The creative process and why it matters

How does creativity "happen"? Is there a step by step process that leads to novel and useful outcomes? If yes, can knowledge about this process help you with your endeavors?

Our understanding of creativity has come a long way. In "Myths of Creativity", author Daniel Burkus writes about how, for a very long time, people believed that creativity resulted from some kind of divine, outside forces. The Old Greeks called those creative forces Muses, other religions referred to God.

Even though today we don't necessarily see God (or any other higher force) as source of creativity, we still mostly treat creativity as Eureka-moments outside our area of influence. This mindset and knowledge truly limits our creative capacities. 

The creative process

Theorists in the 20th century proposed various models for the creative process, that is a step by step approach that lead to an outcome that is novel and of value. Graham Wallas described as early as 1926 a four stage approach: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification (i.e. testing your solution). Psychologist, Mihaly Csikcszentmihalyi derived a five stage approach: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and, in addition to Wallas' approach, elaboration

  • Preparation is a period where you get immersed in a challenge or an opportunity that triggers your interest. You build up your intellectual resources that later will allow for creative recombination of ideas.
  • Incubation is a phase where you let your subconsciousness take over to enable unconventional connections and consequently novel ideas beyond logical problem solving.
  • Insight is what most people consider as creativity. It's that "Eureka"-moment where you experience a sudden flash of understanding and where the pieces (seem to) fall together. Suddenly, all makes sense.
  • Evaluation is a critical step as you and others assess your idea and decide whether it is worth the effort. This can be challenging since your idea is still in a vulnerable state and one feels insecure. You assess your idea based on what you think the domain considers as novel and useful. 
  • Elaboration is, in a nutshell, a fancy word for hard work. There is no detour or shortcut. You literally create your idea and bring it to live, despite all obstacles. 

One thing is important to understand:

Even though the creative process sounds like a linear sequence, it is by no means a step by step approach. Quite contrary, it is a nonlinear and iterative process that might trigger e.g. several insights or multiple moments where you feel you need to add to your knowledge and skills (preparation). 

Why it matters

"So how can knowledge of that creative process help me?" you might ask. Good question that allows for various, not exhaustive answers.

Firstly, just by looking at the creative process one can tell, that creativity and creative work is more than just that one "Aha-Moment" (insight). It becomes clear that generating ideas demands planning and preparation. Before that, however, you need to find something that interests you. A problem, an opportunity or a challenges that catches your attention; something you decide to pursue; something that fascinates you. So, how can you foster curiosity in your daily life? How do you keep that curious spark and how do you use it to build up knowledge and skills?

Secondly, and this is probably the most overlooked part when it comes to creativity, the process highlights the importance of time-off. Incubation is time where you don't work on your problem, at least consciously, which in turn paves the way for new combinations. You can favor this step by engaging in various new experiences that might (or might not) trigger a new line of thought. This awareness can also help you to step back temporarily from a creative task without guilty conscience.  Do you allow for incubation? If not, how can you design moments of deliberate time off into your creative work?

What's more, awareness of the evaluation step can help you further. Knowing that moments of self-doubt or even negative feedback of others are unavoidable, you can design for that phase. Maybe being aware of these moments already helps. Or you decide to sleep on an important decision. Or, and this is what we experienced to work well, you approximate your goal with iterations of (less risky) prototypes. So what do you do in moments of creative despair? How can you prepare for realistic evaluation of your idea? Is there a way to learn step by step if you are on the right way without big investments?

Eventually, hard work is what makes your idea come to live. We disagree with the misinterpretations of Edison's' quote "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration", but hard work (including obstacles, nay-sayers, etc.) are an essential part. So you better think of ways to positively influence elaboration. Is there a way that you can design a creative habit into your everyday schedule? How can you make sure, that you not only work hard on your creative idea, but on the one that drives and motivate you? What kind of environment (both: space and people) help you with your endeavours?

Now what?

The creative process is a model and it very certainly works different for each person. Yet, it can be a starting point to experiment with your very own creative process. The questions in this article can help you to discover what works for you and we urge you to come up with your own reflections to consciously design for each step. In one way, the "Gym" is our way to experiment with the creative process. 

Stephan Kardos