In Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott describes the feeling an author gets, and the routine of distraction and anxiety they put themselves through, when trying to surmount a large writing project.

She then offers some advice on how to work through it, advice that I think is perfect for the designer as well as the novelist.

One-inch Picture Frames

“… I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind of me short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.”

She goes on to say how she doesn’t need to worry about every detail of the story, just one small part of it.

A one-paragraph description of the town in which the story is set, or picture of words that describes the main character the first time we meet her. But not too much detail, not even “the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car”. That would be too much, and not what you’d see through a one-inch picture frame.

“You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.”

Big Projects are Big

No matter if you’ve been designing for twenty minutes or twenty years, chances are you’ll be faced with projects that seem out of your reach.

It’s natural – as you grow and progress through your career, the amount of trust people will have in you, and what you’re willing to take on, will grow in complexity.

So, what do you do when you’re in this situation? Like Anne, try picking up a one-inch picture frame.

Start Small, Start Anywhere

It almost doesn’t matter what part of your project you’re going to start with, just pick one. I’d suggest picking something that’ll be immediately handy for wherever you are in the project.

The point is to pick up Lamott’s one-inch picture frame and look at your project through it, picking out one thing you can fit into it.

It doesn’t really matter what you pick, just make it something you can get to work on.

Just Make It (Ugly)

Here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter if what you do is any good.

Don’t draw a grid with an idea in mind of what images will be used, how big you’ll want the text to be, or any of that, just draw a grid that might, maybe, kinda work for the job. If you know there’s a lot of photos for this job, then don’t make it too complex a grid.

Don’t worry about the perfect colour palette. Pick a handful of colours that you like, that might, kinda, sorta work and run with it. Are they harmonious? Perfect! That’s more than enough. Are you designing a site for a local architect? Then go with some greys and blacks and whites and maybe a hit of, I dunno, let’s say orange.

If it’s a website, maybe it’s just how you’d typeset the main body copy area, or it’s what you’d make the menu look like, without a care in the world about what’s going to go into it.

The point isn’t to do something well, that’s too advanced when you’re stuck, that’ll just stall you, that’ll hold onto your ankles while you’re just trying to walk in a straight line.

The point is to just start, anywhere. It can all be fixed later. It’s easier to fix a mistake than to start doing something perfect. At least you’ll have something to work with.

We tend to do this naturally anyway. We sketch out our ideas and draw a shallow and wide box for the menu, without worry much about what’s in it or what colour it is or if it has a border or a background or whatever, it’s just a box. A picture is another box, maybe with lines stretching from corner to corner.

Then we jump into pushing pixels around and suddenly we worry everything has to be perfect right away. Nah, forget that, keep putting boxes wherever you can and come back to them later, when you have more to work with (say, context – what the rest of the site is looking like).

In starting anywhere, with colours that might work, a grid that’s kinda wonky, typefaces that are cool but perhaps inappropriate, you’re giving yourself something to correct.

By looking at things through a one-inch frame, you’re only picking one problem as it exists on its own and trying to provide an answer that might just hint at the ultimate solution.

It takes the pressure off as you no longer have a thousand different problems to solve, but just one. One so small it fits in a tiny frame.

You might change everything that you design looking through your one-inch frame, except, for maybe, that little bit of grey that you picked at random, or maybe the typography you did for the UL list?

That little thing, whatever it is, is all you’ll need to start making something special. But you wouldn’t have found it without having started small, somewhere.

So if you’re stuck looking at the seemingly too big project in front of you, pickup your one-inch frame and start anywhere.