5 Creative Inspiration Exercises for the Drained Designer

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Creativity often operates like a well for designers. Some days, the well is filled with an abundance of creativity. Other days, it feels like all the creativity has been used up, leaving the well bone dry. During this dry spell, designers struggle to sustain inspiration. The good news is that creativity is renewable. Replenish by taking a step back from a floundering task and practicing the exercises below to spur your creativity.

Creative Inspiration Exercises via Stefan Mumaw:

One of our favorite presentations from last year’s HOW Interactive Design Conference confronts the issue of creative slumps. Stefan Mumaw’s remedy for drained designers is to perform creative exercises. Check out a clip from his presentation at last year’s HOW Interactive Design Conference to see one of his creative exercises:

In addition to Mumaw’s presentation, which you can watch at at HOW Design University, check out this excerpt from his 2013 HOW Magazine article: “Creative Boot Camp: 7-Day Basic Training Program that lists additional exercises to jumpstart creative thinking:

Creative Boot Camp: Basic Training Program


In its original book form, Creative Boot Campis a 30-day crash course on creativity. It features an innovative, fun, creative training program designed to prepare you to generate ideas in greater quantity and quality. The following is an intense, week-long version of Creative Boot Camp, a creative training program designed to leave you more creative than when you began. You start with a timed creative exercise that acts as your baseline. Then, each day, you’re given a new exercise, providing a problem to solve and the opportunity to solve it with relevance and novelty. The seven daily exercises are short and fun, taking no more than 15 minutes. After each, you’ll get the lesson or moral for that exercise—the memorable truth that the exercise reveals about creativity, process and behavior. On the seventh day, you will not rest. Instead, you will take your final exercise and prove once and for all that with a little creative attention and a desire to improve, you can survive Creative Boot Camp and train yourself to generate better ideas. Here are two of the seven exercises. TEN- HUT! Let’s rock.

Day 1: Prison Cake Care Package

Time Limit: 3 Minutes

Alas, your significant other has been sentenced to jail. It happens. As luck would have it, you’re a professional baker. This is fortunate for your significant other because the prison is testing a new contraband policy: If it can fit in a cake, it can come in. Time to figure out what you could sneak in. Your challenge today is to write down as many items as you can conjure that you could covertly pass to your incarcerated loved one inside a cake. The goal is to provide items that he or she would want or need inside the joint. There’s no limit to what could be sent. If it gets past the guards, it’s no longer considered illegal contraband. You’re tasked with writing down as many items as you can in three minutes.

Day 2: The Gamemaker

Time Limit: 12 Minutes

You’ve worked hard and you deserve to play a game. What game shall you play? “Angry Birds Star Wars” edition? Nah, you did that during the production meeting. Online poker? That’s so 2007. No, you need something new, something nearby, something … creative. You’ll just have to make it. Today’s challenge is to create a game out of what you can reach right now. Not what’s on your desk or what’s in your cubicle, but what you can literally reach from your current position. If you can stretch out your arm and touch it, you can use it. Your game must have rules. It must produce a winner and, therefore, a loser; if everyone wins, no one wins. It can be a game of skill or a game of chance, it can take take time or be done quickly. Create a game in 12 minutes or less.

More Exercises for Creative Inspiration:

D30: Exercises for Designers

Another favorite presenter and HOW Design University Instructor, Jim Krause has also compiled exercises to stimulate creative thinking – in both an online education course and in a book called D30: Exercises for Designers (shorthand for 30 days worth of creative exercises for designers.)

See the online education course preview:

Find more inspiration from the D30 book excerpt:

Activity 2: Swirling Swirls

Consider this project an introduction to a doodling habit you can undertake whenever you find yourself with pen, paper and a few minutes to spare. Not only will this habit develop hand skills, it will also improve your eyes’ ability to evaluate curves and compositions as you create decorative panels of swirls (filigree that could be enjoyed for what it is and/or saved for future professional projects.) Unsure about your ability to gracefully render this activity’s designs? Don’t worry about it. Simply aim for a consistent look for each curve, line and dot you create – the beauty of your creations may surprise you.

A letter-size sheet of ordinary paper will work for this exercise, but feel free to use better quality paper if you like. A fine or an extra-fine tipped rollerball pen would be ideal, but other kinds of pens will suffice as well – including whatever pen happens to be floating around in a nearby drawer, purse or shoulder bag.

  1. Fold your letter-size sheet of paper into quarters.

  2. Next, visualize how a double-ended swirl will look within one of the quarter-sheet panels. Rehearse your stroke a few times without touching pen to paper. Then, when you’re ready
    , draw the swirl with confidence and grace. After you’ve drawn the swirl, follow it backwards with the pen to double its line (this will give your swirl a more casual appearance while allowing you to make subtle corrections to its form.)

  3. Add a couple more swirls to your first. Rehearse each line before rendering it; draw all new swirls as if they were growing from previous lines; vary the sizes of your swirls; retrace all lines from end to beginning (just as you did in step 2); keep the swirls relatively large for now – smaller curls will be added as the work progresses.

  4. Continue adding a variety of large and medium swirls until the panel is filled.

  5. Add smaller and smaller swirls to the panel while maintaining a consistent and balanced coverage of decor.

Feeling inspired? Fill another of your paper’s panels with a design that has a radically different visual personality. How about a design based on squares or triangles? Or mixed shapes?

Activity 6: Junk Drawer Printmaking:


Most of us, somewhere in our homes, have a drawer, box or bin full of buttons, spools of thread, retired household items and a collection of keys that may or may not be associated with any current locks. Chances are, these items will someday make their way to recycling bins or to garbage cans, but before they do, how about giving them the chance to leave one last impression—both figuratively and literally? How about creating a set of frame-ready pieces of art using some of these objects as printmaking tools?

Gather a good assortment of junk drawer items for this project—things that you won’t mind covering with a bit of paint or ink. Printmaking ink would be ideal for this activity, but acrylics, gouache or watercolors could be used instead. Protect your work surface with newsprint or butcher paper.

  1. Gather your assortment of junk and semi- useless items.

  1. To prepare for the upcoming works of art, cut a playing-card-sized hole in your manila folder as shown here (trace the playing card to define the size and shape of the hole). It’s not critical that the hole be placed in the exact center of the folder’s panel—what is being made here is a simple mask through which paint can be applied.

  2. Cut a playing-card-sized hole in the folder’s other panel and then cut the folder in two.

  3. Next, fold five or six sheets of paper in half.

  4. Position one of your manila folder masks over a half-sheet of paper (each print that will be made in the steps ahead will occupy a half-sheet). In a moment, we’ll be applying a light wash of color into this mask—a subtle backdrop for the upcoming printed impressions.

  5. Whether you’re using printmaking ink, watercolors, gouache

  1. 7. Now, instead of brushing the color directly through the mask and onto the paper, apply it to something like a small sheet of paper, a crumpled piece of foil or a padded plastic envelope (as shown here). Apply the paint to an area that is slightly larger than the size of the cut-out mask that was created earlier.

  1. 8. Next, press your freshly painted surface into the masked area of your half-sheet of paper and then remove it to leave a mottled wash of color inside the mask.

  2. 9. Remove the mask from the page and repeat what you just did to the other half of the sheet of paper. this will leave you with two lightly and irregularly colored backdrops. Produce at least ten backdrops in this way so that you’ll have plenty to work with when you start adding printed impressions in the next step. Allow all of your backdrops to dry before proceeding.

  3. 10. Ready to start printing? Choose something from your pile of objects, mix a color of ink or paint, apply the color to the object and then stamp it into one of your prepared

  1. 11.Build up layers of various-colored stamped images within your backdrops. think: color, composition, balance, flow. this pattern was made from a bicycle cog, a round piece of plastic and the head of a screw.

  2. 12. As an option, what about working with printmaking ink and a small roller? here, print- making ink is being applied to a roller using a small piece of glass as a rolling surface.

  3. 13. Once the roller has been coated with a thin layer of ink, the pigment can by rolled onto an object (such as this round metal socket) prior to using the object as a stamp. If you have access to printmaking ink and a small roller, you may find that this method works very well in capturing small details of whatever it is.

  4. 14. If you have access to printmaking ink and a small roller, you may find that this method works very well in capturing small details of whatever it is you are using to create stamped images. The image shown here—a design built by stamping impressions of four different keys—was created using printmaking ink and a roller.

Looking for more creative inspriation? Check out Shann Ferreira’s course, Design Inspiration Exploration. In this course, you will learn six explorations on how to stay inspired when you’re stuck in a creative rut.