Blank page

They say there is nothing quite as scary as a blank page. The adage originates with writing, of course, and I know something about that too, but it holds up particularly in this context with regard to design.

Primarily this is because design needs to be a response to something, in an objective sense – otherwise it becomes art, which is by nature subjective and different in approach (and ultimately belonging in galleries or such similar). The opportunity to design comes from an external source, a client’s requirement – unless it happens to be a self-directed project … and don’t we all hate being one’s own client! So design represents a solution of sorts and therefore requires definition, both to instigate and later evaluate.

We need something to go off.

In recent days (actually decades), designers have been moved to not just work from a brief but also strategy, even contribution or establishing the latter as well. Yes, both are helpful, but not necessarily critical in gleaning sufficient impetus to commence and sufficiently complete a project.

Early in my career I was talking to my client, the National Marketing Communication [Advertising and Brand] Manager, at National Mutual about briefing – they had many design agencies working for them and various subsidiaries and often found themselves off track with design solutions, which was largely of a printed nature. I was asked to run a seminar for all marketing staff, about 50 people, on the subject. The introductory statement for the sessions was: A brief is like a map … it requires knowledge of a starting point, a destination, and the terrain to be navigated in between. Of course the seminar covered all the formal marketing content that would be expected, but to consider the process of briefing as a journey was enlightening. (And every journey needs to be different, right!?)

And I am often involved with strategy development, but it needs to be a carefully managed process. Yes it can be enlightening, but it can also be stifling – sometimes resulting in what I call ‘analysis paralysis’ if the process runs too wide or too deep (or both). My unusual take on this is that strategy can be developed over time, and is often better as a result – this afforded to client relationships when they are ongoing and do not require a definitive result ahead of project commencement. So yes, a bit of fluidity can be ok. The approach was adopted informally with client Wilderness Wear Australia and resulted in the understanding of ‘quality’ as the company’s lead brand attribute, among a list that rightfully held many candidate words, and ultimately delivered the positioning statement of ‘200%’.

In other instances independent enquiry is the best driver of design – competitor evaluation, reading thought leadership pieces, news and others. This coupled with some good old fashioned talking – via meetings, workshops or even just phone calls – and there is often a very healthy starting point to be found. Sometimes a small something can lead to an everything.

On the brand strategy side of things, often the most helpful task and asset is the idea of ‘attributes’ – developing them from workshop sessions. These are a significant component of a brand profile and find value in being deduced from a collaboration between designer and client. Workshopping brand attributes is a fast way to generate a powerful component of a brand profile and can be done in a single session with a number of participants – it is absolutely a great way to build staff buy-in to the process. And clients can invest confidently in the process because it uses language, not visual matter, to drive the process – so it is not the exclusive domain of designers

The closing point of process to all of the above comes from a small book my father gave me (or did I pinch it?) from his studio bookshelves many years ago. Directed at advertising, it is titled, A Technique For Producing Ideas. The technique referred to is the amassing of information, whether from research or any other sources combined. But the critical point of completion is the addition of time … time to let all of the information settle and, in a way, let one’s subconscious do the creative heavy lifting and selectively produce ideas, and premium ideas at that. Tin this process, therefore, being in a rush for things is always going to be a counterproductive pressure or impediment. There’s that old saying that good ideas come when least expected, as when taking a shower, or falling asleep at night, all when the mind is relaxed – but it only works when the hard work has been done ahead of time to fuel the mind.

If all this sounds a little soft, consider it to be more about flexibility than a rigid process, and look to the benefit of rolling with the punches a little. But whatever it is that starts a project off, it has to be something … a something other than a blank page to drive the process and outcome.

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