According to the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution, creativity ranks third on the list of skills you need to survive. This is what makes creative thinkers more valuable than ever. They have the cognitive capabilities and trained intuition to “think and create” the obvious but invisible solutions. As a trained creative, you are paid for your effective creative solutions. You are the 21st-century Renaissance women and men, so I think you should know the potential of your qualities. Huge scientific literature from various disciplines through different scientific lenses has written and many theoretical models have drawn on what creativity is, how is it executed and how it can be provoked. Knowing that science allows us to gain a deeper awareness of the work we do as creatives, and it may give us clues on how to set the stage for flourishing creativity. As a designer and a former artist who lives and breathes creativity every day, I want to learn about the scientific explanation for the creative process and the products it generates. Is there a recipe for creativity?

Defining Creativity

First, let’s cover some well-tread ground about what creativity is and how we can methodically define it. This should at least be a definition that majority of domain experts can agree on. This standard definition will be the foundation upon which we can build a universal framework of criteria for creativity. We can then expanding into the further evaluation, examination and measurement of creativity in various contexts.

We must define the tangible and intangible qualities, properties and characteristics of creativity. This can be achieved by starting with what can be observed and recorded with tools and techniques that are available. Thankfully, there exists a wealth of data and a rich literature on this topic. Each definition diverges slightly, considering creativity from such unique angles as a macro-level analysis of historical geniuses or a micro-level analysis of socio-environmental settings.

I’d like to quickly note where creativity as a concept started. Pre-psychology thinkers had a different take on creativity. The way we perceive the creative process today didn’t exist for most of history. However, this concept of creativity might share some common ground with its ancestor concepts.

Divine Inspiration — by Me
Divine Inspiration — by Me

For example, the Greeks talked about “techne” which signified craft-making with applied knowledge and practical arts. This usually referred to written arts at that time and was more specifically a reference to poetry. The Greeks believed that a certain amount of knowledge and skill were required to practice a craft. However, the creative had to be infused divine inspiration as well. As Plato writes in Ion, Socrates used the analogy of Magnetic Rings to describe poets as mediums in the process of writing poetry. The poet is to transmit god’s messages to people, the inspiration comes first, followed by thinking, then knowledge and skills. The creative is only the means of communication between the gods and the people.

Right from the time of medieval Christianity, creation was connoted as “making of new things” and it was, of course, the monopoly of God’s business. Only He can create new things from nothing. Creating anew from their view is not of human capacity. Humans are only capable of making craft with things that already exist. They didn’t even consider art or architecture as a form of creativity, as at that time.

It was the Renaissance women and men who freed creativity from His grasp, returned it to individual artists, and merged it with the human imagination. The Renaissance conceived of the individual as the source of genius. Creativity became known as an attribute of a genius, and a genius was gifted naturally with superior cognitive capabilities.

Galileo observing the universe — by Me
Galileo observing the universe — by Me

For a long time, this concept of creativity as belonging only to the natural genius reigned supreme. It started to fade out in the second quarter of the 20th century, as more researchers studied the phenomenon. When the Creative Research Journal was founded 25 years ago, it included a 2-part definition to its research. In order for a product to be creative, it stated, for creativity ‘‘Originality is vital, but must be balanced with fit and appropriateness.’’ Originality means that an idea or a solution shouldn’t be conventional or usual. It requires being unique, unusual or novel. Since originality could also be stupid and useless, it’s required to be effective. For an idea to be effective, it needs to be useful, appropriate and fit.

This definition and the journal itself, was the result of the rich literature on the topic that scientists had produced. For example, in 1953, professor Morris I. Stein proposed “originality and effectiveness” as the two criteria required for an idea to be creative in his research study “Creativity and Culture” published in The Journal of Psychology. (This journal publishes double-blind and peer-reviewed research). But there was a missing piece to the puzzle; that is, creativity derived from the context. It doesn’t work in a vacuum. Context means the socio-environmental conditions that leads to creativity at a specific point in time. A creative solution may be evaluated differently in different social contexts. An idea could be creative in some situations, but the same idea could be absurd in another setting.

Later on, many scholars argued about the addition of the third criterion, saying that a product should also be surprising or non-obvious. This “surprising” factor is added so that creativity can be analyzed at different levels and within social and environmental contexts. Surprise criterion evaluates creativity contextually, within specific setting and specific time. Creativity in grade 9 level is very different from creativity in engineering level.

A big advocate of surprise was Prof. Simonton of University of California. With his study of US Patent Office, he firmly argued for adding the third criterion “surprise(note: ideas that any expert could come up with are considered obvious under patent requirements, therefore, unpatentable). Prof. Simonton also argued for another contextual factor — time. There is time aspect to creativity, “spirit of the time” as he calls it. That’s right, it does sound very Hegelian. But it takes a genius to find the right time for an innovation or a creative idea, and it ties very well with the surprise criterion.

A couple of decades ago people were surprised about the things that can never amuse us again. Google glass failure was one of the issues raised up at a time, it was too soon for the society to accept an eye-wear that has a camera which might be recording you as you’re talking to the wearer. Emanuel West, the collector who founded the Museum of Failure in Sweden says that time is the factor most of the products he collected have in common for failing. Listen to his Interview with Nora Young Spark.

Creativity criteria
Creativity criteria

So creativity, from the expert’s point of view, is a phenomenon in which an idea or product is created, the output whether tangible or intangible must be measured against the three criterion: originality, effectiveness and surprise. The only problem with this standard definition of creativity is that it doesn’t suggest who the judges for creativity are and who the judges of those judges are. For most reliable creativity tests, judges are domain experts or are selected from a diverse range of disciplines. At the end, it really depends on the subject, and the aspect of creativity being studied.

Measuring Creativity

A standard definition for creativity paves the way to test and measure creativity, and it all started back in the 50s with psychologist J.P Guilford. In WWII, Guilford developed a test for US Army Air Forces, to select individuals for pilot programs since the graduation rates were very low. His tests in identifying mental abilities and factors of intelligence proved effective and very successful in increasing the graduation rates.

After WW2, his classification tests for personnel were widely applied in the entire US Armed Forces, and it led to his theory of “Structures of Intellect,” which is a compilation of 180 different intellectual abilities. Among all, he identified two ways of thinking as creative skills — divergent and convergent thinking. This part of this model has stood the test of time, and almost all of today’s design processes are based on these two ways of thinking. Design Thinking is obviously one of them.

Divergent thinking and Convergent thinking
Divergent thinking and Convergent thinking

Torrance Test of Creative Thinking

Built on Guilford’s test, psychologist Paul Torrace developed a tool to psychometrically measure divergent thinking. The assessments were designed around open-ended questions or tasks involving both verbal and non-verbal stimuli in order to target other senses rather than vision. For example, participants were given a set of shapes and asked to use them to draw a picture, then name the picture.

Use the circle to draw a picture
TTCT example: Use the circle to draw a picture.

Then, the responses would be scored by 4 components. Fluency (total amount of responses), flexibility (number of categories of different responses), originality (rarity of responses) and elaboration (details of responses). Tasks are varied in nature, for example, individuals were asked to come up with as many as possible uses for an object, like a cup. The reliability and validity of TTCT have made it an international assessment for creativity and has become a successful predictive research tool in longitudinal studies.

Children have been taking the test for the last half of the century in 50 different languages. So, there is a ton of data from thousands of students, which researchers have used for these longitudinal studies through individual follow-ups. Several of them have found career success later in life, concerning individuals who have scored high at TTCT.

Consensual Assessment Technique

There is also another aspect of creativity in a more micro-level social context which likes to consider and assess socio-environmental factors that influence creativity. Theresa Amabile, who you may know from her amazing TED talk on the role of motivation in creativity developed Consensual Assessment Technique (CAT).

CAT is designed to assess creativity in a subjective domain-specific way, very similar to the real world creativity. The products or responses would be judged by groups of domain experts in that specific area, similar with the way Academy Awards works. CAT is mainly examining the actual performance or the work of art. First subjects will produce a poem, a short story or an experimental design, then the experts in the domain will evaluate the product. CAT is not tied to any psychology theory and that has made it an unbiased tool to measure creativity in organizational, educational and social settings. The use of this technique has led to the discovery of socio-environmental factors affecting creativing thinking. For example, the role of motivation and reward. In the future articles, I’m going to study some of the results of these studies more in details.

Food for Wonder

Considering the above definition, creativity can’t be unique to homo sapiens genus. Although this claim may scare some people out. We increasingly find non-humans also make and use tools in order to solve fairly sophisticated problems. New Caledonian crows make complex tools to catch insects in the wild and solve multi-stage puzzles in labs. Using tools requires constructing new models of the perceived world, understanding physical properties of objects and to consciously imagine the world in a way that is not meant to be utilized naturally. Seeing a bunch of moving things (cars) as a way to crack nutshells by Japanese crows could be a sign of generative creativity. There is a novelty with effectiveness at play. Although many have argued that these acts of intelligence are only a result of chaining conditional beliefs. Would love to know your thoughts on this.

In this series, I summarize what I’ve learned about creativity. Over a span of 4 weeks, I spent about 40 minutes every day, trying to study the scientific literature that deals with this topic. I will outline the most prominent models, from experimental psychology to neurosciences and the social sciences. I try to be unbiased, but that’s hard because I only know what I’ve read and there are so many other scientific studies that I have not read. If you see yourself as a creative individual, then you may recognize the patterns that you unconsciously follow in some of these models.

I would like to thank my friend Amy Fox for suggestions for this part.

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Note: Thanks to Ardavan for contributing to our blog with this article.