If you observe job listings for graphic designers you will invariably see something like this in the qualifications: "Must be able to design under tight deadlines." Or my favorite, "Must be able to work under shifting and competing priorities." Sounds a lot like design-mill stuff, in my opinion. But there are legitimately decent design job listings that throw these lines in there too to weed out the timid.
And whether you are an in-house designer or not, every designer is challenged to do good design under pressure. Here's a bit of advice on dealing with these situations:
Take a break.
It's difficult for me to jump on projects I know I don't have enough time to do it well. So, I try to create time to think the projects through and clear my head. A good rule of thumb is to take about 20-25% of the time you have on a project to think and to lay out a plan. With a good plan you can do almost anything with the remaining time you have. For instance, if you are given about 4 hours to come up with a CD cover design, use about an hour to relax, do some research, and develop a plan. You may find that you can whip something decent in about an hour, and have the extra 2 hours for refinements, approvals, and edits.
When I'm under the gun to come up with ideas, or even a good plan, getting advice is a great option. Sometimes, I would even go to the project originator or subject matter expert to bounce my thoughts on them. It's a win for both of us because they are usually glad to be involved the process, and I come away with a greater understanding of what is expected. Also it's a good idea to speak with fellow designers, read their blogs, or peruse their portfolios to get ideas on how to approach a similar project.
I've mentioned before the power of drawing. It can get our minds going in a positive direction — rather than sheer panic. Try using that break time (25% of the allotted time) to get the gears going. Just sketching alone can yield some great positive results and ideas.
Confront unreasonable demands by managing expectations.
Sometimes requests are just unreasonable. But when it's the CEO, you have to comply. My approach is to either manage the expectations, or use part of the time to get incremental sign-offs.
For managing expectations, consider the scope and create a plan according to the expected outcome. Then attempt to negotiate with the project requestor to see how you both can adjust the scope to meet the deadline. Maybe instead of coming up with 4 different design ideas for approval, make it 2. Or, instead of completing the whole job, what about half now, and half a bit later. Let the requestor know that you both want the same outcome and you are suggesting an approach that will get you that.
Confront unreasonable demands by getting incremental sign-offs.
But sometimes, there's little room for changes on scope and timelines. So create incremental sign-offs by breaking the project down to it's component design phases. Then create sign-offs at each stage in the process, so that the project requestor is constantly aware of what's going on. This speeds the process up because you both are forced to be in sync at every step, rather than dealing wasting time on vague expectations. As you go along, you both may agree that adjustments need to be made — extra expenses, overtime, or maybe adding time. It's not just about the designer getting a task done. It's about the designer and requestor working as a team to make a successful project.