Understanding the Creative Process Will Help You Generate Your Best Ideas


Where do great ideas that spur our creativity come from? Sometimes they just smack us upside the head like a 2×4, but more often than not they are part of what is known as the creative process.

The creative process, which consists of four steps, is backed by science. It might seem a little weird to apply science to creative activities, but you will find that you probably do some of this on your own already.

There are seven fundamentals of creative theory, and having a solid understanding of how they work will help you be more creative and come up with your best ideas yet!

What are the four steps of the creative process?

Dr. Gerard Puccio, department chair and professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University in New York, created what he calls The Foursight Thinking Profile.

Puccio claims that there are four stages to the creative process. His research in the 1990s helped identify four types of thinking that are required to arrive at a creative outcome.

He also did some further research to help people figure out their thinking profile, which uses the process distinctly. These stages are: clarify (preparation), ideate (incubation), develop (illumination), and implementation (verification).

The first step, clarify (or preparation), will help you get set up for success from the start. This is the step where you make sure you have all the tools you need, or that you understand the problem you are trying to solve.

If you are trying to create a painting, make sure you have a canvas, all the paint you might need, and some brushes. If you are looking for an innovative solution to a business problem, then it is essential you know exactly what you are trying to solve. Any data available would be gathered in this step of the process.

The second step in the process is ideate (incubation). During this step, you would generate ideas. If you are writing a story, you might use tools like a story map or brainstorming. There is likely a great idea in your subconscious brewing, and it just hasn’t been able to make it to the forefront of your brain.

The key to this step is limiting distractions. Let your mind wander and consider all the possibilities while jotting things down. Just keep letting the ideas flow. If you are really stuck, clear your mind even a little further.

Felicia Day’s book Embrace Your Weird, is full of ways to help your brain wander and create space for creative ideas to flow. There is a part in there where she had me scribbling aimlessly on two pages of the book; for no real purpose other than to free my mind and help things flow. So many things in this book seemed, well, weird, but they work!

Ideation (or incubation) leads to the third step of the process, which is development (or illumination). This stage sounds like exactly what it is; it’s that light bulb moment. If you were a cartoon, you would have a big flashing bulb over your head! This is the very thing creative people live every day for.

The creative urge becomes impossible to ignore, and we immerse ourselves in whatever we are working on. The driving impulse to move our idea from our brains to whatever creative medium we are using is almost all-consuming. Unfortunately, it tends to happen when it is not convenient.

This one time, I had to recite an entire article idea into a recorded message on my phone because I was in the middle of a nature trail that wove around the lake near my house. I had the perfect words, and I knew if I didn’t get them down at that moment they would be gone. Poof! It is this need to get your ideas out of the confines of your mind that leads to the last stage, implementation (or verification).

The implementation (verification) phase is when the rubber hits the road. It is actually writing that crazy story you have been weaving or getting those song lyrics just right so someone can sing them. It is showing a room full of management professionals just why this out the box theory will not only work but benefit them in ways they may not see right away. It’s also the part of the process where you have to question the idea and determine if it’s good, but only after seeing it come to fruition a bit first.

This is the part where Margaret Atwood reminds me that “the wastepaper basket is your friend. It was invented for you by god.” Of course, is frustrating to throw away pages or sketches, but we must do it to figure out where our great ideas will end up. Wastepaper basket or best-selling novel?

The creative process starts with work, and it ends with work. It isn’t enough to just think of things if your goal is to create something. You have to move into the ultimate phase of physically doing the work; typing and deleting, writing and crumbling up pieces of paper, or painting and throwing canvases in the trash! Understanding the steps of the process will help you better employ the seven principles of the creative theory.

Principles of the creative theory

Emer McPolin says that “Creativity is what sets humans apart from most other animals; it was a factor in securing our position at the top of the food chain. We have evolved to be creative.” In his research paper, The Fundamentals of Creativity, he lays out the seven principles he calls the “most relevant and insightful.” These principles and tips for helping you tap into your creativity are:

  • Break your patterns
  • The rule of three thirds
  • Quantity leads to quality
  • Creativity loves constraint
  • There are no bad ideas
  • The creative adult is the child who survived
  • Understanding HIPPOS and other animals

Breaking your patterns is a great way to jumpstart your creative energy. I walked around the lake near my house every day for nearly a year. One day, about six months into my journey, I decided to walk around the lake in the opposite direction. Why that thought hadn’t occurred to me before then, I don’t know.

What I know is that it was one of the most productive idea-generating walks I went on. It was like my brain was firing on a different level. I was looking at things from a new perspective and feeling the slight hum of anticipation because things looked “new.” McPolin reminds us that changing our patterns is a chance to ask, “What can you do, instead of what should you do.”

The rule of three thirds breaks a creative session into thirds. McPolin suggests that the first two-thirds of that session are going to be filled with the most obvious solutions. When you move into the final third, you will move from the familiar to the discovery of new ideas. He notes that “monkey noises,” high energy, and excitement often identify when this happens.

Quantity leads to quality suggest that the more ideas you come up with, the more likely there is a phenomenal one in the group. It is why things like brainstorming for a set amount of time is helpful. You will challenge yourself to write down as many ideas as possible (generating quantity) and there is bound to be a winner (quality) in the bunch.

He posits that creativity loves constraint. Things like a timed brainstorming session would count for this principle as well. Another thing that could feed your creativity by applying restraint might be competition. These will both provide the brain with stimuli, inspiration, and collaboration.

There are no bad ideas, and using POINt can help you slow down the critiquing stage of idea generation. POINt stands for: Pluses, Opportunities, Issues, and New thinking. The idea here is that if you go with the good points first, it will stop you from shooting an idea down before it even has a chance to germinate.

McPolin says that “at five years old we are leveraging 80% of our creative potential. By the time we reach out teens our creative output has dropped to about 2%.” It is by the time we get to our teens that most of us have become used to conforming to rules and created patterns (remember to break those!). A creative adult has kept some of that childlike behavior alive. They will play, make room for fun activities, and are always considering what is possible instead of what is in front of them.

HIPPOS and other animals really come into play when a creative person is trying to make a decision in a business or corporate setting. A HIPPO the “highest paid person’s opinion.” Having the “problem holder” in a brainstorming session can cause group think and stifle creative energy.

Now that you have a better understanding of how the creative process works, here a few quick tips to get yourself in the right frame of mind to come up with your best idea. Get yourself moving, as increasing physical activity increases cognition. Shift your perspective and do something that seems counter-intuitive. Create something, anything, and feed that part of your soul. Your million-dollar idea is out there just waiting for you to embrace it and do the work. Good luck!


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