When we feel the stopping power of the blank page we think it’s the emptiness that’s the problem – that we have nothing to work with.

I think it’s the inverse.

It’s not that we don’t know what marks to make, it’s that we don’t know which marks to choose.

We make it our duty to look at the world and mentally collect source material, to note how a million problems can be solved, about the infinite combination of elements and principles that we have at our disposal.

We know that all the work we’ve loved started here, from nothing. We know the work that we loathe, the stuff the makes us cringe, did too. Without realising it, we bring the anxiety of these memories with us.

It’s all started here, and a part of us is reminded that the potential of this page is unlimited. We understand this blank page holds more potential than we could ever imagine.

So as we mull over where to start, self doubt creeps in, bringing with it paralysis. It reminds us that the wrong mark or idea can lead to work of not just insignificance, but utter dismay for all involved. It will be judged and might be executed.

So the problem doesn’t become making the first mark.

The problem is becoming comfortable with deciding which mark to make.

At least on the surface.

Filling Blank Pages

It’s counter intuitive, but the way we make our choice is by acknowledging all that we bring to the blank page.

Once we can see how full it really is, we can brush everything we find until our choices of what to leave on the page becomes obvious.

So maybe the best thing for us to do is to take a step back and see all the jars of potential marks and tools that are available to us.

The key is context. We must pick from the jars of marks that make the most sense for what we’re doing and who we’re doing it for.

Phew, that’s a mouthful. So let’s make it more obvious:
Draw the marks that make the most sense.

Let’s look at four of these jars and see how they help us figure out where to start.

What’s Yours

This is the jars you carry around with you from project to project.

With each new project you bring with you your own taste, and interpretation of theory. You bring with you the jobs you’ve done before – what’s worked for you and what hasn’t, what was exciting to pitch and what failed miserably.

There’s also your curiosities. Those little aesthetic and stylistic things that you see and wonder “How does that work? How can I pull that off?” Each job gives you the opportunity to explore these quirks of taste.

The only work you can make is your own, and in remembering this, the number of marks you can make become limited. While it’s true that every bit of design we’ve ever seen started on the blank page, we’re only capable of producing our work.

It’s a subtle shift, but in doing so it means the blank page isn’t open to all the possibilities that we’ve seen, but all the possibilities we are capable of, or more likely, interested in trying.

Looking at the your own jar is simply to show you that you aren’t truly starting from the nothingness you see on the page.

What The Client Gives You

Most designers are more comfortable tweaking an existing design. We get more practice moving, deleting, adding, and scaling existing elements than we do starting from nothing, so that isn’t much of a surprise.

Luckily every job brings with it a list of essentials for us to shuffle and tweak. Even if we might argue (charm) the client into removing these down the road, we have to have good reason for doing so, reasoning that is often realised through exploration.

We don’t have a blank page when there’s the need for a logo, some contact information, a call to action, the really awesome and totally welcome and not-at-all-a-little-insulting client sketches, and the features and design of the product.

Hell, they might even have brought with them some copy, some photos, some research.

There’s also a reasonable chance they already have a suite of colours and typefaces chosen for them for their brand, maybe even grid structures.

Or at the very least, if they have none of this in a formal way, they might have previously produced materials that you can echo in your own (a double win – it gives you something to start with, and even informal branding is branding – a huge plus for audience recognition) or evolve.

What the Audience Gives You

When it comes to the audience jar, it’s probably better to think of it as a filter. It’s the best way to help us make our options more obvious.

The audience gives you an awful lot. Researching who they are, what they like, what they expect, and what they will notice, very quickly narrows our options from infinite to barely a handful.

The audience will have their own visual language – what works for an audience mostly made up of teenage boys in high school isn’t likely to appeal to the thirty-four year old working mother of two.

What messages, images, colours, even typefaces, works for one group, any group, isn’t guaranteed to work for another.

The pain and problems they have, the relief they’re looking for, their budget, their free time, their wants are all going to be fairly unique to each of them.

All of this works together to help filter the type of messages delivered, and more importantly for us, how they’re delivered.

What Your Research Gives You

While you’ll do a bit of research in trying to understand the audience, there’s still a lot more that can be done.

Research can start with looking at the history of the client and their product. Or with the audience and how each has changed and interacted with each other over time.

It could mean carefully reading the brand guidelines (if they exist), advertising, websites, internal materials. Not just those that belong to the client, but also their competitors, their audience, their contemporaries.

You can investigate how colours are used, what typefaces are chosen, the language in the copy, the photography and illustrations.

And of course there’s the actual product itself.

If it’s a physical product then hold it, use it how it’s meant to be used. If it’s for a band, listen to their music. If it’s a bakery, eat their apple tea cakes.

If it’s a cafe, sit and observe how people come and go, what they talk about, how they talk to the staff and how the staff talks back, what they order, what the place smells and sounds like.

If it’s an app look at people’s faces as they poke around at it, ask them questions, understand what catches their eye and what doesn’t, what makes them happy and what frustrates them.

If it’s beautiful, then hire a good photographer; if it’s ugly hire an illustrator.

Research helps us refine our context by showing us what’s come before, what’s likely to come next, and how each helps tell the story of the product or service we’re designing for.

Full and Blank to Essential and Obvious

There’s at least thirty things here that (firstly) show you what you bring to a blank page, (secondly) what the client brings to the page, and (thirdly), how to filter all of that to end up with what will hopefully be an obvious, and interesting outcome.

Going through some of the above processes, collecting ideas as you do, goes a long way to making clear what choices you have before you.

There’s bound to be more jars we could come up with, but the point stands – the blank page only remains so until we come to it. Then it’s filled with options we can filter.

And hopefully, some of the things filtered out will be our anxiety, nerves, frustration, expectations, confusion; and what’s kept might be comfort, goals, design elements to work with, and visual languages to speak through.

The next time you start feeling uneasy at the sight of a blank page, remember how much is really there.