Dealing with blank slates
June 16, 2008 12:53 PM   Subscribe

I consider myself creative in some areas. But I have problems with the "blank slate". But I'm great at improving things once they start to take shape. Am I weird or are there others like me?

My job is in a field that demands creativity. I've been at it for many years now. Here's my problem: when it comes to starting completely from scratch and coming up with a new concept, I find it hard to tackle the blank slate. It takes me a long time to get off and start off with a skeleton that I can build something off.

However... I am pretty darn good at improving or fixing concepts that are just starting to take shape. For instance, if somebody shows me a basic web page design, I can instantly think of a hundred ways to improve it. If somebody asks me how I would fix a mediocre dish, I can come up with many ideas on how to improve the recipe. If somebody asks me what I think of a particular marketing campaign, I can probably think of numerous ways to refine it.

I am a refiner of ideas, IMHO. I try to take "good" and turn it into "great". What I seemingly am not is the guy who provides the initial spark. I sometimes find myself completely blank in my head when asked to build anew.

Have you people experienced this behaviour in yourself or others before? If so, what are possible remedies? Or what are professions where this might be an asset?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I think this is common, and I can certainly identify.

My approach has always been to just get something working, however poorly, so I can improve on it, or see the ways in which is needs to be rethought. It's gets you involved in the nuts and bolts of the problem.
posted by phrontist at 12:57 PM on June 16, 2008

You are, in fact, utterly normal. Very few people can really dive into a blank slate. There's a reason things like writer's prompts exist - to give you something to start with.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:58 PM on June 16, 2008

This guy has a lot to say (especially in his book, the Myths of Innovation) about how pretty much no good ideas really, truly come from the blank slate — they come from following certain techniques for recombining existing ideas. Read his stuff — it might convince you that there is less difference between these two kinds of creative people than you suppose, which in turn might suggest that your abilities would be suited to lots of creative careers.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:58 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

See also: writer vs. editor.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:03 PM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm very much the same way. I like making jewelry and I can only tell if I'll like something once I've got it half assembled, so I end up doing a lot of redoing and reassembling. I'm also a better editor than writer.
posted by mintchip at 1:25 PM on June 16, 2008

I work in graphic design, and I often have to start with a blank slate. Even though I do this for a living, it's a lot tougher than when you at least have something to work from. In many cases, I don't even have solid info about what the client I'm building an ad for does. (Such is the nature of speculative ad work and overworked sales reps.) I get handed a sheet of paper with a name and a bare minimum of information. These are the types of things that make many designers wonder if they're even qualified for the job they do, especially when you see one of the ones I refer to as "The Chosen Ones" who take a glance at the paper and turn out an amazing ad in no time flat. Meanwhile I'm sketching, scratching up layouts on the computer, looking for appropriate photos (which are often extremely hard to come by) and scouring for any info I can find. Getting started is the hardest part. Once you get past that the rest isn't all that hard.

In other cases, I get handed something as a starting point, or something that someone else did and I'm asked to make it better. (Graphic designers know this request as "make it pop," or "it needs something" or several other key phrases we hear all of the time.) These are much easier for me to work from, as I can look at what I've been handed and quickly identify where I think it falls short, or where it is good but could be a lot better. Thing is, while having something to start with is easier, it's the ones you pull off from a blank slate that are by far the most satisfying.

Sales reps and clients may or may not have an idea what they want in an ad, but once you give them the ad proof, they suddenly know exactly what needs to be done with the ad. In this case, we took the blank slate and gave them something that they can try to improve on. That's our job.

So yeah, you're pretty normal. Even people who do it for a living can sometimes have a hard time going from scratch. But that's what we get paid for.
posted by azpenguin at 1:44 PM on June 16, 2008

I'm a composer so I have to deal with the 'blank slate' problem all the time. The solution, as others have said, is to get something going. In my case I just write things down. I write down anything, and try to get as many ideas down as possible, even though they're all unformed and mostly unusable. Then I spend time playing around with them until something happens. There's nothing worse for creativity than a blank sheet of paper!
posted by ob at 1:55 PM on June 16, 2008

I'm much like this. Which is why I chose to be a director. I wish I was really good at making up stories, but I'm not. I'm much better at interpreting someone else's story.

Stanley Kubrick once said pretty much the same thing (sorry, I can't cite the interview). He said he needed a story to start him off, which is why pretty much all his films were adaptations.

I assume Sam Brown is similar. He just needs a title to kick him off. Then he's able to make drawings.

Shakespeare may have been this way. Most of his plays are adaptations.
posted by grumblebee at 1:56 PM on June 16, 2008

I think the trick, at least for me, is to just get something hammered out. Lots of somethings if you can. Then walk away. Give it a week if possible. Hell, give it two. Then you can come back and improve on your own ideas.
posted by piedmont at 2:02 PM on June 16, 2008

This is the most normal thing in the world.

Carry a notebook and pen or pencil with you, always, wherever you go, whatever you're doing. The moment something pops into your head, no matter how ridiculous it seems, capture it on paper. Keep thinking about it. Ideas stem from other ideas. Creative or not, this happens to all of us - we can't really "force" our brain to come up with something nifty, but more often than not, it's already doing the hard work and we just aren't paying close enough attention.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:44 PM on June 16, 2008

Just as a note, if you find yourself in the position of being an editor or an art director where you are critiquing someone else's work, you will always work with those people better if you understand the craft and struggle yourself and respect that. There is tremendous value in receiving good critiques of your work but in so many ways giving a crit or an edit is so much easier. Someone has already done the hard work; you just have to tell them where they did it wrong. So, I think those who excel at good crits know the challenge, are constructive and push themselves to be compassionate in the process and find ways to encourage the artist and draw out even better work. That takes the form to a new level.
posted by amanda at 4:14 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm like this, which is why I procrastinate terribly at writing, but excel at editing.

One writing trick I've started using is just getting all the relevant facts of a story down in a Word document first, then pulling directly from that list as I write the actual piece. As I go along I highlight the facts I've used until everything I wanted to include in some way is highlighted. Often I can pull entire sentences and phrases from the initial list, modifying them only slightly as I integrate them into the text—it's so easy it sometimes feels like cheating.

This combines two principles of writing:

1. Just start writing and more will follow.

2. Usually the first version of an idea is the best version.
posted by limeonaire at 4:21 PM on June 16, 2008

Oh, and potential career paths, since your "improving" abilities extend beyond the written word? Idea coach/life coach/consultant.
posted by limeonaire at 4:26 PM on June 16, 2008

Some things I've found useful for the blank slate problem:

1. Caffeine, if you can handle it (or a friend who gets your mind abuzz, if not) - enough to send you into overdrive for an hour or two. An artificial sparky mind is worth the cost of the comedown (still in the coffee sense!) if it gets you started and out of your usual thinking.

2. Brainstorming without any self-censoring or any threat of someone else seeing the list/doodles/diagrams. Collect enough stupid ideas and there'll be some good ones in the mix, which might not be visible in the same session. Allow yourself to fuck up completely rather than staying paralysed waiting for a good or even passable idea, and then filter it with reason some other time. (Or at least not at the exact same time.)

3. Impose restrictions, false or otherwise, or make up rules to get yourself started. Oblique Strategies or your own version could work. Know when to drop false restrictions, and test the idea/project at different stages from other perspectives - you can't keep starting over until it's perfect, but it's also terrible to follow the time sunk into a bad idea through to the conclusion, and it's probably fixable just a few steps/choices back.

4. Jump to the bits you know, if the rest isn't working, and use those as an anchor for the other parts.
posted by carbide at 5:25 PM on June 16, 2008

For writing, one trick to conquer the blank slate is forced or timed writing. You can start with a topic or with just a blank page. You set a timer for five minutes, kick it off, and start writing. If you can't think of anything to write, you write ("stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck") or some other such mantra until you get so bored of being stuck that you start writing something (perhaps a tirade about stuckness, or about how facile this exercise is).

When the timer goes off, you take a minute or two to read what you've written, circling or otherwise marking anything that looks like it might have promise. If you have the mental energy for another round, you can use that new idea as the seed for a second round. Or your can take what you generated and use it the usual, more systematic way.

For music, the only thing that really helps me is to record ideas as often as possible. I've tried to minimize anything that interferes or slows down the process of being able to capture an idea in a form I can later drop right into a mix. So, these days, I run through my audio interface and have my DAW running even when I'm practicing. If I find something I like, I record it. .
posted by wheat at 6:21 PM on June 16, 2008

One simple approach that sometimes works is to focus on a tiny, tiny aspect, even if it seems crazy to isolate it. You might spend time choosing just a colour palette or just a font, even though it goes against a 'holistic' approach to getting everything to fit together into a big idea and may seem pointless. Just doing something and creating a starting point is itself valuable, even if you end up ditching what you started with.

A while back I built up the final design for a site from a particular shade of orange that seemed to complement the logo fairly well. It took a horrible day or so of staring at colours, devoid of inspiration, to choose it. That colour inspired a font choice and broader colour palette, which in turn determined the illustration style. If I'd had to justify the creative process as I went along then people would've thought I was crazy/lazy.
posted by malevolent at 2:07 AM on June 17, 2008

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