Adobe-full-color Adobe-white Adobe-black logo-white Adobe-full Adobe Behance arrow-down arrow-right LineCreated with Sketch. close-tablet-03 close-tablet-05 comment dropdown-close dropdown-open facebook instagram linkedin rss search share twitter

Creative Blocks

The 5 Most Dangerous Creativity Killers

The "what the hell!" effect and other ways we can short circuit our creativity.

When it comes to doing creative work, it’s important to not only look for ways to let our creativity thrive, but to also be mindful of insidious “creativity killers” that can sneak up and strangle our ability to come up with our best ideas. According to research from Harvard University, there are five main culprits that are responsible for killing our creativity.

It’s important to recognize these impediments to the creative thought process because many are insidious, and worse yet, most can be made on the managerial end, meaning we may be stifling our creative workers without even realizing it. For those of us doing creative work, we must be mindful of these deterrents of the creative process so we can continue to put out our most novel ideas.

1. Role Mismatch

As Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Placing people in roles that they are not fit for is a surefire way to kill creativity. Although this may seem like a managerial concern, there are personal consequences here as well. Additional research has shown that we are at our best when we are “busy” (and pushed to our limits), but not rushed. In the wrong role, we can struggle to keep up and live in a constant state of creativity-crushing panic.

2. External End-Goal Restriction

Although self-restriction can often boost creativity, the Harvard study shows that external restrictions are almost always a bad thing for creative thinking. This includes subtle language use that deters creativity, such as bosses claiming “We do things by the book around here,” or group members implicitly communicating that new ideas are not welcome.

3. Strict Ration of Resources

While money and physical resources are important to creativity, the Harvard study revealed that mental resources were most important, including having enough time. Creative people re-conceptualize problems more often than a non-creative. This means they look at a variety of solutions from a number of different angles, and this extensive observation of a project requires time. This is one of the many reasons you should do your best to avoid unnecessary near-deadline work that requires novel thinking. Also, when we are faced with too many external restrictions we spend more time acquiring more resources than actually, you know, creating.

4. Lack of Social Diversity

Homogeneous groups have shown to be better able to get along, but it comes at a cost: they are less creative. This even applies to the social groups you keep, so beware of being surrounded by people who are too similar all the time, you may end up in a creative echo-chamber.

5. Discouragement/No Positive Feedback

It’s tough to continue working on novel ideas when you haven’t received any positive feedback. This feeling is backed by psychological research that shows people who’ve started a new undertaking are most likely to give up the first time things come crashing down, also known at the “what the hell!” effect. Creative people thrive on having others impacted by their ideas. Without feedback, their motivation begins to wither and die. — How about you? What kills your creativity?

Comments (190)
  • Helenbeee

    isolation and lack f feedback the rest I see as opportunities to show innovation. I love ‘solving the problem’ Id be a detective if I wasnt a Designer 🙂

  • Helenbeee

    sometimes its a language barrier thing subconsciously they can see that something is not right but they dont have the language to explain what it is. You have to help them thats why its so important to empower people with knowledge of your process and give them the terms to explain themselves. Just ask questions just because they can only like or dislike doesnt mean you cant fix the problem its the starting point.

  • Helenbeee

    and they get crap pay honestly the janitor at my work got about the same as I did except he didnt get a higher education debt to payoff. 🙂

  • Helenbeee

    This is true I like constraints it’s a bit kamakaze weaving your spitfire through the maze of obstacles to land your project successfully in the lap of your Client amidst the deafening cheering and clapping……just not every project thats when it becomes disheartening.

  • Helenbeee

    go to a university library immerse yourself into some good reads on building portfolios and then do it. If you cant do it yourself (designing your own brand is long and painful process like pulling teeth with tweezers) get someone else to do it. Im serious you still have creative direction rights but if you need to translate it into an online portfolio or business card etc working with someone can help speed up the process.

  • Hellen Mwambi Masido

    positive feedback helps. though i depend mostly on my own insight. if i really want to create something and people don’t really like it, i will go ahead and do it. good things is that you cant miss SOMEONE to like your stuff. what kills my creativity is fatigue! i have moments of high energy and creative inspiration then fatigue sets in and i cant execute a creative idea to save my life! i am planning to undergo depression therapy though- i think it will help.

  • Theresa

    Of course control freaks kill creativity, they have to have it their way whether it’s a good idea or not.

  • Jane

    Haha…clients kill my creativity. Their input sometimes serve as boulders in my process. If their input deteriorates the quality of my work too much, I would rather give them back their money that continue with the madness.

  • AK Domingo

    4 and 5 are the biggest creativity killers for me. It’s obvious how 4 can kill one’s creativity. As for 5 – it’s not exactly the negative feedbacks that put me down. Sometimes it’s having no feedbacks at all. Having radio silence for what you put out there CAN be very frustrating.

    I also agree to some of the comments how all positive feedbacks (without much thought/construction) can also ruin one’s creativity.

  • PhiloSara

    I got very
    great feedback from friends (had nothing to do with design ) when we played
    user research. They truly imagined the situation and asked me plenty helpful
    questions and gave me great feedback. They cared about me, and my project, and
    they wanted to help! I guess this is the most important thing. Many client just
    wanna give you the job and want You to figure out everything on your own, as
    well his taste and wishes, without communicating. It is work to articulate a
    useful opinion. So when you ask them, many times they do not care enough to give
    you the detailed answer. I think you have to make them Care! Care about your
    work, and be interested and willing full to cooperate. So you have to make
    clear you are working together! You are not a newspaper guy who runs with the
    paper without any cooperation. You need input from him, but he uses your work
    later on.

    And even if it is
    a feeling only, you still have the tool of asking back, and roughly
    “sketch” (verbally or visually) new variations in: color, form, typo,
    whatever attributes your work have, and test it immediately. You know your
    work, and the chances of change.

  • Sandy

    When you stop learning at any age, you stop being creative.

  • Linda-n

    What kills creativity is MONEY!
    Every company that is “business-oriented” and places “revenues” before human beings is a creativity-killer!
    From my experience companies like these don’t search to impress with their concepts, they only search to please the client (that doesn’t know what he really wants most of the time).

    Does anybody disagree with me?

    • Exergone

      Correct. Breakout successes come from doing itg differently than the trend, yet marketing-safe strategies always follow the herd.

    • Riverine

      That is so true! A very important rule for creativity, the client doesn’t know what they want most of the time. They can’t pick an option that isn’t available!

      • Risa Goodman

        I’m going to go bat for the client right now. They can’t know what they want. The same way that 99% of users use a piece of software in precisely the opposite way it was intended to be used, the reason they come to you is clueless-ness. BUT they do want to not appear like an idiot. And they need to feel some sense of control. And that their money is totally moving with something in the right direction. So
        1) ask better questions. this means getting touchy feely. Sorry, there is no other way.
        2) ask them how involved they want to be. They will say “very.” then show them what that means. Once they realize it’s ten calls a day and twenty minutes to turn around feedback, suddenly they say, “nah, it’s ok.- go ahead.”
        3) they do not know their role, so help them understand. no one comes into life knowing how to be a good client. like no one comes into life knowing how to photoshop a flaming, angry skull on your boss’s body, so help them understand. we are all in the dark and dong the best we can.

    • Risa Goodman

      “Revenue” is “spreadsheet thinking.” it’s a place of safety and the last refuge of the charlatan. “Spreadsheet thinking” can only carry you so far. Sure you can compete with competitors but you will always be defining yourself against them and that’s a race to nowhere. You won’t own the conversation and never distinguish yourself– chasing them is the same as chasing your tail.

      The reason the spreadsheet supposedly “works”, if you ask me, is that are numbers on it that are missing: namely the number of people who could care less if your product ceased to exist. I imagine that would be a fairly huge number.

      The numbers work because they aren’t including branding, UX, if users LOVE your product or service and all the other intangibles, like the good judgment of your teams (try outsourcing and then calculating good judgement), and if users return, what is the lifetime value of all the shit they DID NOT buy? What’s the MISSING revenue from THAT?

      Honestly, feel free to contact me on LinkedIn for tips to help make these cases.

    • nick vog

      I do….completely….you’re confusing revenue which ALL businesses seek with revenue as the be-all, end-all, which of course, some companies do fall prey to, particularly those controlled by large institutional funds. ALL businesses MUST pay close attention to revenue regardless of their creative spirit, because without it…..well….you can’t bring your ideas to fruition.

  • Kate West

    I find that looking too hard at other creatives’ work can be robbing. You get so over-inspired that by the time you’re done reading/looking/watching it’s too late and you need to go to bed. R.I.P creative moment!

  • G. Pandrang Row

    Fear. When your boss says things like, “Unless you crack this problem, my boss is going to sack you, but before that, I’m going to sack you.” “If you want to carry on in this job, you better crack this problem – by tomorrow.”

  • Timmie Anne Archy

    perfectionism kills my creativity.

  • sajid mohamed

    Great Article! I am in the same situation now, but thanks for you tips, I shall apply them! Thanks again

  • Dora

    Fear kills creativity. As a young designer I was always afraid that my work would be rejected or that it wouldn’t come out the way I wanted it to. As I’ve grown I realized that the work can change into new forms during the creative process and that’s the best part.

  • JomanaG

    Lack of feedback & boundaries kill my creativity.

  • Lisa Kuehl

    When others outside of our Creative team think they already know the best solution — they just want Creative to execute it….exactly as they see it. Where’s the motivation in that?

    • Risa Goodman

      Might I ask, are there two issues here: 1) business is suggesting solutions that you feel they have no business suggesting? and 2) by doing that they also demoralize creatives?

      If so, i’m going to make s suggestion. 1) get an ally on the business side. they aren’t all tassel-loafer-wearing blowhards. 2) explain to them:
      a) how adding a designer to the mix early in dev processes on can make a difference to their bottom line.
      b) show them an example that’s not Apple. Apple is seen as anomaly and not the standard to many business people. Show them an example they cannot blow off.
      c) I’m listening when you say “design matters because it affects the bottom line.” make the case. I’ll listen. I’m a;ready converted to design-thinking but if designers cannot make this case to me, then even I am wary they really know the power of what design does for the business.

  • The Argiope

    Managers who think design is only the visual output of a project.

    • Katie

      This is a major creativity killer. Has anyone found a remedy to this? Something to prove that the design process takes time?

    • Risa Goodman

      That’s a communication issue. They need examples of 1) products or services in which design was an integral part of the output. and 2) it’s a reflexive knee–jerk response to being unfamiliar with Design Thinking maybe? We tend to respond defensively to things we do now know. You just saw the limits of their awareness so it’s on you to educate, not fight, but have a folder of examples to show them. And stats that show users tend to spend more on products that that are well-designed. (Mart N. says so in one of his books…you could always toss that around for extra cred.)

  • Exergone

    What really gets me going is someone saying, ‘it cant be done.’

  • Bana


  • Katie

    Has anyone found a remedy to #3? Especially regarding time? It’s very frustrating working for a client who thinks any design should take 1 hour or less.

    • Risa Goodman

      Honestly, that’s about your ability to change the client’s mind. Ask them what they can get done in an hour. I promise it will be a short list unless they are fooling themselves. I’m a strategist and that means my job is to help clients understand that good work takes time and that the only thing that takes one hour is lunch. I try to do this in the most positive way, by taking them out to lunch and stating at the end that all we did was have lunch in one hour.

  • Risa Goodman

    And yet…teams do it all the time. I have seen teams do it in under that. What are they doing different? When I was doing business strategy a design firm in Palo Alto I can’t tell you how fast the designers worked- and on command. and repeated it. Day after Day. And did incredible, defining, world-changing work.

  • Risa Goodman

    As a design-strategy MBA who has shared space/work/jobs with 100+ designers in the last five years, I can honestly say- every time I’m amazed at what they come up with- even if it’s not the best fit for the client- it’s really, really creative and the truth is- NO ONE else came up with what they did. for that reason alone, it’s probably better than you think.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More articles on Creative Blocks

Paul Ford