In part 1 of this series, we looked at the history of definition of creative work and creativity, and the ways we can measure a creative product. In this part, we’ll look at the creativity processes and the models that explain how creative process takes place.

Creativity Process

During the recent weeks of my study on creativity subject, I learned how incomprehensible but essential this concept is, to human survival and its prospects. The first thing you should consider when studying this subject is that creativity as a byproduct of the brain’s neural activity (the most complex organism in universe) is equally unknown to us as the brain itself. Not until we understand how the brain produces mind and self-criticizing beings, we can’t precisely model how creativity works. But we can make some well-informed guesses by watching it work in various environments.

“Logic and intuition, sensation and feeling, volition and passivity — these all dwell in the same head. No wonder, then, that the number of rival theories of creativity is quite large, even overwhelming.” Dean Keith Simonton of psychology department of University of California, Davis has written in his paper.
Creativity as a range
Creativity as a range — by Me

There are many theories based on years of research that we can apply to conceptualize creative process, and create models to map it holistically. To be fair, these models have so much more in common than they differ. I’m going to briefly review the most important ones.

While studying creativity, one should keep in mind that creativity is a spectrum. Creativity is a range, a range from solving day to day problems to high achievements that are globally recognized in the domains of arts or sciences.

Four Stages of Creativity

Creativity has been mostly thought as a conscious-thinking process and deploying full attention towards solving a particular problem. In contrary to what was previously thought, almost a century of accumulating empirical research suggests that creativity process is a combined work of conscious and unconscious cognitive activities.

In 1926, English social psychologist Graham Wallas, proposes a 4-stage model for creativity process based on his empirical observations on creative geniuses and polymaths. This model has been widely used to examine creativity, though still there are some opposing views towards this model. Based on his model, creativity occurs in four stages: Preparation (acquisition of knowledge and a search in many directions using logic and reasoning), Incubation (When attention is not directly working on a problem, mostly unconscious cognition. Wallas talks about “associative trains”, similarly, Einstein talked about “combinatorial play” as an essential feature in creative thoughts) Illumination (when all the elements that gathers and float freely in the two previous stages forms a flash of insight) and Verification (now, the creative idea is the subject to evaluation). The incubation and insight are the stages that most breakthroughs happen, and the biggest theoretical disagreements are in this area.

Wallas’ Creativity Process
Wallas’ Creativity Process — by Me

The Two Dominant Views

Wallas’ model could fit into two general views for creativity that are dominant umbrella views in creativity research, mostly experimental psychologists. The first view sees it as a systematic, straightforward, and logical process of applying heuristics and principles to a fairly well-defined problem or a specific goal. They generally argue for creativity as heuristic search in solving a problem, Simon and Hayes are among them. The other view sees it as chaotic, unpredictable, and even inefficient. Although, by reading studies from both sides, you’ll find that the two sides are flexible enough to admit all the above attributes play roles in different stages of creative process.

Mirror — by Me

When I look at my own creative process, no matter how I’m ideating for an illustration or a new UI, I must admit that my process is a well-informed guided chaos. I gather all necessary knowledge and let them float and combine. Meanwhile, a satisfying product or an idea is being revisited over times through constant feedback and evaluation from different perspectives, which sometime ends up in redefining the problem area itself and identifying different sets of forces that are causing the problem. So, no surprise if I’m going to focus mainly on this school of creativity — guided chaos. But first, just little overview of the systematic conception.

Creativity As A Straightforward Problem-solving

Computational Creativity
Computational Creativity — by Me

The logical approach for creativity includes step-by-step instructions to solve problems with absolute force of logic or judicious use of a well-defined set of heuristics. They see creativity as problem-solving that could be dealt with algorithm (which are pretty much fairly safe rules to reach an exact and reliable solution) or heuristics (which are “rules of thumbs” that can be used to solve some cases). I’d like to clarify the fact that problem solving is not creativity. So far, masters of logic and applied heuristics, computers, have shown little progress in simulating creativity. But they are getting better at exploratory creativity that is exploring ideas within defined rules of style. They randomly produce combinations of ideas within a template while those combinations are being judged by a set of criteria. The judgments are mostly done with human assistance.

This view of creativity undermines the role that chance plays in novelty and magic. This school of thinking is very predictable and detrimental, but also incapable of being applied to complex problems. You would need a straightforward algorithm to solve 145+580=? problem, but as the problem becomes complicated in a way that the number of potential applicable heuristics are immense, these rules become insufficient. So, they find the right heuristics by trial and error. Parallel computing has made this process more efficient. To paint Dora Maar portrait not only you must know the rules for oil painting, but classic portrait art, perspective, female anatomy, how humans value art, the cubism style, and many more.

Creativity Chaos
Creativity Chaos — by Me

Creativity As Unpredictable and Chaotic

The second view on the other hand considers creativity as the work of chaotic connections and links that are triggered by so many random influencers from the environment (externally) and within the creative agent, mostly without full control over direction or determination. Personality traits, socio-cultural environment, motivation and domain knowledge are among the most discussed influencers. All of these combined would make creative process complex, unpredictable, and full of lucky moments. Among some of the models on this argument, my favorite is selectionist theory, is based on Darwinian theory of biological evolution by natural selection, a mechanism in which various life-forms evolve.

Quality and Quantity: Darwinian Creativity

Darwinism has been applied to many domains of science like behavioral sciences and biology. According to this theory, there exists a mechanism to produce abundant and diverse variations. The variations are produced by recombining the old genes and the provision of new genes through mutations. These variations are going to be examined by the environment for their reproductive fitness.

In 1960, Donald T. Campbell developed the theory of Blind Variation and Selective Retention (BVSR) based on selectionist theory. In BVSR framework, creativity is produced in a two-stage mental process. “The first is that the creator mutates a given idea a multitude of different ways, then in the second stage, it selects the fittest variant(s), and repeats this procedure until an adequately creative solution results.” Liane Gabora from University of British Columbia explains in a paper by analysing BVSR theory.

Blind Variation is like a radar
Blind Variation is like a radar — by Me

Many psychologists had some problems with the idea of blind variations that requires random distribution of chance among all potential variants. Although, Campbell mentioned blindness mostly to denote inability to foresee the most adaptive variation that Dr. Simonton explains in his defense, but still, it does not address the role of biases in generation process such as strategy, priori knowledge, associative thoughts, etc. Simonton gives the radar analogy. A radar is not guided by any idea, that’s where the missiles are most likely to be found. It scans the entire sky. That’s blindness.

This theory has gotten some updates from Dean Simonton, which makes it more acceptable. Based on the updates, it is now conceded that domain or general expertise, remote associations and strategy, play important roles in the generation of creative ideas.

The first stage is about producing variants in quantities by recombining old ideas or producing new ideas, but he sees it as random, by chance, and sometime, purposeless generation. The second stage is evaluation and selection of successful solution.

Variation / Evaluation
Variation / Evaluation : “The important aspect of this idea generation is that it happens in gradual improvements, each improvement (variant B) inherits the learnt knowledge from applied heuristic search on variant A or it could spark variant C that has nothing much being shared with variant A.”

Guided Generation: Chance Favors The Prepared Mind

Although chance and unpredictability are important in the creative process, but there are other factors where research shows us to be influential. For example acquiring domain expertise and well-defined knowledge, as Luise Pasteur rightly says “Chance favors the prepared mind.” So, this knowledge help the individual to increase the odds for a successful product of mind.

If you like a biological analogy, then, in evolutionary biology, humans are k-strategists, which means, increasing the chance for survival by producing less but stronger offsprings. More resources are spent to grow a more complex organism. Like in biological evolution, Simonton argued that an expert could produce less but with care and accumulated knowledge to increase the odds for success. There are more information to be passed onto the next generation, so it takes more time and energy to store and pass it on.

A better preparation helps to nurture better solutions, but the brain’s capacity to hold and synthesis big amount of information is limited. The working memory capacity is limited to several chunks of information and for the long term memory, the retrieval is through reconstruction of episodes and collective knowledge, so it makes it a bit unreliable. For those who are creative, keeping record of all that accumulated knowledge through the past generations becomes essential in order to avoid repetition. So, how should they make all that information available to memory? Some geniuses like Picasso, Da Vinci, Darwin, Faraday, had their sketches and notebooks, and some use their environment to keep the knowledge ready at hand. Sometimes, a messy room is a consequence of keeping knowledge ready at hand.

Blind Variation is like a radar
The desk of Albert Einstein, photographed immediately after his death by Ralph Morse in 1955. (from Polyvor)

Portions of knowledge will be automated through practice and repetition. When the brain encounters similar problems over and over, it keeps the knowledge where it can access them easily with little effort. Just remember the first time you were learning how to drive, then compare it to a year after. This knowledge would not need conscious effort for memory retrieval. In other words, it becomes invisible. This requires expertise in a specific area, and when you reach this level, creativity can even become the work of unconscious. An fMRI study of Jazz improvisation has shown a decline in attentive sources and absence of self-monitoring activity while performing.

This invisible and automated knowledge or intuitive expertise (as Daniel Kahneman calls it in Thinking Fast and Slow) works in the background to solve the problems based on immense amount of organized information within a stronghold of semantic and mnemonic networks. That explains why some creatives can’t explain how an idea works or where it comes from. Because it’s automated. You just know it.

Paula Scher, one of my heros in graphic design, frames it perfectly “I operate very strongly with my instincts… it’s intuitive kind of process for me…”. Her networked knowledge in the area of graphic design is strong enough that idea generation and selection based on heuristic search occurs immediately at unconscious level. Combination of all past experiences, all the insights and ideas in addition to skills and expertise will become a rich pool of information to drag new ideas from. That very well explains the difference between an experienced artist and an amateur.

“The Interviewer: How can it be that you talk to someone and it’s done (the design ideas he means) in a second?
Paula Scher: But it IS done in a second — it’s done in a second and 34 years. It’s done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head.”

Generation and Exploration

There is another interesting theory model we could definitely relate to as designers and that is the Geneplore theory. The model could be seen very Darwinian and has its roots in a creative cognition view which also takes roots in experimental cognitive psychology. The word “Geneplore” in the amalgam of the two words “generate” and “explore”. Finke, Ward and Smith came up with the Geneplore model in 1992, and they proposed that many “creative activities can be described in terms of initial generation of candidate ideas or solutions followed by extensive exploration of those ideas.”

They call these initial ideas as “preinventive”, meaning the ideas that are not complete plans for a new novel creative solution. They can be diagrams or visual patterns, or any other basic mental model. These ideas will become more mature by employing and combining exploratory processes, refining the mental structures or imposing constraints at any time. It’s a play between generation/exploration and applied constraints.

Genoplore Process
Genoplore Process — by Me

In the generative process, mental structures are being retrieved from memory and are combined, transformed, synthesized, and their associations are being made and analogies being matched. In the exploratory process, the products are being evaluated within specific contexts, potential functions and metaphorical implications are being searched. As an example, (from Creative Cognition book) a scientist can generate candid analogies designed to understand one domain and test their descriptive or explanatory utility.

Take Away

As designers, you want to soak yourself in the problem space to become hyper-aware of it, and come up with as many models to understand the problem, then combine the most relevant and test their effectiveness hypothetically based on your expertise (past experience). And finally, collect the one that pass the reality test then test their approval rate practically with the stakeholders, experts, and users for the final call.

Thank you for reading…

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.

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