Getting Past the Blank Canvas

I’m sure you can picture a time when you’ve been ready to start a new design, opened up Photoshop or Sketch, stared at a blank canvas and felt totally clueless about where to start. This used to be a common issue for me but less so these days. While there is always some low level panic when I stare at the empty screen in front of me, I’ve found a way that not only circumvents “designers block” it also leads to stronger design concepts.

What’s this magic cure you ask? Design discovery. Sound boring?  Hear me out. The most important aspect of design happens before you make any design decisions. Effective work is a byproduct of understanding the problems you’re solving. Understanding the problems at hand and their priority lends clarity and focus. It feels like magic because the right decisions present themselves.

In most cases you’ll be solving problems for two very different groups–stakeholders and users. Let’s dive into more detail.

Stakeholders and Users

Stakeholders are typically the ones writing the check. They’ve hired you to design something for them. Users are the people who end up actually utilizing what you create.

Stakeholders have objectives. Users have goals. You need to discover, define, and prioritize them both. I’ve discussed the importance of considering the two groups in my post called designing for users and stakeholders. Since I’ve already covered the importance of the two groups at length I won’t try and convince you any further. Instead, let’s talk about how you uncover and define stakeholder objectives.

Defining Objectives

Objectives are the tangible reasons that someone somewhere decided to write a check to commission design work. Design cannot exist in the absence of objectives. That is to say, if you’re working on a project that doesn’t have at least one objective–whether clearly defined or not–you’re not actually designing. The very practice of design is planning and making actions toward a desired goal or outcome.

It’s not enough to define objectives. If defined improperly your focus will be misaligned and the project will not be as successful as it could be. Upon completion you should be able to evaluate performance compared to objectives and definitively say if the project was a success or not. If this isn’t possible the objectives were not properly defined.

It’s not enough to talk about desired outcomes, you need to structure objectives in a way that informs your design decisions. How do you do that? I’m glad you asked.

A Framework for Objectives

The most common mistake I see is focusing on tactics rather than measurable outcomes. A client comes to us and states their goal is to add a news section, showcase their team and demonstrate the breadth of industries they’ve worked in. While these elements might lead to a successful site they are tactics not outcomes. The desired outcome is actually more leads.

Sure. Well designed news, team, and portfolio sections could translate to more leads, but if you’re not measuring leads how would you know? Furthermore, if you’re not considering leads as the end goal you might overlook key content that would increase leads, like information regarding your process.

While somewhat cheesy, the S.M.A.R.T. goal system is an effective framework for defining objectives. The S.M.A.R.T. system dictates that goals should be:

  • Specific – “Having the best industry website” is too broad and difficult to quantify, “increasing leads” is easy.
  • Measurable – “Improving my business” can’t be easily measured, “obtain 10% more leads per year” can.
  • Achievable – It pays to be realistic. If you’re a fledgling book e-commerce shop don’t expect to take on Amazon during year one.
  • Result Focused – “Having a team section” is focused on an activity not a result. “Increasing leads” is result focused.
  • Time-Based – Define a time frame in which the goal should be reached. Is it right after launch? After a quarter? A year? This gives context to the design.

Out of all the S.M.A.R.T. goal criteria, I find getting to something measurable and result focused is most difficult. If you’re not used to thinking about a website in this manor it might not come naturally, so don’t blame anyone.

Getting to Measurable, Result Focused Objectives

If you’re having trouble, consider playing the “five whys” game. It goes something like this:

You: What do you want to accomplish with this redesign?
Them: I want a new portfolio section!

You: Why?
Them: Because we want to showcase all the different types of work we’ve done.

You: Why?
Them: We want to show everyone the wide range of work we’ve done for a lot of different industries.

You: Why?
Them: We want potential clients to feel like we’ve done a project like theirs before so we’re a good candidate to hire.

You: Why?
Them: If they feel confident we can do the job they’ll contact us.

Ahh ha! Gotcha. As you can see it doesn’t always take five whys to get to the bottom of it. The point is to keep digging deeper with each response that doesn’t speak to the measurable and result focused reason.

Once you’ve defined the three to five primary objectives for the site you need to prioritize them.

Prioritizing Objectives

If you prioritize everything, nothing can be a priority. After all, there can only be one thing that catches your eye first. If the most visually prominent element is aligned with the most important objective you’re more likely to succeed. If you try and balance all the goals equally you’ll end up with a design where everything is screaming for your attention and ultimately nothing is emphasized.

Prioritization can be difficult. Sometimes every objective feels equally important. Prioritizing one objective over another doesn’t mean the later will be neglected. When composing the work you’ll distribute emphasis on elements relative to their prioritization. It’s OK if objectives are extremely close in terms of priority, 51% / 49% for example. Knowing that objective A is slightly more important is enough to inform your design decisions.

There is no trick to prioritization other than being prepared to make tough decisions. Once you’ve prioritized the objectives you can move on and define the user goals.

Defining User Goals

Much like stakeholders users have a give-and-take relationship with your work. They are giving their precious time in hopes for a valuable takeaway. The moment that takeaway doesn’t seem possible or isn’t worth the time invested they abandon the process. It’s your job to give them value with as little effort required on their part. The most effective design work aligns user goals with the defined objectives.

Defining user goals is rarely as easy as objectives. Stakeholders are vested in the project and will readily answer the questions necessary to define objectives. Users on the other hand are hard to reach and are rarely vested in the project. So what does one do?

It takes effort, but you can attempt to get in touch with users. Sometimes stakeholders can put you in touch with members of their core audience. You can also solicit involvement by reaching out to existing mailing lists, posting notices on the website, social media, etc… Otherwise you’ll have to resort to analyzing past user behavior (using website analytics for example) and speculating based on stakeholder feedback.

The key is to get as much information about the users, their behavior, goals and motivations. Once you have a wealth of research you can break your findings into three categories:

  • Goals
  • Activities
  • Tasks

The user journey isn’t always direct. While their end goal might be “purchase a home theater system” they will participate in several activities and tasks along the way. By designing around those activities and tasks you can increase the likelihood they’ll reach the purchase point.

To continue with our e-commerce example, a user would have the end goal of purchasing. Before they purchase they might have the following activities and sub tasks:


  • Reading reviews
  • Researching specifications
  • Looking up decision criteria


  • Looking at specific models and differences
  • Looking at different retailers and their prices and policies

If your design allows the comparison of products, includes content on decision making criteria, and clearly states shipping and return policies — the possibility of purchasing is higher. Defining user goals allows you to work backward and identify what activities and tasks necessary to achieve the end goal. This then informs your design decisions.

Like stakeholder objectives you should prioritize the user goals based on which are most common. This will also inform your design decisions.

Once you’ve defined both the stakeholder objectives and user goals you can move on towards tangible design deliverables such as wireframes, design concepts, or prototypes.

From Words to Schematics

Completing this process leaves you with a list of priorities organized by group. I know doesn’t sound helpful when it comes to producing a tangible deliverable like a wireframe, but it is. The next step is to expand on the list of priorities, documenting what elements are necessary to support the priority.

If the primary objective is “increase leads” you might identify the need to communicate experience, team member skill, and company process. Now you know the key elements need to be represented in some capacity. If you found that users care most about past experience you’ve successfully identified the most visually prominent item on the page.

Not only do you end up with an inventory of elements you now know the ideal design hierarchy.

I find having this information in front of me while I start designing quickly gets my creative mind primed and I can iterate through a variety of different options and ideas quickly. After a dozen or so ideas I can assess each concept relative to the priorities and select the best approach.

That blank canvas almost fills itself.