Where Were You When the Page Was Empty?

Many years ago I heard a script editor being interviewed on the radio.  He told a story about a meeting he remembered between an experienced writer and a group of editors.  A script was presented and the then young editor immediately whipped out the scalpel of his incisive mind and set to work on proving his worth.   He was, after all, paid good money to ‘edit’.  His colleagues clearly felt similarly and a series of Why didn’t you……..? What made you…………? Would ……… not have been better? type questions ensued.  An apparently calm writer eventually vented his growing inner frustration with: “Where the …. were you lot when the page  was empty?”. The editor never forgot the experience and I have never forgotten the story.  Reminding yourself that you were not there when the page was empty is a good starting point in many situations.

But what if you were there when the page was empty?  In my opinion fees are earned and justified and quality and professionalism are established at three important times during the creative process.  Attention to detail at the final stage, not being prepared to stop until it is right, knowing when that ‘right’ has been achieved.  When confidence and courage are needed to throw out even much loved ideas when they are just not working and most importantly when the page is empty.

In most forms of design work there is a crucial relationship between client and designer.  I recently approached a designer for a poster for an arts event.  The designer knew our work well yet asked for a list of adjectives to describe the event. Easy?  No way!  Not even after ten years.  Perhaps particularly after ten years.

There is something very challenging about the relationship between design and business.  It is no accident that you so often hear: “We spent a fortune on our logo and have never been happy with it.”  Brochures, headed paper, signs, the colour of the chairs all say something about a company even if the company refuses to admit it.  Here I could say that blaming the designer just won’t do, but then I would, wouldn’t I, so instead I will say that the best time to make sure that you never feel the need to is when the page is empty.  The best time to get good chairs is when you don’t have any and no one can argue that you don’t need them.

You do your research, find a designer, look at a portfolio, provide the information you are used to seeing on a poster, in a brochure, on a website or whatever.  You agree a fee, set a completion date.  Ask yourself how often you then feel that your part of the process is over.

So where are you when the page is empty?  It is obvious where the designer is; staring at it, praying for a good idea in time to make the deadline.  Possibly waiting for a list of adjectives which show more initiative than the last or a description of the organisation’s requirements that does not use words like just and ordinary.  Aha!  So let’s get away from the whole client-designer tension thing and look at where they should both be when the page is empty.

To design something effective for your organisation you need to articulate the same things which need to be articulated in order to create a successful organisation.  It is challenging, frustrating, open to the business equivalent of psychobabble …. it cannot be avoided.  ’Over to you’, ‘That’s your job’, ‘I’m paying a designer for that’, simply won’t and don’t work.

‘I’ll think of something for you’ from the designer won’t do either, by the way.  It’s the designer’s job to get clear answers to these questions and work should not begin without them.

  • How would you describe your company?
  • How would you like to describe your company?
  • What is the purpose of your website?
  • What do you want it to achieve?
  • Who do you expect to visit it?
  • Who do you want to visit it?
  • What do you want them to do when they get there?
  • How are you going to encourage them to stay/return?
  • What might make them ‘tell a friend’ or setup a link?
  • You’ve heard about ‘Search engine optimisation’. What to you expect potential visitors to be searching for?

You should ban all words like just, ordinary, normal etc. from your answers.  If you are feeling this is a stupid waste of time then push through it.  It is an essential use of time.  Without clear answers to these questions a designer might as well just keep staring for all the good it will do.


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