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Theory of Creative Process

There are many thoughts and theories as to the process creative people go through during their creative periods. All of them hold merit; different people come to the solution to the same problem in different manners. However the more of these central processes we go through as we work towards our goal the more like we are to come out of with an innovative and creative end product.

As we strive to improve our creativity we need to examine what these core creative processes are and how we could best apply them to our own creative process. We also need to look at what we already do without even realising it so that we can make more effective use of these techniques. Deliberate use of a particular process will produce a better result than would incidental use.


Incubation is a temporary break from our creative process that can result in a breakthrough. As with any form of problem solving when we concentrate on it for too long we get a blinker effect. We become fixated on certain aspects of the problem that may be incorrect or unimaginative. We may also be focusing on aspects that are incorrect which would by their nature keep us off track. By taking a break from our creative problem solving we can gain fresh insight and open our awareness, effectively remove the blinkers that have been hampering our efforts.

For incubation to work at its most effective we need to work on something completely unrelated. If we do not our thought on the subject may well still be tainted by the very thoughts we are attempting to break away from.

Research has shown that creative thought work such as brainstorming is far more effective if it is broken up over two session rather than attempting to cram it all into one. This is thought to be further proof of the validity of Incubation as a valid theory of creativity.

Incubation also allows for recovery from fatigue. Extended periods of creative or other mental exhaustive activity can be quite tiring and as such reduce our creative ability. Incubation theory enables our brain to recover and get back to its full potential. Also creative activities usually involve extended periods of time with little to no real physical activity (sitting or standing in one place for a long time). By taking the break the body can get a change to engage in some form of physical exercise. Exercise improves movement which in turn can help improve creativity.

The incubation effect does not only apply to taking a break from a project for improved results, it also applies to the fostering or incubation of certain emotions or attitudes. What is meant by this is our creative attitude carries over from one day to the next. If we are in a good mood for creativity one day then this attitude carries over to the next enhancing the following days creativity. The same applies the other way round. If for what-ever reason our creativity is stunted one day this will also carry over to the following day.

This is one of the biggest areas of creative theory businesses can benefit from. By fostering a more positive and encouraging atmosphere for creativity it then become contagious. Creative staff feed off each other creatively and produce better results. These better results encourage us the following day to keep up the good work or improve on it, while at the same time feeding off each other.

This is because if a positive mood one day results in an improved number of creative thoughts these thoughts then get a better chance to incubate overnight. This results in our improved creativity the following day. Researchers have already demonstrated our problem solving ability is increased if our initial work on a problem is followed by a period of sleep. The good old let me sleep on it.


Another popular theory of creative process is the theory of honing. Honing is the process whereby the creative individual changes his thoughts and feelings of the world around him or of their project as their understanding improves. It posits that as we work on a project and we gain more information on the subject matter our ideas improve, thereby improving the quality of our creative project.

When dealing with a creative task we engage in a back and forth relationship between our creative task and our world view. Our creative task changes as we look at our worldview then our worldview changes as we look at our creative task. We re-iterate back and forth through this process until such time as we come to a successful conclusion to the task. Gradually we hone and fine tune our solution until we reach a solution we find is acceptable to our worldview.

Changes to our world view do not have to be drastic. They could be just a better insight gained of what is possible through the process of research. As we examine a particular element of our problem we may do some research into how we can solve that element of the problem. This research improves our knowledge and therefore our worldview. With this new improved worldview we then re-examine that aspect of the problem and so our new worldview changes our perception of the problem. And the process then begins anew.

This process may be a viable explanation for the psychoanalytical theory of creativity. For example we know that creativity is fostered by a supportive nurturing environment yet the research shows that creativity has a stronger link to childhood adversity. Childhood adversity would simulate honing as their methods of finding a mental escape from their world would improve as time went on.

Another aspect of creativity the honing process explains is the concept of the creative voice or recognisable style of the creative personality. As we work our way from creative project to project our view of the world around us does not change drastically and definitely does not change much in a short period of time. With each project the creator’s world view is always visible in some way. But because the creators world view only changes slightly from project to project that piece of the creators personality become visible in a similar way across these projects, in effect creating that style which we are then able to recognise.

Honing theory does not believe that creative solutions are come about randomly, rather that these ideas form in a fluid organised manner. During this process we may draw inspiration from previous projects, even unsolved ones but still these previous projects are still based on our world view even if it was a little less formed than it is now.

Convergent and Divergent Thinking:

Convergent and Divergent thinking is a theory about the way some people view a problem and come up with a solution. Convergent thinkers tend to concentrate their thoughts down the path of a single solution. Divergent thinkers on the other hand bring forth multiple solutions to each project.

Divergent thinking generally occurs at the beginning of the creative process. We start by generating as many different possible solutions to the problem though free writing, brainstorming, mind mapping, creating art works. Once we have generated enough different solutions to the problem we then go into convergent thinking mode.

It is at this stage we use our convergent thinking to examine what we know about the problem and begin to whittle down the solutions we have come up to generate a single solution that is best for the problem at hand. We look at each solution we come with previously and look at the things we know about the problem and how each solution we come with impacts on these facts. Do they fit? If not the solution is put aside and we examine the next solution.

By using both forms of thinking together we come up with as many solutions as possible to the problem at hand then narrow it back down to the solution we will use for our project.

These two forms of thinking should be used together at the same time, rather in different stages of development. For example if convergent thinking was used during a brainstorming session new ideas would be squashed because they do not allow for this aspect or that aspect before they even get a chance to fully developed. Rather divergent thinking should used first to create many ideas and to further develop each of these ideas. Then convergent thinking should be used to narrow the solutions down to one or just a few for further development.

Broaden and Build:

There are two main theories of emotion concerning broaden build theory.

The first and most prevalent theory is the theory of positive emotions. The broaden and build theory of positive emotions posits that positive emotions broaden our awareness and thinking thereby encouraging creativity. Positive emotions encourage novel and exploratory thoughts and actions. These actions result in a broadening of our skill set and emotional and mental resources that in the long term encourage a more productive creative side.

Negative emotions on the other hand narrow our focus thereby hampering creativity. This is a part of our natural survival instincts. Negative emotions are associated with survival situations so our brain narrows our focus to only the things that are important for us to survive the situation at hand.

Barbara Fredrickson conducted studies in which random participants watched movies which encouraged positive emotions such as comedies for three days.  Other groups watched neutral movies and even negative emotions. The group that watched the positive emotion inducing movies were shown to experience a marked improvement in creativity.

Other studies involving writing about positive experiences have been shown to have similar results.

Also positive emotions enable us to look at a negative situation with a more positive outlook. Makes us more likely to see the silver lining. This in turn reduces the effect of negative emotions on us making us more resilient.

The other emotional theory of broaden and build involves the use of negative as well as positive emotions to enhance creativity. It posits that positive emotions allow us to build up other skills and mental resources however it also causes us to lose our ability to focus. We become aloof and unfocused so too much positive emotions can in turn reduce our creativity. This theory required us to experience both positive and negative emotions in proportion. We need our positive times to build and broaden our skill set but also negative times to bring us back into focus.

Cognitive Approach:

The Cognitive approach to creativity takes place in two main phases. The first phase is a generate phase during which we come up with ideas or pre-inventive structures we feel may help obtain solutions to a problem. This is then followed by the exploratory phase during which we use the ideas, thoughts and pre-inventive structures we came up with in the first phase to come up with ideas to solve that problem. We explore ways we can use these thoughts to create a solution to the original problem.

Simple brainstorming for example. We begin with a brainstorming session to generate ideas as well as restrictions and other considerations. Afterward we then move onto exploring ways to implement these ideas till we settle on a suitable solution to the original problem.

Implicit/Explicit Knowledge:

Then there is the Implicit/Explicit Interaction Theory. Explicit Knowledge is data or information that we know to be true. Implicit knowledge is know how. It is the things we know how to do, our personal skill set. This theory posits that our creativity is heavily affected by these two elements.

As we try to create something we search for data (explicit knowledge) on the subject matter. What do we know about the subject? How can we use this information to form our solution? This is usually the basis of what we present but could also help formulate the ideas on how we create it.

Once we know more about what we want to create we start to look at how we could go about creating it. What skills and abilities do we have that could help us to present our explicit knowledge? How can we use our implicit knowledge to represent our explicit knowledge?

Explicit knowledge is generally thought of as information we are able to learn from some sort of information database. It is the information we gain from reading books, from general research on the web or from simply talking to someone with knowledge on the subject. Implicit knowledge on the other hand is knowledge we can only really gain from personal experience, from actually doing.

Although explicit knowledge often helps to steer us in the direction we chose for our final designs it usually forms the basis of the content for our project. It is more the implicit knowledge or our skills and ability that form the way we present the content. However without both we would not achieve a finished product because we would either have nothing to present or no way to present it.

Explicit knowledge that could help us to achieve our creative goals could include looking at other examples of how data relating to that subject is usually presented. What is the industry standard for presentation of this type of data? From there we can then look at our own implicit knowledge for ways we could improve on this standard.

Conceptual Blending:

Although conceptual blending traces its roots to the study of languages it lends itself very well to the theories of creativity.

Conceptual Blending involves taking two or more diverse scenarios or ideas and blending them into one better idea. By taking two separate solutions to a problem and seeing how we can meld them into one solution we in theory should be able to come up with one superior and more innovative solution than would normally be the case.

Conceptual blending is usually a subconscious process and we don’t even realise we are even using it. But as it forms part of day to day creative process and problem solving we can use it consciously to achieve greater results.

The process is simple. We have two or more inputs or ideas; we place them together in a generic space together. Once in this space together we can see how they relate or differ from one and another and a solution then forms.

The output or blend we arrive at is itself not static. It too can be further elaborated on. By blending our original two ideas we now have a new idea which can itself be blended or further elaborated in other ways.

Also during this process unimportant factors fall by the wayside. This process helps us to see what is relevant to our objective and what is irrelevant. We can examine what factors we found important when combining our two ideas and give them higher priority as we continue to elaborate on our ideas. Things we found didn’t match when combining our ideas can then also be given a lower priority if they come up further down our creative process.

The more ideas that are merged the easier the process of prioritizing aspects of ideas becomes.

However one thing to note is that just because you blend two ideas doesn’t mean you will come up with an acceptable solution. How the two ideas are blended is what creates that specific solution. If two people with the same ideas blended them together separately in most cases the end solution they came up with would be different. It is not just the blending that creates the solution it’s the process undertaken to blend those ideas.

You could use an analogy (conceptual blending in itself) to baking. The ingredients (inputs or ideas) for a cake by themselves do not look like a cake. Even when the ingredients are put together in the bowl (generic space) they do not resemble a cake. It is the way that each person uses those ingredients that creates the cake (our output or blend). Each cake would likely be different as they would have different ways to go about baking the cake. Like-wise our solutions we come up with would be different.

For the five major theories of creativity please visit my other article on that section of creative theory.

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