Being Creative Under Pressure

Let’s start with a history lesson: In 1508, while Michelangelo was at work sculpting Pope Julius II’s tomb, the Most Holy Father himself ordered Michelangelo to drop what he was doing and work on a new project: the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter, and had never painted a fresco before — let alone one that was to depict the high points of the Book of Genesis for the Pope. No pressure, right?

But His Eminence — the Client of Clients — insisted that he take on the project, and so a little more than four years later, Michelangelo completed the masterpiece all on his own. It was by Michelangelo’s own account a truly miserable experience, with frequent check-ins from the Papal Client and pressure to finish early.

Working in the advertising and marketing industry for more than thirty years, I’ve seen my share of high-pressure creative moments. I’ve also worked through the transition from traditional graphic design and printing techniques to today’s digital formats.

I’m no Luddite — digital has increased efficiency, improved quality, and enhanced client satisfaction. Still, when I receive a creative request that sounds like “paint the Sistine Chapel and have it done by close of business on Thursday,” I pause. While the tools and some resources have become more efficient, the creative process doesn’t happen at the speed of email or text.

Superior quality design and conceptual solutions take time. There are no mouse clicks or keyboard shortcuts for enhanced aesthetics or compelling ideas.

Here are a few tips that our creative team find helpful in maximizing creative potential in today’s fast-paced, wired world:

1. Get sketchy.

Shark Week originated as a sketch on a napkin. Sketching thumbnail designs is a great technique that allows designers to produce many options rapidly. Then, you can choose the best direction to execute versus overworking one solution digitally.

2. Mine first, polish later.

Writers and artists of all stripes know that sometimes the early creative process is an exercise in mining raw materials – the more ideas, the better. Out of those materials, a diamond (hopefully) emerges. Don’t judge or refine anything in this stage.

3. Brainstorm effectively.

Get in the habit of having team members come to brainstorms with ideas. Just like a student showing up to class without having read the material, we are useless when we come to brainstorming sessions with nothing but a pad and pen. Individual brainstorming prior to the group session is helpful.

4. Look for inspiration everywhere.

Design and trade publications are great, but some of the best and most unique ideas come from unexpected places. Your morning shower. Dreams. Playing Legos with your kids. Working through lunch isn’t uncommon at agencies, but sometimes getting up and out is just what you need to spark something.

5. Gain perspective.

Despite our own creative delusions that the work we do is on par with the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel or the “Mona Lisa,” our efforts will likely not be immortalized and studied for centuries to come. So a little perspective is another nice tool to have in the arsenal. Don’t lose sleep if you aimed for fine art and you delivered a Bob Ross wooded landscape. There’s nothing wrong with happy little trees.

If all of these fail, perhaps a little hiatus is in order. If you can’t hop a flight to Rome and take in the glory of the seeing the Masters’ work in-person, maybe open a bottle of Italian red and remember that tomorrow is another day.


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