The creative process
By Peter Muijres
The creative process involves five phases or states of mind. Although each phase feeds into another and the process as a whole, they do not need to happen in a sequential order.
Inspiration – Generate a large number of ideas
This is the research or idea-generation phase. The process is uninhibited and characterised by spontaneity, experimentation, intuition, and risk-taking. Many people wonder where creative people find their good ideas. The answer is, in amongst a huge pile of bad ones. Creativity is like mining for diamonds, most of what you dig is thrown away, but that does not make the digging a waste of time. If you ‘cannot think of anything’ you are having difficulty with this inspiration phase, perhaps because you are too self-critical, or expect good ideas to come too quickly. In the field of the creative arts the inspiration phase is often associated with a search for an individual voice, and with an attempt to conjure up deep feelings of (for example) empathy, spirituality, or an intense identification with the subject matter. This is not a phase in which to be negative or worried about form, practicality, rhyme or quality. You should be rejecting at least 90% of your initial ideas. Let yourself off the leash! If most of the ideas you create are workable, then you did not take enough risks. This phase is like brainstorming.
Clarification – In which you focus on your goals.
Key questions are:
- What am I trying to achieve here?
- What am I trying to say?
- What exactly is the problem I am trying to solve?
- What would I like the finished work to be like?
And in more open ended work:
- How could I exploit the ideas I have had?
- Where could this idea take me – what could I make of it?
The aim here is to clarify the purpose or objective of the work. It is easy to lose your sense of direction while dealing with detailed difficulties in creative work. So you need occasionally to disengage from these obstacles and ask “what exactly am I trying to do?”
If you ‘get stuck’ in the middle of a project, then rather than dreaming up a stream of alternatives you need to clarify where exactly you want to go. How to get there is then often straight-forward, or even blindingly obvious. Clarification gets you out of the mire, but it is also required when say, an artist or designer agonises between two or more equally attractive approaches. Such decisions require a clear sense of purpose. If you feel lost, stuck, bogged down, confused, or uncertain about how to proceed, then clarification is what you need. In this clarification phase you have your eye on the ball, you are being strategic and logical, focussing on how the finished work will look. It is very common for those inexperienced in creative work to fail to clarify. Clarification is a process, not an event. It should take place at frequent intervals while you work.
Evaluation – A review phase in which you look back over your work in progress.
In the evaluation phase you examine your work for strengths and weaknesses. Then you need to consider how the work could be improved, by removing weaknesses but also by capitalising on its strengths. Then there will probably need to be another perspiration phase to respond positively to the suggestions for improvement. Perspiration and evaluation phases often alternate to form a cycle.
Hardly anyone gets things perfect first time. Creative people adapt to improve. Many people dislike the evaluation phase at first. However, highly creative people are nearly always inveterate revisers. They tinker with work that would make others gape in delight. Actually this evaluation phase can be very rewarding, and no work of real merit will be produced without it. If Shakespeare and Picasso found they had to revise their efforts, then I expect even you will need to!
Distillation – In which you decide which ideas to work on.
Here ideas from the inspiration phase are sifted through and evaluated usually in the light of the findings of a clarification phase. The best ideas are chosen for further development, or are combined into even better ideas. This is a self-critical phase. It requires cool analysis and judgment rather than slap-happy spontaneity. However it should not be so critical as to inhibit productivity entirely. Remember, the ideas you have had are only ideas, not complete solutions – you must not expect too much of them. It is where the ideas can take you that counts, not the ideas themselves.
Incubation – Leave the work alone, though you still ponder about it occasionally, leaving it ‘on the surface of your mind’.
Many brilliant ideas have occurred in the bath, or in traffic jams. If you are able to stop work on a project for a few days, perhaps to work on other things, this will give your subconscious time to work on any problems encountered, it will also distance you somewhat from your ideas so that you are better able to evaluate them. ‘Incubation’ is particularly useful after an ‘inspiration’ or a ‘perspiration’ phase, or if a problem has been encountered. Creative people are often surprisingly patient and untidy, and are content to let half-baked ideas, loose ends and inconsistencies brew away in their sub-conscious until ‘something turns up’.
Whenever Sir Isaac Newton had a particularly thorny problem he always worked on it just before he went to sleep. He said “I invariably woke up with the solution”.
Perspiration – In which you work determinedly on your best ideas.
This is where the real work is done. You are involved in determined and persistent effort towards your goal, this will usually involve further ‘inspiration’ ‘distillation’ and ‘clarification’ phases.
Perspiration usually involves a number of drafts separated with clarification and evaluation phases. Uncreative people often accept the first draft as completion. Very creative people often go over and over a piece until it is too their liking. Matisse for example produced over 20 versions of his ‘Pink Nude’. The end result is child like simple, and paradoxically spontaneous looking. It is surprising to people who do not understand the creative process that a talented person like Matisse should need so many ‘drafts’. But such strategies are common in very creative people.