Back in the early 20th Century, social psychologist Graham Wallas proposed a 4 stage creative process. It starts with preparation where we define the problem, need or desire and gather together information, research and background material. We also clarify what would constitute an acceptable solution. We then step back from the problem and let our minds explore and process it, this is the incubation stage. Like preparation incubation can last minutes, weeks, or years.
In the illumination stage ideas and insights arise from the mind, this might happen while we’re out walking, in the shower or doing the washing up, it can be quite unexpected and you’ve probably experienced this. Unlike the other stages, illumination is often very brief involving a rush of insights within a few minutes or hours. The final stage is verification where we gauge the success and quality of the idea.
For an alternative approach, let’s look at James Webb Young, an ad man from New York who wrote about his creative process in his book A Technique for Producing Ideas. He first establishes two principles, that an idea is a new combination and that the ability to make new combinations is heightened by an ability to see relationships. He then distills the creative process down into five steps.
The first step is to gather raw material. Young argues that most of us stop too soon in the process of examining the problem or issue at hand. Once we have a thorough understanding of the issue Young recommends further gathering - this time of general material. While the first kind of gathering is a current job, the second should be a life’s work. Next comes the task of looking for relationships. What you’re seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination like a jigsaw puzzle.
Then it’s time for the mental digestive process: do something else. This might mean watching a concert, reading a book, taking a walk, going to sleep, doing some emails – anything other than trying to have an idea or thinking of what you’re trying to have an idea about. The process enters the domain of the unconscious mind.
Young predicts that if we have followed every stage fully so far we’ll surely experience the fourth stage where the idea appears. As he says: ‘it will come to you when you’re least expecting it’. Finally in the ‘cold grey dawn of the morning after’ comes shaping and development, this is when you have to see what others think, and shape and tailor your ideas to requirements.
You can see a number of similarities between the two models, and most creative processes we’ve come across tend to follow the same general pattern. It’s not necessary to religiously follow a creative process but we find that it helps to be aware of the idea that there might be one, because it helps you to recognise what stage you’re at in your own creative thinking. Highly creative people are adept at jumping back and forth at will between the various stages.