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In a creative rut? Try these exercises.

Creativity is a process. Maintaining a creative habit can be tough. 

The following exercises can help you think visually and break through ruts.

Word association games 

When you get stuck breaking down a big concept for illustrations or photos — visualizing “community,” for example — try a word association game. Set a timer two minutes. In either a notes file or notepad, write as many words as you can think of associated with that concept. It doesn’t matter what words they are, or their order or whether you think they’re good. Simply make the list until the timer goes off. Don’t stop listing — if you think you’re done, you’re not … until the timer finishes. 

You’ll end up with many ideas — think of them as angles — related to this word/concept. You can start to group them by theme; for example, inspired by “community” you may have words like neighborhood, church, people. Use these themes to think about the associated imagery: What are some photos or images that relate to some of these words? 

Then, think about the purpose and functionality of what you are designing:

  • Does the tone match your topic/angle? 
  • Does this type of image stereotype a group of people?
  • Can this type of image resize easily to the various platforms you may use for distribution? 
  • Is such an image available? This is when you’d check stock images for availability and begin to edit using your tool of choice.

Headline practice 

In this exercise, we are brainstorming information essential to the story, so that it influences our image selection. 

  • Set a timer for two minutes. 
  • Start the timer. Your objective is to write as many separate headlines for your work (whether an infographic, photo or story) as possible. Let them flow: They’ll vary, play off of each other, be clever, be straightforward. Emphasize different angles by experimenting with word order; your first three words and last word will be most impactful. 
  • Once time is complete, select one headline either as it’s written or by combining words and phrases.
  • Share the headline with the writing and editing team to confirm that it aligns with the story’s current direction. 
  • Select visuals that work together with the headline to convey the tone and content of the story.

Other practice

  • Type Connection: A typographic dating game that educates while you match fonts for their best fits
  • Hue Test: A soothing game in which you arrange colors in order of their hues, which is harder than you’d think!

These exercises are drawn from a Journalism Institute program by Senior Director Beth Francesco on “Design Hacks: How to create visuals when you aren’t a designer.” You can view the presentation and slides here. Have a design question? Contact Beth at [email protected] or @bethfrancesco.

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