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White Page Syndrome

Gunnar Swanson, who teaches design at the University of California at Davis responded to a query to the Graphic Arts list for help in overcoming what the subscriber called "white page syndrome."

The advice Gunnar provided many on the list found helpful. As I read it, I was reminded of the same type of thing writers often refer to as "writer's block." Admittedly, genuine writer's block is more than just getting beyond the blank page, but most writers often find themselves staring at a blank page and wondering where to start. To me, the process Gunnar described bore many resemblances to the prescriptions for how to get yourself going in writing.

Gunnar Swanson's response:

I assume that "white page syndrome" means psychological paralysis at some early stage of a job. My suggestion is to do something -- even something bad. Then you can look at it and see why it's bad and do something else and look at it and see why it's bad and do something else. . . and pretty soon you're doing something good.

If you are at the very start of the project, you are in luck. It's a fairly mechanical stage. You ask your client questions like "What are you trying to say?" and "Who are you trying to say it to?" Keep asking those questions on different levels -- "What is the subtext of all of this? How do you want people to feel?"

The next step is putting this together as a coherent statement listing features in order of importance ("project criteria"). This is good for your getting a clear view of the project and it allows you to have your client agree to the criteria so you're not killing yourself trying to do something that the client doesn't care about.

The next step is where I suspect you are. It's the "I need a big idea" phase. You don't need a big idea. You'd be better off with a bunch of small ideas. One exercise I give my students uses a grid. Along the Y axis (the left side) list key words or concepts about your project/subject. On the x axis (top) list every term you can think of that describes a relationship of form and meaning. Fill in the squares formed by the chart with drawings.

Relationships of form and meaning include terms from Peircian semiotics -- icon, index, and symbol. To simplify, an icon in this sense is something that looks like what it means (e.g., a picture of a dog). An index represents a physical relationship where no actual resemblance exists (such as smoke for a fire or fingerprints for human a presence). In the case of "Dog" it would include foot prints, a bone, dog droppings, or what have you. Symbol in this sense means any purely cultural depiction without a natural basis (such as the forms D O G in the case of the dog.

Another good source of relationships between form and meaning can be created by all the stuff your high school English teacher tried to tell you when you weren't listening -- metaphors and literary tropes. These include synecdoche (pronounced sin ECK doe key) which is a metaphor where a part of something is used to describe the whole. If I say in slightly dated slang "The hired hand took my wheels," everyone knows that a whole person took the whole car. (A synecdoche of a dog might be a wagging tail.)

Other such tropes include metonymy (literally Greek for "name change"). This includes replacement of a tool for the worker (like the Soviet hammer and sickle) and the reverse of a synecdoche. If I said "I woke up this morning and the law was at my door. The FBI had me surrounded" it's clear I don't mean that the penal codes of the US, the entire judicial system and all of its employees, all of the buildings and file cabinets of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. . . are all at my door. I'm using the whole to describe the part.

If learning new terms is too much of a headache, you could label the top "big for small," "small for big," "looks like," "sounds like," and whatever else makes sense to you.

This may be hard to understand in the telling because it only really makes sense if you try it. If you're only going to do part of this, the "index" column is where a tremendous amount of good stuff resides. Think about how you know something is there without actually seeing it, what indicates its absence.

The good news is that you don't have to think about a big idea. You just have to answer a lot of small questions. You may find that there are no answers for some of the questions, but this process will give you a bank of images. If any of them are particularly good or interesting, put them up with your key words and concepts and ask if the bone you arrived at as index of dog or metonomy for dog is worth pursuing. Put "bone" on the chart and ask all of the same questions about it -- what is bone/index.

Take this bank of ideas and try to combine each of them with every other one. Now you have thousands of ideas. Most of them are bad, but you don't need thousands of good ideas, just a few.

So much is made of the difference between working with words and working with pictures, it's easy to assume the creative process is very different between the two. The process Gunnar Swanson describes here, however, seems to reflect somewhat of a common ground between writers and graphic artists when they are struggling to define a topic.

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