Like many writers and designers, occasionally (and sometimes often) the thought of facing the blank page paralyzes me. This usually happens at the beginning of a project, somewhere between the signing of an agreement and receiving the initial deposit to start the work. My inner saboteur appears like a gremlin right next to me, questionning whether I’ve got what it takes to complete the project.

Ernest Hemingway called the blank page the white bull. What a perfect description. Because every time I face that white page, whether it’s to write something or to design something, I feel like a matador waiting for that beast to bust into the arena and flatten me.

There are many ways of dealing with that white bull, and every creative person does it differently. I’ll focus on how I deal with it from a designer’s point of view: I look at others’ work. Not to copy it! But to draw inspiration from it. I go to museums, browse through my collection of brochures and interesting design pieces I’ve collected over the years. And I also look at books that have helped me better understand how to approach the content with which I’ve been entrusted to create something interesting, beautiful, memorable and that also helps grow a business.

Among the many books I have about design – not just website design but print as well – one that I treasure is John McWade’s How to Design Cool Stuff (2010, Peachpit Press). It is a small, colorful paperback book that is packed with great ideas, guidance and inspiration that I constantly refer to when I feel stuck or I’m in need of a reminder of how to do something like choose the right typeface for a new project.

The book is divided into three parts: Knowledge, Technique and Projects. McWade simply, elegantly, intuitively and beautifully explains how to approach projects with these concepts in mind. Not only can a beginner learn how to do some very cool things in a short amount of time, it’s a book that more experienced designers can refer to for inspiration, or reminders of how to do something.


How to design cool stuff page 12 13 spread


I first discovered McWade a little over a year ago when I signed up for a course on designing a WordPress theme from scratch at (I have learned a lot from courses at!) often highlights its newest courses, and among them at the time was “Before & After: Graphic Design Techniques” with John McWade. I started watching the hour-long video thinking I’d stop after a few minutes because I really wanted to finish my WordPress course. But before I knew it, I had watched the entire hour. McWade’s calm, friendly and intelligent style of speaking pulled me in, and everything he explained from designing a logo with just your business name to boldly cropping parts of the same picture for an entire layout were fascinating. Everything made perfect sense. You can watch a short part of his entire course, “The Power of Empty Space,” for free on if you’re interested.

I really love this entire book but one of my favorite parts is the “Cool Covers: Ten Simple Ideas for great-looking covers” in the Technique section. McWade shows simple ways of using rather ordinary photography and cropping it boldly to create beautiful and memorable covers. I particularly like this example in which part of a bird’s wing is added to a cover with the original photo, creating depth and a natural stage for the text. If you saw this, wouldn’t you like to open this brochure and read more?


How to design cool stuff cropping photo example


How to Design Cool Stuff, by John McWade ($44.99)

“Before & After” Graphic Design Techniques” with John McWade on (monthly subscription starts at $25.00 per month).

Before and After Magazine, the website – there are tons of cool videos and other resources here.