One of the challenges of creating so much content is that from time to time, I forget I've written on a topic and write another article about the same thing. That's what happened here. I finished writing my article for this week only to realize that I've tackled the same issue four years ago (in an article called "The Blank Page"). I was going to toss this article and write something else, but when I went back and looked at the original article, I realized that I approached it in a slightly different way, so I thought it might be interesting for you all to see my latest take on the same topic.
One of my jobs as Head Designer is to train other designers. As such, I've spent many years working with designers helping them improve their craft. Today's article is about the area of design that has proven to be the hardest for most designers I've trained, and my guess is it's something that a lot of artists in any creative field struggle with—starting from nothing. The blank page is a scary thing for most people. It has both the specter of being anything along with the worry of being nothing. How exactly do you start with a total void of anything and end up with something awesome. Today's column is going to walk you through the many tricks I've learned over the years.
Before I begin, I should stress that each person handles this differently. I'm going to be walking through how I do it and what tools and approaches have proven valuable for me. My hope is that by seeing my technique, it might inspire others to find their own way to tackle this daunting issue.
Stage One: The Jumping-Off Point
For numerous years, I roomed with an artist. One time, he shared with me a tip an art teacher had given him. When facing a blank canvas, start by drawing a squiggle on it. Not anything purposeful, just a random flick of the brush. Now, instead of trying to figure out what the blank canvas is supposed to be, you start by figuring out what the squiggle is supposed to be. It gives you a direction to start and by the end of the painting, the squiggle will be long covered by the actual illustration.
This trick is basically true for any creative work. It's hard for your brain to wrap around the idea of something being anything, but once you put the smallest of details in it, your brain shifts from the daunting task of figuring out what something is to the much more manageable task of solving how this detail might matter. What this means is, when you're stuck, picking anything, even something random, will help you get mental traction. For example, sometimes when I'm designing cards, I will give myself a random restriction (make this design feel like a donut) just to get my brain to approach the problem from a different vantage point and allow me something to focus on.
It doesn't matter, by the way, if this detail is something that's going to end up in the final product. Art is an act of both creation and destruction. You will build up and tear down a lot of what you're creating as you make it. (When discussing Magic design, I refer to this as iteration.) This original impetus, much like the squiggle, will most likely be changed or covered up along the way. It's a tool to help get you started. Trying to make sure it's relevant can often cause you to freeze up, so I'm telling you now, you don't have to worry about that.
Let me quickly dive a little into the neuroscience of what I'm suggesting here. Your brain is a complex and efficient machine. So much so that it studies how it does things and then copies them the next time you need to do the same task. Technically, I believe your brain makes neuro pathways as you learn new things which you will return to when attempting the same task. It makes a lot of sense when you're brushing your teeth or driving your car. Consistency of execution is wanted in most daily functions. The one place it's not, though, is creative expression. That's the one time where you want different outputs. Thus, the trick isn't using the same neuro pathways. How do you do that? By giving yourself a mental problem that your brain registers as something new. That's why, for example, every time I start a Magic design, I make sure to give myself a challenge that I've never given myself before in designing a set. This ensures that I will create new neuro pathways which will result in creations I've never made before.
Another way to do this, and it's something that Magic does, is to put together different teams of people for different projects. The unique combination of individuals has a similar effect in that you have different inputs at play which will lead you to different outputs.
Stage Two: Picking a Path (Or a Focus)
Longtime readers will know that my favorite mantra is "restrictions breed creativity," the idea that having limitations you have to work around actually inspires you to be more creative. It plays into the exact same thing I'm talking about in the first stage. Part of getting different outputs is putting in different inputs, and restrictions are a great way to do that, but there's a second part to it which plays into this stage. At some point early on, you have to pick a direction for your design, what I like to refer to as a path. Here's my metaphor. You have a map. Using the first lesson, you pick a random spot to start. Ultimately, you want to get to your final destination, but the problem is, you don't yet know where it is. Early design is about figuring out the general direction you need to travel.
The reason I call it a path is because you have to get somewhere from where you are—you have to create forward momentum. Sitting and spinning your wheels won't just frustrate you, it will also fail to inspire you or your team. The goal of a design leader is providing something for the team to focus on. People are good at solving concrete tasks, so the goal of early design is to pick a focus and direction. "Make something" is an empty task. "Make a world based on Arthurian legend and fairy tales" is a goal.
It's important for me to stress that the path you pick might not necessarily be the path you ultimately end up on. Part of the creative process is going down wrong paths and learning from the experience why it was the incorrect choice. Committing to a path gives you and your team direction and ensures that you will learn something about what you're designing. Discovering what doesn't work can be invaluable in creating something. A common mistake I see among less experienced designers is a fear of picking a path. They like to keep all their options open so they have the ability to travel down various possible paths.
The problem is that your design can't form if you never give it definition. Part of creating something is committing to an idea and seeing where that idea takes you. That means you have to be willing to cut off options. In order for your design to be something, it will have to not be many other things. This is so important because only through having a focus will you be able to create concrete goals for you and your design team. You need everyone looking in the same direction so that their ideas mix and match with one another and inspire new ideas.
But how exactly do you know what path to journey down? My best advice is this. At any one point in design, figure out the one thing in your design that you're the happiest with and make that the center of your current path. Having done this for a long time, I've learned to combine my first two steps together. For each Magic set I'm leading the design for, I use something that will give my team direction as my jumping-off point. That is, I always start each design with a clear goal in mind that I know will give me a path to start with. Not all designs have to work this way, but for someone who is constantly playing in the same sandbox with the same set of tools, I've found it invaluable as a way to make each set unique.
Stage Three: Throwing a Lot of Spaghetti on the Wall
You've started down a path. It might not be the final path, but it's a path. It gives you and your team direction. The next step is to explore all the options that this path entails. This is what I like to call the "throw spaghetti at the wall" stage. This step is about quantity over quality. You just want to design a lot of different things and try them out. The advice I give to my teams at this stage is that I want to go wide rather than deep. I want to see a lot of simple executions. I want to get a feel for all the ideas that this path has to offer.
Early playtests are not about environment (aka how all these pieces play together) but a chance to sample things. After playtesting all the ideas, I will then put them into one of three buckets:
Bucket #1: It's good – These are ideas that show a lot of promise. These ideas will stay in the file for now for more playtests.
Bucket #2: It's bad – These are ideas that the playtesting has shown aren't worth keeping. They play poorly or they're too confusing or they fight intuition to such a point that people keep playing them wrong. These are ideas that are going to be removed from the file.
Bucket #3: It shows potential – These are ideas that didn't quite work but hint at something. They failed, but in an interesting way. These are ideas that you want to redesign and try again.
This stage will take numerous playtests as you work through a large catalogue of ideas. The good ideas will inspire similar executions in other areas. The ideas with potential will encourage you to tweak them. The bad ideas will help you learn the troublesome areas of the design space so that you can know where not to look. The end result of this exploration is that you will reexamine your path. You'll end up with one of three outcomes:
Outcome #1: The path is good – This is where you learn that the path you are on is good and you want to continue down it.
Outcome #2: The path is not right, but close – This is where you have to look for adjacent paths you might want to take. It's common with this outcome to take your most successful design(s) and use that as a center for a new path.
Outcome #3: The path is bad – This is when you learn you're headed in the wrong direction. I know that this outcome seems scary, but it's actually quite helpful in that it lets you understand what your design is not. This requires you finding an altogether new path, usually looking at a path you shut off when choosing to follow your current path. Please don't think of this outcome as a failure. It's an important part of the design process. A fear of going down wrong paths will cause you to keep going down old familiar paths and never finding exciting new ones.
Stage Four: Finding Your Superstar
You're going to experiment with a lot of ideas. This stage wants you to figure out which one is the best one. Of all the different things you're playing with, which one excites you the most? Which one inspires you the most? Which one stands out the most? This is the part of the process where you have to figure out what I like to call your superstar. What part of your design is the thing that feels the best about what you're doing? Note that this might be a mechanic, but it doesn't have to be. It could be a new tool or a new piece of design technology or a new theme or a new approach to an old theme. It's the thing that stands out most in what you're making.
This is a skill that can take time to grow and nurture, but it's something you can strengthen through experience. This is probably my strongest skill as a designer, but then I've also been designing Magic sets for almost a quarter of a century. I tend to find this decision a little more intuitive than speculative, but then I'm also a very intuitive thinker. The importance here is that you have to be able to look deep into your design and figure out what makes it tick. What is your greatest success in what you've built? The question I usually ask when making a Magic design is "What is the heart of what I'm building?" What is the thing that's going to make players want to try it before they've played it and continue playing it after they have?
Once you identify your superstar, it's time to recheck your path. Is your superstar in the center of it or off to the side? If the latter, it's time to re-center your path around your superstar. A lot of early design is constantly readjusting your focus, and that has to come from seeing what you've built and what's working best.
Stage Five: Discovering What Connects to Your Superstar
In this stage, you're going to do two things. First, you're going to examine in detail the area of your superstar. This is where you go deep rather than wide, where quality is more of a focus than quantity. You want to explore all the facets around the thing that's making your design sing. Normally, in a Magic design, this is where I'll explore things that require more resources than normal to execute (each Magic set is allocated some amount of money, people, and time to do something extra). For example, this is where I'm willing to try new frames or a mechanic that needs complex new rules or an idea that requires something different in how we print the product.
Second, you want to start examining the rest of your set and see where the synergies lie with your superstar. What else are you doing that complements it? Likewise, what are you doing that doesn't work well with it? You want to do more of the former and less of the latter. You want to start shifting your design to shine with where you're centering it.
This is the reason that picking your superstar is so important. It will start giving you a means to judge the rest of your set and figure out what is enhancing it and what is pulling away from it. This is the stage, by the way, where you have to start "cutting your darlings." What I mean by that is that you have to start making hard choices where you cut things that, while in a vacuum, might be exciting, don't add to the set as a whole. This is one of the hardest parts of design where you have to put the good of the design as a whole against the design of individual components.
Stage Six: Holistic Structuring
At this stage, you have a lot of pieces of things, hopefully components that will play synergistically with one another, and it's time to start actually figuring out your structure. It's possible that the structure has organically formed while you were doing all the previous stages (and with experience, this will happen more and more), but this is the stage where you have to step back and look at the design holistically.
Here's how I like to think of this stage. I want to build something, so I spend a lot of time figuring out all the possible pieces I can use to build it. I'm gathering all my materials. Eventually, though, it's time to start planning out how all these pieces come together. To best do this, I have to step back and look at what all my pieces are and then think about all of them holistically to best understand how I want to connect them.
Now, often along the way I've started putting things together, but that was more out of convenience at the time than a larger planned structure. Now that I have all my pieces and I can look at the big picture, I can start to make more informed decisions about how I want to combine the different materials. This is not a step back but rather an important part of the process where you make informed decisions now that you have a better understanding of what you're building.
My tip for how to do this is to make two lists. First, make a list of every component you have. For a Magic set, this would mean I'd list all my mechanics (including ones that aren't named, anything that shows up on more than one card), components (this is where you list elements of the set that might be things more than mechanics—for example, access to double-faced cards), and themes. Once you have a complete list, I want you to make two versions of it. The first version should list every item from what you consider the most important part of the set to the least. Obviously, your superstar should be on top.
The second version of the list should order things by how hard each is to execute from hardest to simplest. How limited are your options for designing it? Is it tapping into a very narrow vein of design space? Is it something dependent on matching exact flavor? Is it using rules that limit what you're able to do with it? Understanding how difficult the design of each individual component will be is the important part.
Once you have both lists, you want to figure out what item sits the highest on the combination of lists, that is, what's the most important thing to the set that is also hardest to do. This is the item you're going to start with. Why do you start there? Because the nature of design is going to limit you with each thing you add. If you don't start with your most difficult/important design element, it most likely won't fit when it comes time to add it.
The point of this stage is that you're starting fresh with nothing assumed as a given. Do whatever you need to do to fit in the hardest to execute/most important piece of your set. You're starting here so you have access to all your design options. Once you've added in that element, continue to the next hardest/most important item, and work that into the design around what you've already built. If for some reason your superstar item is very easy to execute on and thus at the bottom of your difficulty list, you want to check at each new addition that there's still plenty of room to fit it in. Prioritize it if there's any concern of running out of space for it. At some point, you may find that certain mechanics or themes won't fit. That's a sign it's time to cut them from the set.
This is also the stage where you have to start figuring out how much of something you want in the design. Make sure you're choosing your volume on what makes the design play and feel the best, not just on what can fit. There are a lot of hard choices that come at this stage, but it's where you will start to see how everything can fit together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
Stage Seven: Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
The final stage is putting your design through its paces. For Magic (or any game design), that's playtesting. For writing, that's rewriting and revision. For theater or dance or music, that's rehearsing. You have to actually stress test your design in the means that it's supposed to be used. Through this repetition, you will find the strengths and weaknesses of your work. You will then tweak it, fixing the problems you find and returning to the iterative loop. This is the stage with the clearest direction, as your goal is to keep making it better. Eventually, after you've done enough iteration loops, you'll be done and you can present your design to either the next step in the process (as with Magic) or straight out into the world.
And that is how you get from a blank piece of paper to the first pass at a completed design. I hope this look into the process was helpful, and I'm eager for any feedback about today's column. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram) and let me know.
Join me next week when I interview myself.
Until then, may you be less intimidated when facing your own blank page.
#691: Throne of Eldraine Cards, Part 3
#691: Throne of Eldraine Cards, Part 3
This is part three of a four-part series on card-by-card design stories from Throne of Eldraine.
#692: Throne of Eldraine Cards, Part 4
#692: Throne of Eldraine Cards, Part 4
This is part four of a four-part series on card-by-card design stories from Throne of Eldraine.