Yes, you can take time off between jobs without appearing lazy to hiring managers, but it's important to handle this situation diplomatically. Some good rules of thumb are: 1) be reasonable in choosing how much time you take off; 2) make sure your break length is appropriate to the activities you fill it with (couch time should be measured in weeks, not months); and arguably most importantly, 3) be transparent and forthcoming about it.
Employers recognize that life isn't always about work, and taking time off to have an adventure, take care of an ill family member, gain clarity on your life path, or to learn more about our industry can be a sign of character strength. However, recruiters worth their salt will flag timing gaps on resumes, so anticipate questions and frame your answers thoughtfully and honestly. In the current economic climate, most employers understand layoffs and difficulties in finding jobs. Just be prepared to discuss your assertive methods in finding that new job. Leave the break explanations off your résumé, but disclose a brief explanation in your cover letter and during interviews.
A last word of wisdom: while you may not be perceived as lazy for taking a break, be sure to consider the job market you'll need to re-enter. Taking two months off could quickly turn into eight months off when employers of choice aren't hiring feverishly like they were pre-slump.
Laura Smith is MD of US Human Resources at Edelman.