A stick figure looking up at a huge light bulb above him with a number 8 in it.

Making creative decisions about the design of an e-learning course sounds like a great thing, right? Whether you’re in charge of just a few parts of the design or have free rein on the entire project, it can be exciting to shape the look and feel.

But having so many choices can have some drawbacks. Sometimes staring at that empty first slide can make your brain go completely blank. What should the layout look like? Which buttons match the project? What kinds of images would work best? Even when working with a strict company style guide, there are still a lot of design decisions to make. 

With all these options, it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself stuck. So how can you get your ideas flowing again? Try one or more of these tricks.

1. List choices that are a bad fit

If you’re having a difficult time coming up with design ideas, start by listing off a few that don’t work. Narrowing things down often reduces the analysis paralysis that comes from having too many options.

Include design approaches that feel distracting or aren’t practical for the content, audience, brand, budget, or timeline. And don’t be afraid to add a few ridiculous options to your list—a good laugh can do wonders for getting your imagination going.

2. Browse company materials

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to create something that feels fresh. There’s usually loads of inspiration hiding in an organization’s past. Looking at a company’s website and advertisements is an easy place to start, but slides, reports, diagrams, signs, and other internal materials can also be surprisingly useful sources for ideas.

It’s less about copying one of these designs completely and more about finding small features you can use or remix for your work. So, don’t be afraid to borrow that icon style you saw in a company budget presentation or the layout of that sign in the office kitchen reminding you to wash your dishes! And one additional benefit: when the design inspiration comes from inside the company, chances are it’s already on-brand.

3. Start doodling

Artists often use small, simplified drawings called thumbnails to quickly play around with layout ideas before working on a full-sized piece. So why not try a similar approach with your course design? Once you get a bunch of possible ideas out on paper, it can be easier to see what aspects of them could fit your needs.

Thumbnails are typically sloppy and drawn in just minutes, so you don’t need to be an artist to make this approach work. Just grab a pen and paper and sketch out a bunch of very basic designs. Quantity versus quality is key here. Even simple shapes and stick figures will get the job done. And if you’re more comfortable doing this digitally, quick mockups are easy to make in PowerPoint or rapid prototyping tools.

Want to start doodling your ideas? Download this free visual storyboard template to get started.

4. Step away from your desk

Sometimes, no matter what you do, good ideas don’t show up when you want them to. In fact, pushing yourself to make design choices when you’re tapped out creatively can actually make things worse. In situations like these, the best thing you can do to move forward on your project is to step away from it entirely—yes, even if you’re on a tight timeline.

A break, even a small one, can be just the thing you need to recharge. So take a walk, grab a snack, read a few chapters of a book, or sleep on it for the night—whatever it takes to give your brain a much-needed reset.

5. Work on another project

If you really can’t take a break, shift your focus to any other project or task you can make progress on. It doesn’t have to be big, just something that’ll help you get things done. At the very least, you’ll feel more productive. And often that combination of letting a challenging project rest and moving forward on something else can loosen up your creativity block.

Plus, that other project might end up inspiring ideas for the previous one!

6. Talk it through with someone you trust

Another person’s perspective can help you see a challenge from a different angle and spark new ideas. So take a few minutes to chat with a co-worker or friend about what you’re stuck on. If there’s a specific design issue you’re struggling with, discussing it with an expert often works best. But in many cases you may not need someone with advanced visual design skills—just a supportive person who can help talk you through it and spot clues you might be missing.

And feel free to take the term “talking” here loosely. If what works best for you is messages back and forth on Slack, a group conversation on Twitter, or comments in Review 360, that’s great too!

7. Make one tiny design choice at a time

You know how cleaning your entire home can feel daunting but becomes more manageable when you break it down into tiny tasks like “Take the glasses from the coffee table to the dishwasher”? That same trick can work for design choices too.

Put the overall project aside and focus on making one small choice. For example, sketch out a button or pick a single image you think could work. Then use that as a starting point for other decisions. Your button has an outline? Great! Now that’s the standard for all the other shapes in your course too. Your image features warm colors? Fantastic! All your course photos will now have that in common.

It’s amazing how one seemingly minor choice can help you to make bigger decisions more easily.

8. Keep a collection of designs you find inspiring

This is an approach you’ll need to work on long before you find yourself with a creative block. Think of it as helping out your future self. Build a personal library of designs you think work well. Then, when you’re feeling out of ideas, browse through your stash and see if anything you enjoyed in the past sparks inspiration now.

Bookmarking other e-learning courses is a logical place to start. You can stock up your collection quickly by regularly browsing the Content Library 360 images and templates, as well as the examples and downloads on E-Learning Heroes. But also consider ideas outside the e-learning field: advertisements, websites, product packaging, warning signs, restaurant menus, and more! A source of inspiration doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful—you just need to find at least one aspect of the design intriguing. 

Pinterest is a great tool for quickly putting together collections like this. But you can also keep it simple and take photos of designs you enjoy or save interesting images to a folder on your computer.

Even more ideas

Making design decisions can be a challenge when you’re feeling stuck. I hope these tips will help you jumpstart your creativity the next time you need it. 

What techniques do you use to get your ideas flowing again? Be sure to share them in the comments.

Also, check out these articles for more exciting ideas to try out:

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