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The Tyranny of a Blank Page

In his talk entitled “The General Theory of Relative Creativity” for SXSW, Jim Coudal quickly touched on a concept he accurately termed “The Tyranny of a Blank Page.” He probably had no idea just how true that rang for me.

As a designer, this is a menace I face time and time again. Whether on a computer or my sketchbook, an empty canvas is difficult to face. As an optimist, it holds endless possibilities; as a pessimist, too much pressure. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle: the doors are wide open, but if I fill my page with something that isn'’t great, it almost feels like a waste.

Here’s one technique that I’ve found very useful:

Finding a starting point for a page

I typically start a page in my sketchbook with some found element, whether that’s a sticker, a magazine clipping, or a photograph. It acts as an anchor, a seed that sprouts the rest of the page. When I'm finished with that page, that element has become a part of my creation, my page as a whole. On a digital canvas, that anchor point may be an asset, such as an illustration you plan to integrate or possibly even a client’s logo.

Small techniques like this allow for very large breakthroughs. I’ve learned that it’s always easier to revise that to create. Getting hung up on a place to start should be the least of your worries, so hopefully I’ve given you a possible solution to get past it.

How do you conquer the tyranny of a blank page?


Darren Hoyt said:

On a digital canvas, that anchor point may be an asset, such as an illustration you plan to integrate or possibly even a client’s logo.

For better or worse, an existing client logo can be that seed that grows the design. If the logo was professionally done, it can be easy and fun to riff off. But if it sucks, the rest of the design (colors, mood) is at its mercy.

If I'm staring at a blank page too long, I sometimes go grab a big nebulous shape or texture (, drop it in, start playing with the levels, transforming it, and conforming it to whatever assets I've already got. Sort of like fingerpainting or Rorscach stuff, it usually inspires something I wouldn't have thought of.

Wish I could have caught Coudal's SXSW panel!

Posted on March 13, 2008 09:14 PM

Rob Weychert said:

I made a sketchbook for a friend with one of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies at the bottom of every page. The book is made of three different types of paper (drawing, grid, and vellum) which are themselves different starting points. I may make one for myself.

Posted on March 13, 2008 11:03 PM

Elliot Jay Stocks said:

That's a really good idea, Dan. You might take this further and add something on each page from a particular location (I have a 'Norway notebook' ready to populate (as you know I'm briefly moving to Norway in May)), so as to create work directly influenced by the place.

Posted on March 14, 2008 06:56 AM

Jason Cale said:

Wow, good idea.

I often stuggle with this, even when I'm just sketching out less creative ideas (eg. database schemas). I still get caught up in a guilty state - that I haven't served the page's potential.

I'll definitely try it out.

Posted on March 14, 2008 07:17 AM

Andi Farr said:

That is hands down the best idea I've heard all week, and a strong contender for the year so far. I wish I'd heard that a year before I took my degree (rather than a year after I finished).

Thank you, will definitely be giving that a go.

Posted on March 14, 2008 07:34 AM

Jared Christensen said:

There is no easy answer here, but sometimes just riffing off the wireframes -- starting with grey boxes and then moving elements, adding elements, addign color etc -- can be a decent starting point.

Posted on March 14, 2008 10:25 AM

Dan Mall said:

Rob and Elliot: I love the idea of themed starters! That opens the door to a plethora of possibilities!

Posted on March 14, 2008 10:40 AM

Matt Munsey said:

For me I almost always have to have something to feed off of when I am designing. Often times this is something that represents the concept that I have in mind for the piece. That actual object may or may not end up in the final piece, but it works as a starting point and it helps to keep me centered on the concept.

Posted on March 14, 2008 09:24 PM

Jody said:

Great stuff, Dan. I prefer to first embrace the emptiness of the blank page. Smile at it, talk to it, wonder at it. What better way to start then by being passionate about nothingness.

Posted on March 14, 2008 10:02 PM

Travis Schmeisser said:

Good suggestions! I do a bit of what Jared mentioned and "riff" off whatever I do have. Whether it's wireframes or just starting to create the wireframes for the hierarchy of what I need. Just getting anything down helps and I feel the more I let go and draw the easier it gets. Even if it's not used in the solution or a dead end idea as long as I start rolling...

Posted on March 17, 2008 06:39 PM

ks said:

I use sketchbooks filled with grid (graphpaper) pages. First thing I do is completely blacken one of the squares. Sounds stupid, but it helps me get over the whole blankness thing.

Posted on April 9, 2008 03:24 PM

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