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The Creative Process

Updated on July 10, 2014

Understanding the Design Process

How does creativity work? Is there really a Muse? (And how can you get her to visit?)

Creation. Problem Solving. Innovation. Design.

How can you be creative - or be more creative? How do you find and improve ideas? How do you generate unusual and useful new ideas? Then what do you do with 'em?

To successfully lead a creative life, it helps to understand the design or creative process - the steps from that first look at your blank paper to generating ideas, to developing those creative ideas further, to forming those ideas into their final, realized form, whether that's a ballet or a business plan.

This Lens (a work in progress!) will help explain the sometimes mysterious business of creativity. A how-to for working with the Muse - as I try to catch her attention myself... "Hey! Here! Over here!"

(Or as Jack London explained it, "You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.")

The Fantasy

Romantics believe that the Poet or Inventor waits a minute or two (humming to himself) for a Muse to wander past, scattering inspiration like pink rose petals along her path. The Genius or Artist presses those petals between the pages of his notebook and eureka! a brand-new symphony or rocket design is born!

By all means, locate your desk alongside the Muse's path. Just remember it can be a loooooong time between Muses.

It's very unfair, but you'll notice that inspiration seems to visit the busiest and most successful artists while shunning the very supplicants who need her most. Writer's block" is one version of this.

Basically, you can't count on the girl.

So do welcome a Muse warmly when she drops by, but don't count on her ditzy schedule. Make your own inspiration. Do the work!

The way to be crea­tive is to make stuff. You wake up in the mor­ning, have some break­fast, hit the work bench and get on with it.

Or not. Maybe you'd rather just hang out, light a joint and watch Star Trek reruns. Your call.

You can't plan for crea­ti­vity. You can only plan to do the work.

- Hugh MacLeod

The Reality - Creativity is a Day-Job

Oddly enough, a Muse is more likely to visit if you don't wait around for her.

What anyone serious about doing creative work needs is a pragmatic system for generating and processing ideas until inspiration arrives.

You can prepare to be creative, train for it, make a habit of it.

Design can be almost organized as a step-by-step process. Think of the creative process as a machine customized to fit each designer and project: not a vending machine, alas, but a designer's Swiss-ish army knife, always waiting handy in your pocket. A Rube Goldberg creation-contraption you build yourself. This Lens will help you understand how it works.

But never forget that a huge amount of "creativity" depends on steeping yourself in your subject until you become expert, on understanding your craft, and in developing the skills needed to express your idea. Creativity takes hard work.

And luck.

(Creativity IS unpredictable. As Dilbert says: "If creativity were anything but random, someone would have figured out the algorithm by now." This Lens can't promise you that algorithm, but it can help suggest ways to be prepared for luck!)

Frustrated? Good.

There's an old joke that all major inventions are invented by lazy people.

If they weren't lazy, they'd do things the way everyone else always has - but, because they're lazy, they look for an easier way. For instance, there's a good chance that the inventor of the wheel was the guy tired of dragging logs to the cave-fire. He realized that logs rolled and then morphed this discovery into wooden slice-o'-log wheels.

But I don't think it's laziness so much as FRUSTRATION.

To change anything you first have to be dissatisfied with the status quo. And you don't bother to get really clever and creative until you've tried all the easy, obvious solutions and are feeling... frustrated!

Make Creativity a Routine

There are daily rituals, routines, habits, self-disciplines, and organizational systems that can help build creativity into your normal working day. Prepare yourself properly! Choreographer Twyla Tharp's book is full of valuable advice for those serious about creative work.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
I checked this book out of the library so often that I just had to buy it. This is a woman who has figured out her own creative process - and has great advice for the rest of us. Though few of us (not me) will be as disciplined!

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

- Thomas A. Edison

5 Design Steps

5 Design Steps
5 Design Steps

The Creative Process

Although the creative process is never a simple step-by-step color-by-number sort of job (by definition, huh?), there ARE several steps or stages that most design tasks will travel through - perhaps several times! - on the way to being solved, invented, painted, or otherwise Done and Shipped.

The creator will step these steps in more or less this order:

  1. Preparation
  2. Generation
  3. Development
  4. Realization
  5. Evaluation

The Creative Muse, musing
The Creative Muse, musing

Step 1 - Preparation

Perhaps the most important part of developing a creative solution is defining and understanding your design problem.

What are you REALLY trying to do? How will you know when you've succeeded?

Unfortunately, humans have a real knack for - when the problem is too hard - finding an easier problem to solve. (We don't even know we've made the switch.) And clients, users, and audiences very seldom really understand what it is they actually want or need - what they THINK they need may be quite different.

So your first task is to find the real problem. Then to understand it - gathering whatever research or tools or skill it may take to do that.

Look at the way a movie is made: MUCH more time is spent in Pre-Production than an outsider would ever believe. Planning, casting actors, building sets, creating costumes, starting the design of special effects and animation that will be finished after the real-world filming. In fact, even that filming (what most of us think of as the "movie-making") is just another input of raw material... The movie doesn't really get made until it is edited and sound and effects etc. are added. Yet each stage of this process is "creative."

So is your preparation to get creative. Find unique ways to research your problem. Gather unusual information. Look for inspiration everywhere. Hunt for magic ingredients!

Gather together all the input you can into a big (mental) pot and start cookin'...

Books to Prepare for Design

Before you even start creating... you create your basic toolkit of skills and knowledge.

How well prepared are you? Do some research - go learn stuff!

And don't just concentrate on your specialty, whatever it is, look further afield into related and unrelated fields of knowledge. The real breakthroughs in creative thought tend to come when the designer puts two ideas or pieces of information together from different worlds...

Do Good Design: How Design Can Change Our World
Do Good Design: How Design Can Change Our World
Let's change the world! (For the better, right?)

Or Not

You can only do so much preparation though. And sometimes spontaneity is better.

It's also important to get your hands dirty, to get STARTED, to feel your way...

Isamo Noguchi quote (click to read more about his creative process)
Isamo Noguchi quote (click to read more about his creative process)
Ideas and inspiration
Ideas and inspiration

Step 2 - Generation

This is the step in the creative process that non-creative people believe is the whole thing - thinking up cool ideas.

Of course, this IS kinda important.

One of the secrets to coming up with innovative ideas is to HAVE LOTS OF IDEAS. In sheer enormous quantity, you increase your chances of finding one good idea. Another key to creative idea generation is priming the mental pump: see, learn, do, discover lots of different input. Mix different experiences and tools and information together and see what new ideas are suggested.

CAUTION: Amid these crisp lists of Dos and Don'ts... it must always be admitted that a lot of creativity - the very most creative part of creativity - happens in the dark. Unknown. Unexplained. The very best, juiciest, most unexpected stuff comes from the deep-dark of the creator's unconscious mind.

This you can't plan.

But you CAN create an opportunity for it. Into your busy over-scheduled list-cluttered life build some blank time to follow your curiosity. To wonder. To goof around and experiment. leave some time unscheduled. Find a place that's uninterrupted and quiet. Dream and "sleep on" problems. See what you find in the morning.

The following Lens discusses various methods to help jump-start creative ideas.

John Cleese on Creativity

A wonderful discussion of creativity in action and the importance of the unconcious mind.

Where do good ideas come from?

This is not a quick-fix grab-an-idea book, not a list of spot-the-moneymaker! tips.


This is a serious, thoughtful, absolutely fascinating study of the environments, networks, and cross-pollination of thought that makes innovative ideas possible.

An interesting book for anyone intrigued by creation or for any creative person who wants to better understand what sparks ideas, this is a MUST-READ for anyone shaping a company, school, or enterprise where creativity needs to be encouraged... Everywhere, basically.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
An important read for designers, but also for businesses and managers of creative types.

Other Books on Generating Ideas

A few more "idea" books to get your mental engine revving...

Permission: A Guide to Generating More Ideas, Being More of Yourself and Having More Fun at Work
Permission: A Guide to Generating More Ideas, Being More of Yourself and Having More Fun at Work
"Permission" is exactly what the artist or creator often feels like they need. The classic on this is the book Art and Fear.

Your Inner Muse

A funny - and very true - riff by Anna Akana on the role of The Muse in your creative work.

So true! So true!

Links to Staying Creative

A few other sites with suggestions on fostering creativity.

Creativity takes work
Creativity takes work

Step 3 - Development

An idea is worth nothing until it is expanded, corrected, explored, and developed into a form that works with real problems. An idea for a novel is worthless... until you write (and rewrite!) the novel. The design for a building means little until you figure out how to fit it on a real site and where visitors will park and how to roof it.

The process of design development is crucial.

The main work of this creative phase is to look carefully, honestly, at your design idea and to ask yourself: "Does this work?" Examine your ideas for how well they may work both as art and in the real world.

Where you see an aspect that doesn't work well enough, what can you do to change and improve it? The creative development phase is a long series of asking and answering such questions... leading to improving every possible facet of your first idea. Often several ideas can be combined to improve each other.

Be sure to look at your ideas from several viewpoints. Not just from your creator's view - "Does this opera or business satisfy me?" - but also from your audience or clients' viewpoints - "Is this opera boring?" "Do I need this new business?" Ask advice. Get reactions. Listen carefully... especially when you don't agree with the response you get. Forget about your hopes and your ego - does the world want this better mousetrap? Is it - in cold hard fact - a BETTER mousetrap? Make sure it is.

Developing a Design... - ...Is About Choosing Ideas

Evaluation, decision-making, and picking between options is at the heart of creativity. Once you have gathered ideas - mundane or inspired or clever or pragmatic - you must choose which to develop further.

Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow explains the often puzzling ways that we decide - the way our human mind can be rational or intuitive, lazy, scientific, or very easily fooled.

Every decision maker (that means you and me too) and every creative person should read this book.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Read to discover that we humans aren't nearly the rational decision-makers we think we are. Help fix that.

More Books on Decision-Making and Development

Problem Solving 101 (just below) is a smash-hit world-favorite book explaining the basics of solving real issues. A very useful book!

Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People
Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People
This is a terrific little book! An easy read with big implications.

Steve Jobs's famous maxim "artists ship" works both ways. Artists aren't merely capable of shipping. They insist on it.

-Paul Graham

Ship your idea!
Ship your idea!

Step 4 - Realization

And even a well-developed creative idea is of little value until it is put out into the world. A novel needs to be read and reviewed. A building needs to be built and lived in. A play needs to be produced, seen, and reviewed.

Getting your creativity out there is important.

An artist ships!

Market Your Idea

Seth Godin (AKA the Head Squid or the Squdfather) know a bit about marketing new ideas.

"The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creation."

- Marcel Duchamp

Step 5 - Evaluation

What have you accomplished? What have you learned? What could you do better next time?

Questions like these (with the best, truest answers you can find) are the secrets to improvement and success.

This evaluation is not always as simple as you might think - success and failure are not always easy to recognize. It can occasionally take a hundred years to be sure which is which. (Handel's Messiah was not greeted nicely, for instance. Casablanca was just another movie for quite a while. And who knew DaVinci's crazy sketch could ever turn into a real flying machine?)

According to tech entrepreneur (and hacker) Paul Graham, "It says a great deal about our work that we use the same word [hack] for a brilliant or a horribly cheesy solution. When we cook one up we're not always 100% sure which kind it is. But as long as it has the right sort of wrongness, that's a promising sign."

Books to Help Evaluate, Sell Your Idea...... - ...and Prep for Next Time

Thinking, Fast and Slow
Thinking, Fast and Slow
So good a book I recommend it TWICE. Read it. Really!
Business Ethics: Ethical Decision Making & Cases (Available Titles CourseMate)
Business Ethics: Ethical Decision Making & Cases (Available Titles CourseMate)
You may not think this applies to design, but it does every choice a designer makes: use the cheap material (cut rainforest) or the expensive (eco-forestry) one? The toxic paint or the benign one? Etc. etc. etc....
Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, Updated and Expanded Edition
Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, Updated and Expanded Edition
Story-telling is the SOUL of creation. And, it turns out, of selling that idea too.

Creativity Gurus!

How To Be Creative (a manifesto)

By Hugh MacLeod, the Gaping Void cartoonist. Full of brilliant life-lessons for creative times and wise advice. My favorite points?

# 1 Ignore Everybody and # 3 Put the Hours In.

Taste for Makers

By Paul Graham, essayist, programmer, investor. Excellent! essay.

Work Shops

Costume sketches by Inigo Jones
Costume sketches by Inigo Jones

(Gorgeous illustrations of costumes by Inigo Jones - as is the "Muse" in my collages on this page.)

I recently attended a writers' workshop. Sometimes simply being in the room with other people who are trying to do what you're trying to do and who take the process seriously can be wonderful. Comforting. A good workshop or seminar will get your creative juices flowing.

This particular workshop was specifically for play-writing, but its lessons apply to any form of writing... or, I think, to any form of design and creativity. These three rules ALWAYS apply, and apply to YOU and YOUR work, whatever it is:

3 Rules

1. Seat of pants to seat of chair.

2. Write! don't worry about Right.

3. Reject rejection.

Author Neal Gaiman "Make Good Art"

A terrific speech on working as a free-lance artist of any kind. Funny. True. Inspiring.

Jazz with the King and Carter Jazzing Orchestra, public domain
Jazz with the King and Carter Jazzing Orchestra, public domain

Talk About Stifling Creativity...

Those Nazis weren't into what you might call artistic freedom:

Nazi rules for jazz performers

From Boing Boing, this list of acceptable Germanic jazz-lite (very, very lite).

"These rules including such cramping requirements as:

1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;

2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics..."


Success and Failure

Creativity is a hit-or-miss kind of endeavor. But definition, a new idea is an untried idea... and some of those just won't work out.

You have to be tough enough to look at your mistake, learn from it, and try again.

Here's a great (excerpted) quote from visionary sustainable-builder Dan Phillips: "If failure destroys you, you simply can't do this... Who knows how many objects hit Sir Isaac Newton on the head before the famous apple? It might have been a series of walnuts, or stones thrown by bullies picking on nerds, or sticks, and then, finally, an apple... If giants have failed, then it clears the way for us small guys to fail. Thanks, giants. I feel better."

Failure is necessary - enjoy it as much as possible.

Creative Ideas?

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    • cdevries profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      @paperfacets: I think it depends on the particular project and artist: generally linear is the way... but (for me at least) the really good stuff is the connections or ideas that surprise me in the morning or pop out from an unexpected context. That's where allowing yourself to get a little lost can sometimes help uncover a good idea you wouldn't expect. Thanks very much for your insight - and visit!

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      7 years ago from La Verne, CA

      One artist said something be an artist is to be brave. Creativity for me is less free association and more following the path of one idea to the next, and don't lose your way in the process.

    • cdevries profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      @opatoday: Thank you! Magic ingredients is IT exactly.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hunt for magic ingredients! You are amazing this is the best lens I have seen.

    • Gayle Dowell profile image

      Gayle Dowell 

      8 years ago from Kansas

      I've have always been fascinated with the subject of creativity, creative thought, inspiration, etc...thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas on the subject.


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