The blank page stares at me when I begin a new design project. I always experience some level of anxiety with this challenge of transforming emptiness into an attractive piece that communicates a clear message. You can’t just put ANYTHING into the empty space. The design has to have a concept, an idea, a plan.
When I was first in school learning graphic design, I wanted to hurry through the planning stage and get to the implementation phase as soon as I could. Why? Because I was comfortable on the computer. I knew how to use the software and do the layout. It was the unknowns in the planning stage that intimidated me.
I actually had a dream one night that helped me become more at ease with the concept development phase. In the dream, I was sitting on the ledge of the Grand Canyon enjoying the beautiful scene. A group of eagles appeared. Each eagle was a different color. They were soaring and circling, then one by one, each of them settled onto the ledge next to me. We all just sat there together for a while, until I woke up.
The next day, I asked a friend (who is very wise and spiritual) what she thought the dream meant. She said that the eagles were showing me how wonderful it is to sit at the edge of something large and powerful and mysterious and simply enjoy the view. This became an epiphany for me. The blank page staring at me could become an invitation to explore and wonder “what if…?” And so began my practice of just breathing and seeing where the adventure leads me.
I’ve had a few years to accumulate and refine the tools that assist in the idea phase of a project. The process varies, and how I select the tools depends on how specific or metaphorical I want the design to be. But, every project begins with an intake discussion with the client where I ask a series of questions that help us define the scope and the goals. This discussion provides me with the information I need to write a design brief and construct a design strategy.
- Research and brainstorm. For me, these happen simultaneously. My favorite techniques are taking notes, making lists, doing mind-mapping (or “flapdoodle” as I call it in my classroom), forcing connections, and asking “what if…?”. Effective brainstorming needs good stimuli, such as music, going out in nature, looking at books, or searching the web. I love surfing the web for visual inspirations and posting them on a Pinterest board I create for each project.
- Draw thumbnails (small sketches that are visual representations of the space). I usually need to draw 10 or more thumbnails to get a sufficient range of ideas that will work visually.
By the time I’ve finished with the thumbnails, I’m ready to implement my ideas on the computer. The blank page becomes a “comp” (abbreviation for “compehensive” design), which must resemble the final layout, typography, and imagery as accurately as possible.
Everyone Faces a Blank Page
I’ve overcome a lot of the anxiety of the blank page when I’m designing something. I continue to practice the breathing and exploring. But sometimes I still feel a bit apprehensive about a blank page when I begin a new painting, or even when I start a new blog post! A lot of my design students are reluctant to do research, brainstorms, and thumbnails; they want to jump onto the computer as soon as possible to get to the “real business” of designing. As they become familiar with the concept development tools, they are more willing to spend the necessary time using those tools. What is your “blank page” and how have you faced its challenges?
Matt Belge says
I love your essay, especially the part of the dream with eagles. I do believe dreams of this sort are very powerful. As to your blank page problem, I often design web applications. To get past the blank page problem I draw a big rectangle on a piece of paper to represent a web page. Then I make a text list on that page of everything the page needs to have (search box, corporate logo, navigation, etc.). At this point it’s just blobs of text. Then I move the blobs of text to a place where I think the actual page element might go. Then I draw some simple representation of that thing (the logo, the search box, the navigation, etc.) Now I am no longer dealing with a blank page and have transitioned to designing the elements and the overall layout.
Karen Welling says
I love your frankness. The way you explain the process is very clear. If I can figure out how to do a link I’ll post this on Twitter (and maybe other stuff too. Again, if I can figure out how to do the link.) I may “steal” some of your ideas as I work with artists who freak out at the blank page, OK? (Of course I’ll credit you.) 🙂
Hey Karen, It’s fine by me for you to share. To copy the link, look at the top of your browser window. You select the URL address and copy it (CMMD-C on a Mac, CNTRL-C on a PC). Then, in Twitter or wherever, paste what you’ve copied with CMMD-V (CNTRL-V on a PC). I’ll make it easy for you by providing the link here: https://www.askdesign.biz/blog/2015/04/the-blank-page/. Thanks for your comment, cheers!
Linda Gershen says
I go through an agonizing few hours of ignoring, walking away, picking up the pencils, putting them down, before I actually put the point down and go into a state of pure bliss.