An Empty Cup


Why sitting with uncertainty can be a fruitful pastime.

In early 2000, I got my first big break. I got the chance to be paid for the skills I’d been learning (and teaching myself) over the previous year or so. I remember this period as one of the most exciting and scary times in my working life.

What made it so scary was that I had no idea how I was going to achieve what was asked of me for the project. How could I? I’d never done anything. In this particular job, I wasn’t able to let my current abilities (or lack thereof) dictate what I was going to do. All I had was a blind faith I could learn what I needed to and one way or another everything was going to work out. I was flying by the seat of my pants.

Ten years on, I guess I’m more experienced (whatever that means), but actually not all that much has changed. I’m still making it up as I go. Often I process a brief with the same initial blankness as I did back in 2000.

So what then have I learned over the last 10 years? Simply, I know a little more about my strengths and weaknesses, and have a stronger sense of what’s possible. I’m an optimist.

Have faith

Uncertainty sucks. It’s not a fun feeling — especially when it’s someone else’s faith in you that’s on the line. Deadlines, of course, compound this sinking feeling, but remember: not knowing right away is a sign that you’re giving this problem the consideration it deserves.

Being open is hard work. Routine is comforting, trying new things is annoying. But it’s what separates the good designers from the hacks. I’ll bet most of your design heroes have no idea how they’re going to solve a brief on first glance. That’s the very reason they’re able to amaze us time and time again. What makes a good problem-solver isn’t a recipe book of prior solutions and secret formulae. Experience helps us learn about ourselves and what’s possible, but if you’re designing well, you’re striving to break new ground for yourself.

So in that first client meeting when your main job is to listen intently, do just that. Be empty. Fight the urge to think in terms of preexisting solutions just to avoid not knowing. It’s true that when you get good at hammering, every problem starts to look like a nail. Indulge your client with a truly open and uncertain mind. Embrace that uneasy feeling because the panic will pass. After all, one way or another, everything is going to work out.

—Published 02 August, 2010