At some point in our careers, we all come face to face with that ever-paralyzing “Blank Page.” That monster-eyed project you have no clue how to approach or where to begin. As a lifelong designer–visualizing things that haven’t existed before–that ambiguity has littered nearly every project I’ve touched. Like it or not, it’s simply inherent in the creative profession. But I’ve learned that how you handle “fear of the unknown” can define your career.
Years ago, when touch screens were considered cutting edge, my team and I were tasked with designing the interface for an interactive kiosk. We had few, if any, real examples to inform our thinking.
Completely muddled on how to navigate, we started from scratch. Pushing through discomfort, we met in a war room each day—exchanging ideas and learning everything we could about the technology. We used curiosity to inch us forward—piecing together bits and pieces of nothing. Eventually, we were able to pull concrete ideas out of obscurity and create something pretty darn cool.
I’ve used that experience as a model throughout my career to help confront, work through, and brave ambiguity. If you can see the unknown as opportunity—to listen, get curious, research, and think—you can overcome fear, establish vision, lead a team, and inspire the necessary confidence to co-create. Not to mention, gain invaluable conviction in yourself. Here are some tips on how to overcome fear of the blank page:
Live in the world you’re designing
Founder Marco Perry of product design firm Pensa admits, “All new projects start with an intimidating blank page, especially with established products that already work well. How can you improve something that’s been designed a thousand times?” To get beyond the blocks, Pensa doubles down on immersive research.
While collaborating with OneDrop to reimagine the diabetic medical experience, Pensa’s design team lived the life of a diabetic for a week—needling their bodies and testing blood multiple times a day. Reinventing a luggage brand, Pensa flight-hopped cheap airlines seeking inspired ways to improve the worst travel experience. And while struggling with ideas for new deck-staining tools, they built an entire deck in their office—complete with boards, balusters, stockade fence, and chaise longue. “It looked like the backyard of Anytown USA, except in a Brooklyn loft office with a whiteboard. That’s where we brainstormed, tested ideas, and hung out until we cracked the problem,” says Perry. “If you’re stuck, it’s because you’re sitting at a desk–go live in the world you’re designing.”
Ask “what if” over and over again
Practice being open to even the wackiest ideas. D.C.-based Design Army took “radically open-minded” to the next level when grappling with exorbitant photo-shoot studio fees and travel costs. Founders Pum and Jake Lefebure imagined different “what-if” scenarios and came up with the crazy, yet inspired, idea to build their own photography space–one large enough to rent to other local designers and artists. The egg of an idea evolved into recently launched At Yolk, a 10,000-square-foot creative hub designed to be a testing ground and play space for the D.C. creative community with master classes, fashion and art events, and a massive photography studio. “Good ideas can come from anywhere and might sound nutty at first,” says founder Pum Lefebure. “But imagining ‘what if’ is key.”
Difficult client? Go wild
The designers at the social innovation firm Daylight Design, creators of digital experiences like UNICEF Kid Power, admit they often work with clients with fuzzy visions that are difficult to pin down. While building a medical education app to aid patients with chronic health issues, Daylight found themselves stuck in project ambiguity. “We initially assumed we were creating an interactive app and website with everything that entails,” says founder Sven Newman. “But the client kept rejecting designs based on our best judgment as UX professionals.”
So the team stepped back, nixed the website notion, and explored wildly divergent concepts—sketching animated video stories, interactive illustration screens, even a printable worksheet. As a result, they were able to isolate the client’s vision: a website that could be navigated based on drawings and shapes, rather than text. “One of the best breakthrough tools is to kick all preconceptions out the door and visualize a wide range of ideas,” says Newman.
If you don’t have constraints, make them up
Navigating the unknown is all about getting iron-clad clear on your purpose. For design firm Noise 13, who was given nearly free rein to brand the tech accessories company Amber & Ash, setting guidelines was crucial to pushing through obscurity. “We were essentially given a blank slate: create a brand, from scratch, in the hyper-competitive market of cell-phone accessories,” says founder Dava Guthmiller. To stay on track, Noise 13 made a detailed plan of attack to give the startup a unique voice inspired by fashion, runway colors, and Pantone chips. “The clearer your goal, the faster a plan will manifest,” Guthmiller says.
There’s no perfect way to brave the unknown. As famed artist and experimental composer John Cage says, “Begin anywhere.” The act of starting is more important and courageous than anything. First ideas don’t have to be winners–often they aren’t. Eventually you’ll find the right one. But isn’t making something from nothing the whole joy of being a creative? We fill blank slates and empty drawing boards with ideas that allow people to engage with the world differently. Through my years as a designer, I’ve learned that making great work means leaning into obscurity—but not getting stuck there.
Arianna Orland is a creative director, user experience designer, and artist. She is the founder of Paper Jam Press and In/Visible Talks, a design conference on the creative process cofounded with Dava Guthmiller of Noise 13.