Do you ever have those dreams where you’re still at work? I do. Never the good parts, only the seemingly hopeless stressful parts.

I worked in the service industry for years, waiting tables and bartending to get through school and pay the extra bills. One dream I will never forget was my odd currency dream. When I delivered a drink, the customer gave me a hundred dollar bill. I had to go get change (causing me to get even more behind…) and when I returned, he was furious. He said, “I specifically asked for my change in a $38 bill, an $18 bill and two $9’s.” I spent a good portion of the rest of this dream trying to deal with someone who was asking for things that I could not give him. It was like we were living in two completely different realities.

I remember this dream even years later because my feeling of helplessness and frustration was so acute. Since then, I’ve experienced many times in my career as a designer when I felt I was being asked to perform a similarly impossible task. Or, as one of my instructors used to say, to try to put the Gettysburg Address on a business card. And sadly, no matter how much you may be attached to simplicity and negative space, you’ve got to make it work. So, what to do?

Ask questions. Get to know what your client does in far more detail than your initial consultations can provide. What are the lesser known details of their industry? What is their audience? (And do they actually have a grasp on what it is?) What are their goals beyond the scope of the project you are working on?

You might come to find that the $38 bill really does exist to them. You’ve just never heard of it, and all you needed to do was understand more about where they were coming from to get it. Or, you may discover that what they have asked for initially is not actually what they need. (I don’t say this in a “designer always knows best because other people don’t understand my creative vision…” way.) If you think there is a better method for them to meet their goals, offer suggestions. The worst that can happen is you still have to complete a difficult project but with a much greater understanding of your client. And the best is that you collaborate to come up with a creative solution and in the process develop a relationship that will last longer than one individual project.

Practice some design Zen. I know, I know people throw the word “Zen” around like it’s going out of style. But it really does have some value in this situation. The goal is to do what you’ve been doing, only with a completely different understanding of it. As the lecturer Genro Seiun Koudela says, “…the mind has a chance to quiet down. You get away from this habitual way of thinking, and discriminating – judging good, bad, unpleasant, and so on.” I’ve occasionally caught myself thinking things like “I can’t do X, it’s not the way layout (or logos, or whatever) works…” or so on. Don’t fall into that trap.

While I’m practicing design Zen, I like to assume that I already know the answer top the problem I’m facing, I just haven’t given my my mind a chance to tell me about it yet. But I know it’s in there. This allows me to deal with “blocks” without loosing too much sleep about it.

I know you have some suggestions to add to the mix.