Every time I have to teach a student to illustrate or design, I start out by giving them a blank sheet of paper or opening up a blank design application screen and asking them to create something. I’ve noticed how uncomfortable most of them get when they are faced by a blank page—they often fidget and give excuses to avoid facing it. This fear for the blank sheet is something that I believe is resident in most of us. I have also come to the conclusion that the reason we hate blank pages, is probably the same reason we hate death—The fear of the unknown.
Blank pages represent everything we are trained by society and human instinct to be wary of. The blank page is nothing and yet could be anything. It’s an epitome of uncertainty; an embodiment of the unknown; an archetype of death. A blank page could be the beginning of a celebrated masterpiece but it could also be the end of a promising career. Overcoming the fear of the blank page might as well be our greatest victory in our quests to master creativity—which in itself might be a wild goose chase, though well worth the effort as it ends in the mastery of self: but I digress as usual.
If the fear of blank pages is inherent to human nature like the fear of death is, then most children obviously haven’t received either of the memos. I grew up loving blank pages, like I’m sure most other kids did. But unlike most children, my love went deeper than merely looking for any blank surface to ruin with meaningless doodle. I invested all of my meager earnings in buying drawing books and other art supplies at every chance I got. My love for blank pages was so bad that I hated every notebook that came with pre-ruled lines—Which happened to include most of what we were given to write on at school. My favorite part of those awful school notes (and the part I happened to use the most) were the top and bottom bars where the ugly rules were absent. Till date I hate pre-ruled notebooks: I think they are a scourge to our planet; a waste of the beauty that is paper and the single greatest force standing in opposition to world peace (don’t quote me on that). Okay maybe I’m overreacting, but I’m sure you get my point.
Unfortunately, As I got older, and graduated from doodling “I hate school” cartoons on the edges of my notes, to creating brand identity and marketing tools for people and companies, I noticed my love for the blank page (or the blank screen as the case may be) start to wane. Sometimes I would have a job at hand, but end up staring at my screen for several hours oblivious of where to begin. I’d make excuses and postpone my schedules just to avoid starting. Then when my deadline was too close to push any further, I’d jump in and design all day and all night harnessing the adrenaline rush that came with the pressure of meeting a deadline. It worked fine for a while, but as my tasks got more serious and more complex, I realised I wasn’t fulfilled with the level of work I was outputting. Though most of my clients were more than satisfied, I knew I could do better, I knew that if I put more time into those projects I would not only get better results, but I would improve exponentially as a creative.
I later came to understand that my drive for creating things was primarily to quench an internal thirst and not to satisfy any one else. With or without clients, I would still be outputting things as a creative. I have come to accept this as the true spirit of creativity—We are our first clients as creatives, and if we don’t consistently satisfy or inner thirst by doing work we love, we would inadvertently fire ourselves from the profession, before we lose any actual jobs. I believe this to be the reason why a lot of creatives who work in companies/agencies where they have to do the same job over and over again start loosing their minds. They know they have to get out, or stand the risk of becoming stale and losing the passion for the work they used to love.
I discovered that my fear of not satisfying myself with the work I was outputting, was hindering me from expressing my inborn love for the blank page whenever I was face with client work. As a kid, all I was interested in doing was expressing my ideas on paper, I didn’t care what anyone thought about it, and there was no Behance to show me how awesome other artist were. But then with every job I did, I was faced with the knowledge that there was so much I didn’t know. I wanted to create work of a certain standard, but every time I fell short of it, my fear that I wouldn’t meet it next time heightened. It was this fear that initiated my creative paralysis.
The problem was that I couldn’t tell how each project would end. Sometimes I would satisfy myself, sometimes I would not. Not knowing which direction the particular project I was on would end up taking caused me to dread working. Personal work was easy I didn’t have to meet a deadline, so I could just go on and on until something came, and if nothing did come, I wasn’t compelled to continue. Client work however was a lot less forgiving.
I’ve heard people preach that the best way to overcome the fear of the unknown is the face it but I honestly beg to differ. Facing the unknown doesn’t help you overcome your fear of it. All it does is help you turn one particular unknown into a known and consequently stop being afraid of it and only because now you know it. Truly overcoming the fear of the unknown mandates that even when the unknown is still unknown, you are not afraid of it.
overcoming the fear of the unknown can only be done by addressing the root of the fear. We must ask ourselves “why?” “Why am I afraid of this?”
The reason why I was never afraid of the blank page as a child was because I was confident in what I could do with it. The only expectations on my delivery were the ones i placed on myself . I knew if I approached it with a pencil I could create something that would satisfy me. As my frame of reference grew however, I started to see flaws in my execution and though I wanted to do more I was hindered by my skill set. What I had previously known was now a new set of unknowns. I couldn’t predict anymore whether I could replicate the ideas I had in my head through the computer, because I didn’t know how to do so effectively. Sometimes I would accidentally stumble into something good, but I could never say from the start how good it would be. I finally came to realize that if I mastered my tools of trade by addressing the unknown in “non threatening” situations I would be prepared to address it in more challenging circumstances. Practice helped me buffer the effect of fear of the unknown. Practice however, I discovered, must be done within the confines of knowledge and understanding or it is more likely to discourage us and accent our fears than squelch them.
Many creatives approach tasks—including supposed practice—without first understanding the underlying principles involved therein. This results in them wasting time and effort trying to discover things through engagement, that they could easily have discovered by study. Study without practice however, is a waste of brain power—in my opinion. But practice without study on the other hand, is a waste of time. Though you might finally get to your destination after several years, you would have wasted a lot of your strength doing things that you had no business doing in the process. If we seek understanding first before trying to apply it, then we are better equipped in our application—spending less time and less energy and being less likely to give up.
There is a healthy balance between practice and study that guarantees success. Discovering this balance is were many fail, but if we are to be prepared for the unknown we must excel at mastering this balance. understanding the rudiments our creative fields by consistent study and practice in non-threatening situations is the best solution to blank page syndrome. We would discover that the more we study and practice the more confident we get about our ability to deliver. It it this confidence that changes the negative energy that fear brings into positive energy that comes with anticipation. Once we gain mastery of our tools of trade, the blank page becomes exciting again. Although we still have no idea where it would take us, we are confident that it wouldn’t end up as a complete mess. In the end there are only two ways it can go: good or great. Most often we can live with either one.
If you have any question about how to balance practice and study or where to start from as a new comer to design, please drop a comment below and I would do my best to provide a reply.