The Creative Process

See also: Innovation Skills

The creative process is a way of describing how ideas develop from first conception to a more defined and refined form. The phrase itself makes it sound as though it is both conscious and formal—but in reality, the opposite is often true. For many people, the process is subconscious. However, the vast majority of people are thought to go through this process in developing new ideas.

This is especially true for those who are creating something like a song or poem. However, it also works for developing ideas in more conventional work settings. This page outlines the five stages of the creative process, which including preparation, incubation, illumination, evaluation and verification.

What is the Creative Process?

The creative process is a five-stage process of idea development.

It was first outlined by author and psychologist Graham Wallas in a 1926 book called The Art of Thought. Like many ideas in psychology, the original concept was that many people use this process, but often do so subconsciously. You can also choose to consciously use it as a way of developing ideas—and this is likely to improve your ideas and your creative thinking.

The creative process vs. the innovation cycle

Our page on Innovation Skills outlines the Innovation Cycle: a process that organisations go through to develop new innovations. It starts with developing ideas, then validating and evaluating them, prototyping and testing, and then implementing.

This is similar but not quite the same as the creative process.

You could see the creative process as part of the innovation cycle, fitting into both developing ideas and validating and evaluating them. The key difference is that the creative cycle does not necessarily require a ‘problem’ to solve: you might just decide that you want to paint something, or write a song or story.

In developing innovations, individuals within organisations will probably go through the creative process as they develop and refine the initial ideas. Indeed, following the creative process is likely to improve the quality of their ideas and thinking.

Five Stages of Idea Development

There are five stages to the creative process:

1. Preparation

In the preparation stage, you should be carrying out research around the subject and starting to generate ideas.

This stage is all about giving your mind opportunities to come up with something interesting—and the material to feed that process. An important part of this in business is to be absolutely clear about the problem that you are trying to solve, and how it affects people. You may therefore want to talk to customers or users of your products, as well as carrying out desk research into what is already available to solve the problem. You may also want to do some brainstorming to start coming up with some initial ideas.

You may find our pages on Interviews for Research, Focus Groups, Gathering Information for Competitive Intelligence, and Brainstorming Techniques helpful during this stage.

2. Incubation

This stage is all about leaving the project for a while, and letting things settle in your mind.

It may seem odd, and possibly counter-intuitive, to say that the second stage is to just move away from the project. However, this is an essential part of letting your mind work properly. You need time to subconsciously digest all the information that you have gathered, without conscious thought.

It is therefore a good idea to have several projects running at once. You can then move between them, giving time for the ideas on each to settle in between targeted work.

3. Illumination

During this stage, your idea emerges in a stronger form, often in an ‘aha’ moment.

Once you have let things settle in your mind, you will often find that an idea emerges quite suddenly one day. This is not a part of the process that can be forced—and it may take longer than you think. This is where it is helpful to have several people working on a single project: one may have an idea significantly sooner than the others, and can start working on it.

4. Evaluation

During this stage, you examine your idea carefully and see if it is any good.

It is a good idea to go back to your original problem or objective, and check that your idea will actually solve that problem or meet your objectives. In business, you might also carry out some market research to test the validity of your idea.

Our page on Idea Validation gives some more ideas about how you might carry out this stage.

This stage may be the end of this particular creative process. You may realise that your idea is no good, and you will have to go back to the beginning. However, the best ideas will make it through to the next and final stage: verification.

5. Verification

During this stage, you bring your ideas to life.

In this stage, you need to deliver on your idea: to make it real. If you are working on a creative process such as writing, this will be where you write your novel, poem or song. In business, this stage is akin to the prototyping and testing phase of the innovation cycle. Crucially, at the end of this stage, you will have a physical product of some kind, whether prototype or final version.

Making the Creative Process Work

Set out like this, the creative process seems simple and logical.

The five stages flow naturally from one to the next. It seems obvious that you can—and should—therefore work through them in a cycle.

In reality, of course, the creative process does not really work like this. You can manage the preparation phase, and then move into incubation, but what happens if the ‘illumination’ stage fails to materialise? Worse, many people may feel forced to skip the incubation stage because of time pressure, and then find that their ideas are not worth pursuing.

If this happens, the answer is to go back a stage or two. This is not a process that can be rushed, and the first idea is unlikely to be the best.

Give your incubation stage plenty of time—but if nothing happens, then go back and do some more research. Look for new views of the situation, and see if that sparks any new ideas.

A balance between internal and external processes

Author and commentator Carolyn Gregoire suggests that the key to managing the creative process is to understand that it is a balance between internal and external processes.

  • The preparation and evaluation/verification stages are external. Those are a matter of putting in the effort and getting on with it. However, by themselves they are not enough. You also need to give your brain a chance to go through the internal phases of the process.

  • The incubation and illumination stages are internal. You cannot rush them. However, you also need to be aware that it is possible to get lost inside your head. At some point, you will need to stop thinking and just get on.

Gregoire suggests that some people have a tendency to prefer the external phases. They are the ‘doers’. Others, the ‘dreamers’, prefer the internal phases.

The creative power lies in becoming a ‘dreamer who does’, or a ‘doer who dreams’.

A Final Thought

The creative process is a useful one that most people will go through at some time or another. Fundamentally, it is simply a formal way of looking at a process that we all use subconsciously. It can therefore be harnessed to support creative thinking in many settings.

However, used by itself it is unlikely to have huge impact. Instead, you may need to use it in conjunction with other ideas to improve your creative thinking (and our page on Creative Thinking has some ideas that you might try, including embracing new experiences and broadening your social life). This should give you the advantages of a formal process, but the capacity to develop new and original ideas: the best of all worlds.