a group of us ventured out to the St Frances Cabrini Catholic Church to meander along a twisting path inscribed into the lawn. We were there to walk the labyrinth: one of the most ancient formal tools of meditation and inspiration.

In the late Middle Ages, people would walk along a labyrinth’s path contemplating spiritual questions, hoping that a prescribed walking pattern could help them achieve a transcendental clarity of mind. As conference attendees in 2019, we were looking to use the same practice to find our way around creative block.

Regardless of what role you play in your organization, you’ve likely encountered creative block: Sometimes it feels like every story has already been done, or there’s no way around the problem you’re trying to solve.

Should you find the nearest labyrinth? It’s worth a shot! But failing that, we held a SRCCON session to dig into what gets us stuck in these creative ruts and developed a list of strategies for finding our way out.

A “Big Empty Space in Your Brain”

We experience creative block across all kinds of disciplines in the newsroom. In our session, we wanted to investigate the root causes of our blocks, so that our tactics for generating ideas could more directly address our obstacles. We asked groups to enumerate their own experiences of (and the reasons for) creative block. Here’s what they said:

What does it feel like to experience creative block?

  • Big empty space in your brain where you want to be.”

  • Fear”

  • Anxiety”

  • Paralyzed”

Why do you get creative block?

  • Hard to search for something where we’re stuck in a routine.”

  • Not enough constraint”

  • Pressure to get something new. Pressure for innovation.”

  • Pressure to have something really good…if it’s an important story then you don’t want to give your editor a first draft that’s mediocre.”

  • Self-doubt related closely with [my] profession”

  • Jealousy”

  • Thinking about a problem [on] a much bigger scale than it really has to be”

  • Context-switching fatigue. A lot of people are doing multiple roles, so a lot of your effort is switching up between what those roles are—whether it’s a developer and a designer, or a graphics editor and a traditional reporter—and really trying to navigate switching between those roles in addition to thinking creatively.”

An Unexpected Spark of Inspiration

Getting through creative block often means embracing unexpected sources of inspiration. When a project’s final form seems hard to imagine, it follows that the right path may yet be unknown to you. We’ve found that, as with the labyrinth, sometimes being open to what’s in front of you can jolt you out of old ways of thinking: a valley’s wildflowers might conjure a color palette; a shoe ad might inspire unusual typography; moon cakes in a box might spark an idea for a photo grid.

Here are some things that we saved over the past year, many of which we seized upon as the perfect spark for a story or product:

An assortment of images in the form of a collage

As an example of how one of these finds might help clarify your thoughts, Alex was stuck on a story with sensitive details and complex subjects, in a small newsroom without money for the story’s art, nor access to the story’s subjects. It wasn’t until he saw, of all things, this skateboarding video that he realized even though he wasn’t a professional illustrator, he could borrow and expand on some elements of the animation style in the video to reflect particular emotions and themes from the story. The result seized on the animation of brushstrokes to bring anxiety and intimacy to the story’s characters.

When Katie worked on this graphic on CIA interrogations at The Washington Post, the primary design element emerged from some stray keys accidentally typed into the browser’s CSS inspector. The accidental keystrokes broke the CSS and caused the graphic to display in an unconventional—yet bold—style, and Katie seized that opportunity to apply those styles to the finished graphic.

How to Think Sideways

Our discussion about creative strategies centered heavily on the idea of introducing some form of creative constraints around the thinking process. What might it look like to formalize that process? In the 1970s, two artists addressed that question with a deck of cards known as “Oblique Strategies.”

Oblique Strategies, created by musician and producer Brian Eno and visual artist Peter Schmidt, are a set of lateral thinking prompts designed to subvert creative block. Eno and Schmidt originally wrote the prompts on a set of cards, intending for a creator to choose a card at random and interpret the prompt as they see fit. Eno has used the cards with a number of musicians in his recording studio, including Coldplay and David Bowie.

The strategies range from the abstract (“A line has two sides”) to the hyper-specific (“Convert a melodic element into a rhythmic element”) to the… just plain weird (“Tape your mouth”). Some offer direction (“Abandon normal instruments”), while others invite reflection (“What would your closest friend do?”). It isn’t always immediately obvious how they can apply to practical work. But each strategy helps set boundaries around the process of creating work or suggests a new way of approaching the problem.

In our SRCCON session, it was clear that everyone has their own ways of finding inspiration and overcoming creative block. So we asked participants to share their strategies and brainstorm with one another. And behold, we emerged with our very own list of oblique strategies for newsroom technologists!

The next time you find yourself stumped or uninspired, give one of these a try. You might find new ideas in unexpected places.

SRCCON 2019’s News Nerd Oblique Strategies

  • Write longhand

  • Take a shower

  • Play!

  • Get physical

  • Go to sleep

  • Go to the bar (responsibly)

  • Play a new note

  • Use butcher paper

  • Disconnect router

  • Start elsewhere

  • Code switch

  • Live your life

  • Mixed media

  • Talk to your dog/cat

  • What are the axes?

  • Help someone else think through a problem

  • Children’s books

  • What are the consequences, really?

  • Sit at someone else’s desk/area

  • Who is this for?

  • Watch the video called “The Gap” by Ira Glass

  • Understand the constraints and work with and through them

  • Think about a website you love and what you love about it

  • What is the container?

  • Dump work into a different platform

  • Lie in grass or be near trees

  • Get off at a new-to-you bus/subway stop

  • Walk through a graveyard

  • Create something with your hands

  • Tell your problem to a rubber duck

  • Change communication medium

  • Trust your track record

  • Move where you’re sitting

  • Listen to Lizzo

  • Play some video games

  • Set your own constraints

  • 10 minutes of stream-of-conscious writing

  • How would a child do it?

  • Eat lunch outside

  • No “no”s

  • Fully commit to your bad idea

  • Juggle

  • Do it by hand

  • Glass half empty? Turn it into glass half-full

  • What is the theme?

  • Random image search

  • Get your feet wet (literally)

  • Visit (virtual) libraries

  • Visit (real) libraries

  • Get lost

  • Sketch blindfolded

  • Don’t use any tools

  • Eat

  • Use different minds

  • Only pencil and paper

  • Focus on version 1.0

  • Steal your inspiration

  • Identify your gold standard and do the opposite

  • Pet a dog

  • Do menial tasks

  • Throw away your art supplies

  • Burn it

  • Put it in a drawer

  • What if you tweeted it?

  • Make a listicle

  • Do it for someone else

  • Does it make sense? Should it make sense?

  • Stop making sense

  • Draw within a tiny box

  • Give yourself 30 seconds

  • Give it to someone else

  • Exquisite corpse

  • How do you make the vegetables taste like candy?

  • Map the problem

  • Create a “vent board” to get out frustrations

  • Data viz something random/stupid

  • Track yourself

  • Subscribe to TMZ news alerts

  • Embrace the shower thought

  • Anime


  • Pick people to interview with no story in mind. See what bubbles up and interests you

  • Apply your earworms

  • If someone says you can’t do it that way, ask why

  • Retrospectives (especially anonymous)

  • Maker day

  • Take one thing away

  • Stare at a running toy train

  • Scroll through memes

  • List every possible related word. Group them. If that doesn’t work, add opposites

  • Make your phone less accessible to you

  • Send a creative prompt to a friend

  • Look at the sky

  • Put your head under the water (swim, bath)

  • Read Foucault’s “What is an Author?”

  • Pretend you work for a different publication

  • Read a fan fiction story about your favorite movie. See how others have interpreted the story or characters

  • Rearrange the furniture

  • Print it out

  • Make two distinct things overlap

  • Draw the same thing ten times from memory

More images of our oblique strategies:

A table with notes full of handwritten examples of oblique strategies



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