Step away from the computer: Methods for staying fresh

by christina on August 9, 2011

Every year during tax season, my accountant slays me for my lack of “business expenses”. I mean, I count the few work-related lunches, mileage, and courier charges, but beyond that? There’s not much. As a graphic designer, all I really need is my computer and a little inspiration.

But while the computer – MacBook Pro – is still going strong after four years, the inspiration does tend to wane from time to time. I mean really – how many hours can you really look at a computer screen? The older I get, the shorter those hours become and the more I want to search out more tactile ways to design, create, and get inspired. Here are some of my methods for staying “fresh”.

Get outside

Most artists agree that the best ideas come straight out of nature. And who amongst us desk-jobbers couldn’t use a little more sunshine? I was just outside the other day watering my plants and happened upon this pretty little butterfly playing amongst my cone flowers. I was able to snap a few shots before he flitted away:

Why can't I make colors like that?!

The striking colors were really what got me – light-years more beautiful than anything I could create on-screen. But who knows? While the “butterly theme” has been done (and then some), this pretty little guy could provide inspiration for my next project (I’m thinking a purple, orange and gold holiday card – any takers?).

Get arty

I’d never call myself an “artist” in the traditional sense. Yes, I realize that I can create pretty things out of nothing, but without a sketch pad or a canvas, I don’t feel like I conform to the typical “artist” stereotype.

Still – that doesn’t mean I don’t try. Right now I’m working on a piece that – while definitely not original – required more than one trip to Michael’s for supplies. It’s an “address sign” like the subway and landmark signs so popular these days. I have an acquaintance who recently made one using her new address and I thought, “I can do that!” (not to mention there’s been a huge, ugly expanse of wall in my kitchen I’ve been dying to cover up). A big-ass canvas, a few coats of metallic paint, and some careful stencil placing followed by black paint later and this is where I’m at:

A work in progress...

A masterpiece in the making? Probably not. But using real art supplies – not Adobe Illustrator – for once, certainly helps build my confidence that I can and do create beauty where there was none (or just an empty wall) before.

Get physical

OK, desk-dwellers – this one is obvious so I won’t harp on it. But we all know that it isn’t good to sit in a chair looking at a computer screen and typing all day. Get up – move around! At least once an hour if not more often. Stretch out those forearms, walk around the block, look at something not artificially lit! It’ll prevent your mind from growing brain-mold and do the rest of your body as much good, too.

Whether you work in an office or at home, take a break and take a walk!

Get dressed

Earlier this year I took a strict “no-shopping-for-three-months” vow not only in an effort to save money, but also to start using the vast quantities of clothing I already owned, but wasn’t taking advantage of. I had just moved into my new home and as I was unpacking I found clothes I had – quite simply – forgotten about. Beautiful clothes that deserved to be worn…more than once.

What I discovered during this ban was how to mix things up and how to really put accessories to good use – a necklace or a belt can totally change the way a dress looks! It taught me to work with what I had – cause trust me, there was enough – but also to look at pieces in a different way and to combine textures and patterns differently to achieve a totally unique look.

I mean, I ever need to go shopping ever again?! (And this isn't even half of it...)

I’ve actually been doing this for years with my work – using a template created for one client and tweeking it to serve the needs of another. I think most designers do this. Because even though the bones might be the same, what you can create when you just mix things up, can be totally new and amazing.

Get schooled

There is always so much to learn – especially for those of us mostly self-taught in the art of graphic design – and I’ve made an effort over the years to soak up as much information as I can. Whether it’s taking software-training classes at my local science museum (small classes, hand-on learning, and very intensive), to attending seminars hosted by my local AIGA chapter, to checking out art books my library, I’ve learned you can never stop learning or growing in this field.

The tools of this trade change so frequently that the industry basically demands it of us, and honestly, I’m grateful for it. Because not only does it help me be a better a designer, it allows me to meet fascinating people (or at least people in the same boat as I am) who inspire me to become better at what I do.

AIGA has chapters across the county - visit to find out more about events in your area!

Get some sleep

I’ve always been a good sleeper and am extremely thankful for it (having a boyfriend who has a horrible time sleeping and seeing first-hand how it can affect your work, mood…everything). And while I know that by this point in life we all have pretty much figured out how much sleep we can function with, I’ll just say this – we’d all function better with more.

Einstein? Clinton? Sure – there are those people who can function on four hours. But they’re extremely rare. And every new study says that we’re usually always better off getting more sleep than less – especially when you spend your days eyes glued to a computer screen. I know life is short and we all have deadlines, but honestly – if you’re a mess, your work will be a mess. I never created anything I was happy with when I was tired. It might have been “good enough”, but is that really what you want your work to look like? So get those 8 hours or more – take that post-lunch nap (if you can). You (and your eyes, clients, everyone you encounter in your day) will be grateful for it.

A working girl's gotta sleep. (Image courtesy of

Bottom-line: I’m not a creativity expert. I think I am pretty creative and know a lot of other creative people, but an expert? Absolutely not. Still, 28 years of living and four-and-half years of freelancing have taught me a few things. They might be pretty basic, but they have helped me to stay fresh (and relatively sane) all these years. I love what I do, but we all need to take a break and recharge those batteries now and again. So step away from that computer – even for only a few minutes – and take a break.




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