How to conquer creative block using thumbnail sketches

Tory Van Wey

Creative block. It’s happened to all creatives at one point or another. The brief has been read and reread. The research has been done and the deadline draws closer. And there you are, sitting in front of a blank computer screen with a vague humming in your head and no concepts on the horizon.

Creative block can be a major obstacle when it comes to producing quality work and often leads to producing generic and overused designs for lack of a better idea. The secret weapon for combating creative block comes in the form of the humble thumbnail sketch.

Next time you feel yourself in the clutches of creative block try to pull out yourself out of it using the following exercise:

1. Get out your favorite pencil or pen


Photo: Public Domain Pictures

You are going to do this old-school style on a piece of paper. The computer is a powerful tool, but the unlimited options and distractions can sometimes be detrimental to the creative process. So take out that pencil and get it nice and sharp.

2. Draw or download some frames



Photo: baldiri (via Flickr)

I personally like to use a storyboarding template, which can be found for free in numerous places on the internet. You will want your frames to be about 1×1.5 inches or the square equivalent. Technically speaking the frames aren’t really necessary for this exercise, but I think that they keep your thumbnails consistent and they are small enough to keep you from getting sucked into the nitty-gritty details.

3. Set a timer


Photo: SplitShire

Use this handy-dandy online interval timer, or a kitchen timer, to set up a system of count downs that will limit your time on each frame. You can set up different times depending on whether you are brainstorming initial concepts, or expanding on an existing concept.

For an initial concept brainstorm I like to give myself 3 frames at 1 minute, 3 frames at 45 seconds, 3 at 30 seconds, and 3 frames at 15 seconds. It get’s a little stressful towards the end but it forces you to think fast and abandon any judgement of your concepts.

4. Draw!



Start your timer and get going! When the bell rings move on to the next frame and a fresh concept. At the end of the time you will have a page of at least 12 unique concepts. You can repeat the same process with your favorite concepts and increase the time if you want to get a little more detailed.

The do’s and don’ts of thumbnail sketches

  • Do focus on the bigger picture. Details are not important. Use scribbles and vague shapes to imply your idea and don’t worry if it looks nothing like the actual thing you are trying to draw. Use squares and lines to indicate lines of text or formatting, but don’t focus too much on type unless it’s a wordmark or a larger part of the overall design.
  • Don’t erase anything. It waste’s time and distracts you from the task at hand.
  • Do use words if you can’t draw that fast. Concept is key and if you can’t draw a something fast, or at that small size then write down what is and draw an arrow where you want it to go.
  • Don’t judge your concepts. Some of your concepts will suck, and that’s fine. The point is to get as many ideas down on paper as possible so that the good ones become obvious.

After it’s all over, hopefully you’ll have at least one great idea that you can move forward with!

What do you do to overcome creative block?

Featured image: kelly.sikkema (via Flickr)

The author

Tory Van Wey
Tory Van Wey

Tory is a part of the Community Team at 99designs. She was raised in Palo Alto, California and has a degree in Graphic Design from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. When she isn't working she's probably out of cell phone range in the wilderness, or sipping a local brew. Ideally both.

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