Photo by Mia Baker on Unsplash

The Perfect Gift: Part 2

A Top 10 List of great gifts for Designers that spark creativity.

By: Yvonne Ho & Leigh Bryant

We designers are a tricky bunch. We tend to work long hours, often getting lost in the projects we’re focused on. But for the people around us — especially our family and friends who don’t totally understand what it is we do — the long hours can be confusing. It can be hard to see what we’re doing during those hours and even harder to understand how it takes so long to do it. And while I can’t explain every detail of a designer’s day and work, I can give some hint as to why our hours are so long.

Designing, despite what many, many people think, is not just doodling and it often has very little to do with being “good at art”. In fact, the bulk of my work and the work of most designers I know is about problem solving. It’s about sitting with a challenge and figuring out a way to solve it so that the people facing it don’t have to face it anymore. And this, like all creative thinking, requires a lot of time.

And then once you’ve got a solution in mind, there’s a lot of work that has to go into crafting it so that the greatest number of people receive the benefit of it. Making things look nice is a part of that, but so is doing a ton of research, talking to people facing the problem, testing solutions with them, tweaking things based on their feedback and then testing them again to see what has improved and what other challenges they’re now facing.

It takes a lot of you, as a designer. It’s mentally taxing and often, if you’re working on a project for several months and spending the bulk of that time refining and iterating and making those small changes that makes all the difference but don’t require some of the early, big-picture thinking you get at the start of a new project, you start to feel a bit creatively stuck.

The thing about a creative drought for a designer is that it can come on slowly — so slowly you often don’t even realize it’s happening. You just feel depleted, like you’re not doing anything worthwhile, not bringing anything of value to the table. And that’s a terrible feeling.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for the perfect gift for the designer in your life, I encourage you to think a little outside the box. For an overworked designer, a jolt of inspiration could be just the ticket.

Escape Room

I’ve been told for some this is their worst nightmare — being locked in a room and having to solve puzzles in a limited timeframe. But think about it this way: design is, at its heart, about problem solving. An escape room is the perfect opportunity for a designer to flex those muscles in a new context. Take the pressures of work and the confines of specific user problems away and you’re giving a designer a chance to play in their favourite way without the stiff strictures of their day-to-day. Plus, it’s a ton of fun and forces them to get away from the office for a couple of hours.

Art Gallery Membership

I know I said design is not really about being good at art, and that’s true. And I know it’s a bit cliched to even suggest this as a gift, but it’s an old standby for a reason. Art galleries are incredible sources of inspiration. Take a designer into a quiet space where challenging the way you look at things is the entire point, and you’ll be sure to help break them out of any creative ruts they’re in (or simply bring them some joy if they’re not). A membership to a gallery gives them the chance to go on a whim, for short bursts, whenever the mood to break out of their routine strikes them.

Improv Class

This one could be a pretty big roll of the dice, but if you’ve got the right designer on your hands, this is an ace in the hole. Improv classes are like spontaneous, creative bootcamps. There’s absolutely nothing more curative for a blocked mind then to be forced to bust out of their comfort zone and just go for it. Improv can be a scary experience for some, but it’s also an exhilarating experience. The liberation it gives the tired, overworked creative brain is well worth conquering the fear for. Design isn’t just about being creative on paper or a screen — learning to use your body and your voice as creative communication tools is worthwhile, too.

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Food Tour

It may require a fair bit of legwork on your part (or not, depending on your local market and what’s on offer), but something dynamic like a food tour is a great gift for a designer. Food tours are typically built around exploring one type of cuisine or even one facet of one type of cuisine. Participants go to multiple locations, back to back to back, and test out the best of what’s on offer at each location. What that means is you’re exploring one facet of something from as many angles as possible. It’s what designers do all the time on projects, but in a presumably much more delicious fashion. Once again, it gives the designer in your life a chance to play around with their skills and natural habits in a new context, which can be an enormous boon to creativity.

Pens, Pens, Pens!

Few things in this life are as satisfying as the feeling of a quality pen running across the surface of your paper. This is especially true when you’re a designer (I’ve had my Creative Director hide his favourite narrow tip felt pens in key locations around the office so he’d always know where to find one when he needed it). There’s something about a quality pen during a rapid ideation sessions that can make you feel almost superhuman as a designer. Even when you’re drawing stick figures to quickly get a point across, the feeling of a good pen in hand can unlock something in the creative mind that a ballpoint or even a standard sharpie can’t quite evoke.

This year, get the designer in your life a really nice set of felt pens. I’ve long been a lover of Slicci and Hi-Tec Cs, but my new fixation is on the Erasable Frixion Ball slim pen from Pilot. It gives you all the fine lines of the ultra thin Slicci without any of the ink clogs and it’s erasable! My runner-up award goes to the Pilot Juice Up, which has improved ink dispersal, better hand feel, and elegant appearance. (I could go on about this for days — I told you, a good pen makes you feel superhuman!)

Terrarium Workshop

A gift that gives a lot of bang for your buck is a terrarium workshop. It’s a fun activity, it’s a source of alternative creative inspiration, it’s informative (you actually learn a lot about plant care and maintenance!), and you leave with a beautiful planter. But best of all, having plants in an office space has been shown to have multiple benefits, including a boost to creativity levels. A beautiful space that brings a bit of nature into an otherwise dreary space is always a good gift, and this one has the added benefit sparking a little creative juice flow in the creation process. It’s a win-win!

Packing Cubes

If the designer in your life is anything like every other designer I know, then the satisfaction of putting everything into a well-organized system is incomparable. And when you think about it, packing cubes are basically the way to turn luggage into a well-organized wireframe come to life. Grouping like items, gathering them in separate spaces just for them and then Tetrising them into their home in your suitcase? It’s like a small piece of heaven right here on earth for a designer. Does it open up creative potential? Maybe not as much as some other gifts, but reducing travel stress and sparking a bit of joy has never hurt the creative process, either.

Code Names (and other board games)

A few months back we started a board game night at the office and I know we’re not the only workplace to have this on offer. Lots of my peers have similar nights, sometimes themed around specific games (think Dungeons and Dragons nights) and sometimes for general. It makes sense: it’s a fun way to bond and because it’s a bit silly, it’s surprisingly beneficial to creative thinking centres. Which is why board games in general, especially strategic and team-based games, are a great gift for a designer. Team-based games can give a boost to collaborative play and strategic games often require some big-picture future thinking that designers can always benefit by practicing. They’re a fun way to let loose and have some fun. I personally like Code Names because even though it hurts your brain, it’s pretty easy to learn and it forces you to think of new ways to make connections, but probably any board game is going to be great bet for those same reasons.

Snack Box Subscription

I know, I know, I’ve already listed a food thing on the gift guide. But who doesn’t love food? And this one lets the recipient sample interesting and new delights all year round! Let me tell you, when you’re in the zone on a project and pulling those long hours I mentioned off the top, having some snacks at hand is a life-saver. Fuelling up with creative energy at the same time as you fuel up with real energy? The best!

Ostrich Pillow

I’m going out on a limb with this one, but if you can’t roll the dice on something a little weird for a designer, who can you do it with? The Ostrich comes in a few varieties, but in its original version it’s basically a soft, almost full-head helmet that lets you close out the world for a bit and either focus intently on the thing in front of you or crash out for a bit and catch some sleep. Does it look a little goofy? Maybe. But giving your brain a break is an important part of keeping the creative fires stoked. Whether you do that by napping or my closing out the myriad distractions we’re all facing at the office (especially in open-plan spaces), it’s worth it to look a little foolish if you ask me.

If you’ve got Product Managers and Developers in your life, then check out parts 1 and 3 of our gift guide later this week to get some inspiration for creative, functional gifts that are sure to please.