Begin Anywhere: some notes on getting started


Thumbnail sketches for a Type 2 poster project/Laura McMullan

“Begin anywhere…”

john cage, composer

Sometimes the hardest part of a creative project is getting started. Over the years in my own work and work with students I have developed some processes that makes design or writing or any creative work flow more easily. As we kick off a new quarter at The Portfolio Center, I want to share some tips that make starting a new project a more engaging and pleasant process.

I am not going to delve deeply into time and project management, but focus more on the process. This method of thinking helps generate lots of ideas quickly, separates the creator/editor processes and allows one to create multiple solutions.  I have found over the years that I can talk myself into doing nearly anything, regardless of mood or state of mind, if I tell myself there is a fifteen minute time limit to start. So gather your preferred tools: paper, pens, pencils and a timer and lets get started.

15 minute brainstorming session for a book about Alexander Hamilton/Michael Booth

15 minute brainstorm

Set your timer for 15 minutes and start thinking. Write down anything and any associations that come to mind. Sometimes small sketches are helpful as well. Do not judge or edit your ideas! One mistake that students make is trying to create innovative ideas and edit them simultaneously. The creative mind functions very differently than the editing mind. Let these two parts of your brain do their work separately and at the best possible time for your project. When the timer goes off, put your brainstorming notes and sketches away. I don’t even want you to look at them. Move on to another project or get outside or have a meal with a friend. Over the course of two days, try to do an additional three to four more sessions of this sort of brainstorming. Remember to set your timer and put your notes and sketches away when your time is up.

Creating and editing are separate processes—do not edit initial ideas before you get them down on paper.


After you have done 4 to five sessions of quick brainstorming and taken the appropriate breaks, you can pull out all of your sketches and notes and start looking for connections. Something you thought about in your first brainstorming session combined with an idea from session five may start to build into something interesting. Make notes and sketches. You should have a number of possible concepts and ideas from synthesizing all of your thinking.

make it visual

Once you have concepts it is time to make them visual. You may begin sketching (I still believe deeply in the importance of being able to make your ideas visual making full use of the connection between your eyes and your brain. Thumbnails, or small sketches are the way to go at this phase of a project. These small sketches allow you to work through lots of ideas quickly. Please do not get hung up on creating individual thumbnails—you need to keep moving. You can edit and develop promising thumbnails into larger sketches later in the process.

Initial thumbnail sketches for a poster project (top). Thumbnail sketches with larger sketches of best options (bottom)/Iliana Taylor

Mood boards (or inspiration boards) can help you refine the look and mood of the project. Collect imagery, type, photographs, color and pattern that represent the feel of the project. Here is an example, below.

Mood board for a book design for the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides/Savannah Colbert

don’t wait until the last minute

This may be the hardest lesson to learn. There will be many projects that must be undertaken and completed quickly. But the more time you allow for the process the better the work will be. Your mind can float more freely and creatively when your work feels more like play instead of putting your creativity under the gun.

bird by bird, or step by step

Despite best intentions, we all end up procrastinating sometimes. One of my favorite stories about procrastination and becoming overwhelmed comes from Anne Lamott, in her incredible book titled Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

* Special thanks to the following students, whose process and sketches illustrate this post: Laura McMullan, Michael Booth, Savannah Colbert and Iliana Taylor.


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