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  • Writer's pictureStephen Morgan

What is Creative Tension, and how can it make your advertising more effective?

Updated: Jan 4




Creative tension in the context of ad design refers to the dynamic and sometimes conflicting forces that arise when a viewer interacts with an ad, be it in print, video or a social post. It is the push and pull between different design elements, ideas, or perspectives that can lead to a more innovative and impactful final design that arrests the readers' eye in a sea of generally pleasing but forgettable “wallpaper.”


This jarring tension is not a negative; rather, it can be a catalyst for the viewer to actually read, watch or otherwise interact with the ad. And while we’ll want to use creative tension to arrest the audiences’ attention (such as starting this sentence with “And”), we need the communication piece itself to deliver a positive message, and end on a high-note for the brand, product or service represented.


Here's how creative tension manifests in the realm of design:


Contrast in Design Elements:

  • Creative tension often arises from the deliberate use of contrasting design elements, such as color, shape, texture, and typography. These contrasts create visual interest and can draw attention to specific aspects of the design. For example, a juxtaposition of bold and subtle elements can create a dynamic visual tension that captivates the viewer.


Balancing Form and Function:

  • Designers and Art Directors frequently grapple with finding the right balance between form and function. Creative tension emerges when the aesthetic appeal of a design clashes with its practical usability. Striking the right balance ensures that the design not only looks visually appealing but also serves its intended purpose effectively.


Exploration of Design Concepts:

  • Creative tension should begin at the development phase, encouraging designers to explore various design concepts, even those that may initially seem contradictory. By challenging conventional thinking and experimenting with divergent ideas, designers can push the boundaries of creativity and discover innovative solutions that stand out.


User-Centered vs. Artistic Expression:

  • Design often involves a tension between meeting user needs and expressing artistic creativity. Designers may need to navigate the delicate balance between creating a visually stunning piece and ensuring that it is user-friendly, compelling and serves its intended purpose. Creative tension often requires the designer to actually add in some imperfection into a finished piece, creating a subtle sense of “something not quite right” that holds the viewers gaze that little bit longer. This need to create captivating tension prompts designers to find solutions that are both aesthetically pleasing yet functionally hard-working.


Adapting and Corrupting Cultural Trends:

  • Every advertiser wants to jump on the bandwagon of the latest design or cultural trend, intending to be seen as “with it”, thereby capitalizing on a larger and already engaged audience. The mistake here, in simply following a trend, is being seen as a “me too” product offering, and then being quickly being dismissed as irrelevant. Instead look to pervert current trends, acknowledging their existence by actually questioning them or advancing the current trend agenda. Creative tension can arise from designers trying to navigate the balance between incorporating current trends and pushing the boundaries of innovation. Striking the right balance can allow designers to create concepts that feel contemporary while also offering a fresh perspective.


Bringing the Client Along for the Ride:

  • Every now and then you encounter a client who wants to show you how smart they are, and how great they would be as an Art Director, Designer or Copywriter, and as such they’ll be the first to point out the “error” in your ad, whether its a too big element, strongly contrasting colour, or something just slightly off that bothers them. This is when you show exactly why they are paying you, and explain how that item that caught their attention is intended, and how it will catch the attention of the desired audience as well. Of course, it is at this point that the advertisement must follow through with a clear product benefit or point of differentiation that made it worth stopping to look at this ad just that little bit longer in the first place.


It is important to note that creative tension in design is about embracing the challenges and contradictions inherent in the creative process itself, and finding a way to share those contradictions we feel and face with the viewer in such a manner that they cannot help but stop, stare and engage with the work that came out of it.


When managed thoughtfully, this tension can lead to breakthroughs, unique design solutions, and visually compelling outcomes. It is through the interplay of conflicting elements that designers can achieve designs that resonate with their audience and leave a lasting impression that leads to a viewer taking the desired action as intended from the start.

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