5 Ways to Beat the Blank Page

I’ve suffered horribly from Blank Page (& Screen) Syndrome my entire creative career—part stubbornness, part performance anxiety, part restless mind—and the brain-melting distraction of our current events reality sure is not helping things.

It’s hard enough to stare down a blank page when you’re at your best: coming fresh off the perfect amount of sleep, two cups of coffee and a healthy breakfast consumed mindfully, an afternoon free of other deadlines and a leisurely few hours to just sit back, relax and see what comes out of the ol’ Idea Bank. Throw in the deafening roar of the news cycle, a running-late-to-work scramble in which you forgot your lunch and the clock (both the regular old end-of-business-day clock and The Clock, you know, the how is it almost my birthday again and I still haven’t started running again or learned basic carpentry clock, am I right heh heh… sob). It’s easy to see how the blank page can be a real road block to breaking through your brain chatter and getting something out onto paper.

Here are my favorite ways to shake off the cobwebs and get something down.

No shame in the obvious

Whenever I am worried that I am not going to come up with the Best Idea of All Time, I start by letting myself get out all of the most painfully obvious ones. These are the solutions that you will never settle for (and might be embarrassed if someone saw them), but it’s important to get them out of your system, and, well, none of these ideas are home runs but hey, the page isn’t blank anymore and you can always start a new sheet and burn this one ceremoniously.

Give it a go after hours/with a change of scenery

Something about initial brainstorms, especially when I’m sketching, just doesn’t seem right sitting at my desk. When I am stuck, and the distractions of a busy office too much, I will take it to one of our side workspaces where I can close the door and really focus, or, even better, if I have time before deadline, shelve the brainstorming until I get home. Often after getting set back up at my table, ideally with a plate of food and a little glass of whiskey in front of me, the change of set and setting has had a quick effect on my ability to think about the problem differently.

Take a creative break
This goes hand-in-hand with number 2. Sometimes staring and staring at a blank screen and a pile of research just isn’t going to do it when your brain is busy. What often helps me is shifting to a different type of creative task altogether for a bit: take ten minutes to cross the most minor things off your to-do list, visit Niice.co and search for something like “octopus” just to see what’s happening in the cephalopod world, break to make a dinner that involves chopping vegetables, run through a Duolingo lesson.

Pick one angle and see how far you can take it
Probably the most paralyzing part of the blank page for me is that when I sit down for, say, a logo sketching session, there are seemingly a million possibilities beyond even the conceptual aspect of the design: line style, logo mark or type only, font style, is the lockup stacked or horizontal, is there an existing brand this must match, the client mentioned disliking purple, etc. Trying to consider all of these things at once is a recipe for anxiety, so try to pick one element and, for example, spend ten minutes sketching layouts for every horizontal lockup you can think of.

Engage an unbiased third-party
Everyone knows that when you’re waist-deep in a project you can miss things, sometimes really important things, which is why you should never be the only eyes on your work. If the ideas aren’t falling out of your head at the pace you hoped for, find a sympathetic co-worker or friend and ask them some leading high-level questions. “What do you picture when you think of the word ‘empowered’?”, “What does a hammer make you think of?” Having these conversations can garner some outsider ideas to consider, but can also get your brain thinking critically about your own ideas and give you confidence to zero in on the best of the bunch.