5 Habits R29's Creative Director Swears By

By now, the scrappy origin story behind Refinery29 has become the stuff of media legend. It all started when Christene Barberich and Piera Gelardi, work wives at CITY magazine, teamed up with Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano to start a tiny website dedicated to emerging NYC designers, which — smash cut to 10 years later — became the platform we know and love today.

In the site’s many incarnations, executive creative director Gelardi has done more than shape the look and feel of the site and stack its visual team with forward-thinking talent — she’s pioneered a new way of thinking about art’s role in women’s media. Under her direction, Refinery29 has shown what a vibrant, diverse, and unapologetically feminist approach to women’s stories looks like, and, in so doing, she’s dared other sites to keep up. Meanwhile, initiatives like 29 Rooms and the 67% Project bring the spirit of R29 — experimental, inclusive, thoughtful, playful — alive both on the site and in the world at large.

Gelardi's belief in images as shapers of the world fuels her passion for visual creations with a sense of purpose. You could call what she does “conscious creativity” — ideating something that is fully rooted in her values, open to feedback from the public, and intentional about the impact she wants to make.

In honor of Girlboss, the Netflix show based on Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso (another patron saint of the side-hustle-turned-dream-job), we spoke to Gelardi about how she nurtures her creativity, finds inspiration in tough times, and brings a sense of passion and play to every day. Ahead, she tells us five things she does to stay inspired and creative.

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
"Nurturing my curiosity and seeking external inspiration — beyond my immediate job description — has been a great source of enhanced creativity for me. It pushes me outside my comfort zone, exposes me to new ways of doing things, and influences my growth as a whole person.

At R29, we give employees a $500 yearly education stipend, so I recently used mine to take an improv class. It taught me so much about loosening up, letting go of inhibitions, and using the 'yes and' approach. I now find myself able to think on my feet in unexpected ways, which has enhanced my public-speaking skills and ability to come up with ideas on the spot. I often incorporate some improv exercises into my brainstorms at work. Anything you can do to break up your routine and refresh your perspective is key.

Travel is another way to do this. Immersing yourself in a different place, exploring a unique way of life, and documenting the things you see is a great way to develop your eye. You don't even need to go far to do this — it can be as simple as going to a different neighborhood and taking pictures. You never know when something you’ve seen is going to resurface as a grain of inspiration."
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
"So much of my creativity comes from the meaningful interactions and conversations with people around me, and it requires vulnerability to do that authentically. At work, I try to create an environment where people feel comfortable trying new things. It can’t be about perfection and competition, because then everyone freezes, self-censors, and is afraid to pitch an idea. It’s part of my job to help people go beyond those self-imposed limits.

In brainstorms, I try to make a safe and nonjudgemental environment for everyone — you’d be surprised how often one person’s quirky (or even plain bad) idea sparks a really great one for someone else. When people start to feel stuck, I'll have everyone literally shake it out — another improv warm-up I learned. It might look ridiculous, but it releases tension, creates a bond out of shared playfulness, and levels the playing field because we're all allowing ourselves to be vulnerable together.

I think a lot about the power of humor to fuel creativity. There's a pattern I've seen again and again: The best ideas come when you let your guard down. I try to be the one who throws in the most absurd suggestion, which — hopefully — gives other people permission to leave their inhibitions at the door."
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
"The traditional advice is to suppress complicated emotions in the workplace. But you need access to those feelings if you want to create something with impact. I try to build structures that allow people to constructively access their emotions.

After the election, there were a lot of complex feelings in the air, so I set up time to talk openly and brainstorm ways we could channel those emotions into action. That meeting ended up being therapeutic, community-building, and a source of lots of potent, diverse ideas.

Creating environments where people can talk about what’s on their mind and really listen to each other has the potential to connect us to something much bigger. It's powerful when you can — as Carrie Fisher said — 'take your broken heart, make it into art.'"
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
"I think sometimes we can get too obsessed with the outward trappings of success or what we thought our lives would look like at a certain time or age. What I've found is more important to me is living true to my authentic self, understanding what really motivates me, and knowing that comparison really is the killer of joy.

Living authentically can sound like a great idea, but there's no rule book or guideline for staying on track. A few years ago, I took a weekend to myself and made this World According To Piera document. It's like a manifesto. I wrote down things that are my true passions and most deeply held beliefs — for example, one is, 'I believe that the images we see have the power to shape the way we see ourselves and the world.' Another is, 'I believe you're never done growing.' I also wrote down the things that truly motivate me like 'the entrepreneurial spirit.'"

I’ve tweaked it slightly over the years, but it’s mostly stayed the same, and I refer back to it all the time. My job description has evolved a million times over the years, and I've needed to take on new roles and responsibilities. Every time I do, I go back and look at the manifesto to make sure what I'm doing is aligned with The World According To Piera. It helps me remember what's non-negotiable for me — and gives me the freedom to be flexible on everything else."
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
"When you get stuck creatively, you often focus on what went wrong. You go down a rabbit hole, fixating on the deficit. But it's so important to pay more attention to those moments when you really hit it out of the park. Was it because you meditated that morning? Or took the time to make breakfast? Or even listened to a song that really amped you up?

For me, it's opening up a magazine and doing word association, surrounding myself with imagery, or bringing someone in the room that I'm super comfortable with. It's different for everyone, so figure out what inspires and motivates you. Once you establish your patterns, you can create the right conditions for creativity. It's really powerful."
Want more inspiration? Watch the first season of Girlboss on Netflix — all episodes available April 21.
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