Blank Paper Syndrome

The importance of structure in the creative process

You’re staring at a blank page. A cursor is blinking, taunting. Or perhaps your pen is feebly hovering just centimeters above a notebook, a thousand half-formed ideas popping in and out of your head. They drown each other out, and you are left with nothing more than you started with. You are supposed to be creating, but you haven’t the faintest idea where to start. You’re suffering from ‘Blank Page Syndrome’ – the result of a creative process that lacks structure.

Really? Structure? I thought creativity was the opposite of structure?

The belief that creativity is a structure-less, free-for-all of right-brained gooeyness is a pervasive myth. As a designer, my entire career has been filled with people professing how lucky I am to have a job with the freedom to make whatever I want. There are many reasons that I love my job, but freedom is not one of them. I worship structure. In fact, I could not do my job without it.

The belief that creativity is a structure-less, free-for-all of right-brained gooeyness is a pervasive myth.

For example, I often design logos for our clients. For this type of project, I dedicate the first third of my time to establishing that necessary structure. I spend hours researching, planning and honing in on the problem I’m trying to solve. I take a deep dive into the company’s character until I can describe it with three finely tuned adjectives. These three words guide my design process and serve as a benchmark for measuring the success of my work.

By taking time to set up a structure, effective, creative work can pour onto the page.

Let’s say I’m designing for XYZ Company. I’ve done my research and found XYZ to be light-hearted, fresh and urban. Now, as I pull out some paper and start sketching, the blank page isn’t as daunting; right away I can eliminate 95% of the distractions that were vying for my attention. I have a well-defined problem to solve: make a logo that feels light-hearted, fresh and urban. By narrowing my focus, my creativity can roam freely through metaphors, styles and colors, looking for solutions without getting bogged down by options that don’t meet my criteria.

A structured creative process will benefit you from start to finish. As the project develops, you may have the idea to switch up the paper material or add a creative fold to that new brochure, but your structure helps you determine if it’s an avenue worth pursuing. In the case of XYZ, I’d have to ask, “Is this new option going to make it feel light-hearted, fresh and urban?” If the answer is “no,” I can move on without wasting precious time and creative juices.

How do I know if I have Blank Page Syndrome?

If you’re staring at a blank page wondering where to go next, you may not have enough structure. Backtrack and narrow your focus. Set up goals that will help guide your creative decisions. What that structure is may vary for different types of creators, but it is true whether you are graphic designer, an author, or a hobby comic artist. If you explicitly define the problem at hand the paper may soon seem to fill itself.


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