This Four Stage Creative Process Shows You How to Unlock Your Creativity

Creativity has always been one of the most important skills you could learn. This truth is even, finally, being recognized in the corporate world. At the heart of creativity is the creative process. This creative process is accessible to everyone, including you, whether you’d call yourself “creative” or not. 

If you were to watch Shantell Martin draw a mural live, Ali Wong perform stand up comedy, Robert Caro write a biography, or Kanye West and his team make a song, you might realize you’re actually looking at elements of essentially the same creative process. 

When you understand this creative process, you can also apply it to your field or specific use case—whether it’s art, entrepreneurship, advertising, business, music, graphic design, programming, writing, decision making, consulting, or problem solving. 

These days, the idea of a process may call to mind a corporate “standard operating process”—where each step is laid out in very concrete terms—but the creative process is much more flexible than that. 

Rather than being a general rule, the creative process is most useful when it’s seen as a process unique to each person, and even each project. For example, here’s Webby Award founder Tiffany Shlain’s 10-step creative process:

In this article, we’ll look at the creative process from the most popular conventional one, the four-stage creative process described in London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas’s The Art of Thought in 1926. In the spirit of collaborative creativity, it’s important to mention that many people have since put their own spin on it, and also that Wallas himself adapted the first three stages from physicist Hermann von Helmholtz:

1. Preparation: Gather the Raw Material

The first step into the creative process involves research, exercises, rituals, and routines that stimulate your mind. Wallas, quoting Helmholtz, describes this as, “The stage during which the problem was ‘investigated … in all directions’.”

For example, in The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp writes of the importance of coming across ideas and memories. This can be done through re-creating other people’s work (known in writing as copywork), studying old photographs and documents, and visualizing the future. 

Of course, this is just the beginning. She writes, “Creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions, and feelings we store away and finding new ways to connect them. What we’re talking about here is metaphor.” This stage of the creative process is all about making new connections between previously unrelated ideas. 

Tharp uses a file box as the container for each creative project, in which she puts in index cards with her goals for the project, as well as the research and references she comes across. In other words, this is how she organizes her ideas, She writes, “The box is the raw index of your preparation. It is the repository of your creative potential, but it is not that potential realized.”

63 years before Tharp published The Creative Habit, advertising executive James Webb Young wrote a pamphlet entitled A Technique for Producing Ideas, in which he called this stage, “Gathering raw material.” David Lynch writes of a similar concept in Catching the Big Fish; he’s always trying to gather “firewood,” which he simply describes as, “piles of things I can go to and see if they’ll work.” I use my notes with the Zettelkasten method to manage my piles of things.

How the zettelkasten supports your creative process

Young writes, “Most of us stop too soon in the process of getting it. If the surface differences are not striking we assume that there are no differences. But if we go deeply enough, or far enough, we nearly always find that between every product and some consumers there is an individuality of relationship which may lead to an idea.” 

To illustrate the level of work ethic required, consider how visual artist Paolo Uccello stayed up late into the night, wrestling with the challenge of perspective and understanding the vanishing point, even when his wife would call him to come to bed. You may not literally need to burn the midnight oil, but you’ll need a similar spirit of devotion—sometimes even obsession with the project—you will need before you can safely let up.

Note: If you’re interested in copywork, or cultivating an obsession and learning to let go of it in order to improve your work, you can learn more in my book There Is No Right Way to Do This. I cover 43 other creative starting points as well.

Young advises erring on the side of extending preparation, “Let me beg of you, not to get tired too soon. The mind, too, has a second wind. Go after at least this second layer of mental energy in the process. Keep trying to get one or more partial thoughts onto your little cards.” 

Preparation, of course, depends on your circumstances and constraints. If you have scheduled six months to write a book, you may want to prepare for one full month. If you’re starting an article due in a week, perhaps you can only fit in a day’s worth of preparation. In either case, you’ll know you’re prepared when all your research feels like a jumble in your mind. This is the time to stop and allow yourself to enter the second phase of the creative process.

2. Incubation: Let Your Unconscious Cultivate the Idea

The second phase of the creative process, according to Graham Wallas, involves, “not consciously thinking about the problem.” Instead, it involves consciously letting go of the problem and relaxing your mind. You might want to go for a walk in nature, or relax in a shower. 

While you may like feeling productive and enjoy an exciting new TV show, letting your ideas incubate is one of the areas that require skipping busy-ness of any sort. In his book Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang makes the case that leisure was the reason why historical figures like Charles Darwin were so successful. Darwin worked four hours a day. He didn’t succeed in spite of taking breaks, he succeeded because he took them. In this stage, by letting go of the preparation with your conscious brain, you allow your unconscious brain to take over and work on the idea.

To better understand this stage, consider James Webb Young’s analogy of the brain digesting the idea. Much like how you don’t really choose (or force) your stomach to digest food, you must also let your brain digest the idea. The best way to let that happen is to give it idle time, when it’s not stimulated.

Musing on the relationship between the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain, Henri Poincaré says, “It might be said that the conscious work has been more fruitful because it has been interrupted and the rest has given back to the mind its force and freshness. But it is more probable that this rest has been filled out with unconscious work.”

For example, consider physicist Freeman Dyson, who first gained recognition in the world of science for simplifying and providing mathematical grounds for quantum electrodynamics by making Richard Feynman’s and Julian Schwinger’s work understandable (and earning them a Nobel prize each). 

In the preparation phase, Dyson spent six months focused on the simple, hard, work of calculating in order to understand what Feynman and Schwinger meant. He describes in Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity, “I would sit down for days and days with large stacks of papers doing calculations so that I could understand precisely what Feynman was saying.”

After this preparation, he entered the incubation phase. He took a Greyhound bus to California, where he’d never been before, and spent two weeks sight-seeing. After the trip, during his bus ride back, he says the insights “suddenly in the middle of the night when we were going through Kansas, the whole sort of suddenly became crystal clear, it was and so that was sort of the big revelation for me, it was the Eureka experience or whatever you call it.” Dyson is describing, naturally, the next phase of the creative process.

3. Illumination: Recognize and Experience the Idea

This is the moment that you’ve probably heard about, the moment when inspiration strikes. The key is that this illumination phase happens third in the sequence—typically only after a prolonged period of preparation (meaning, sometimes, months or even years!) and incubation. Graham Wallas describes this part of the creative process as, “The appearance of the ‘happy idea’ together with the psychological events which immediately preceded and accompanied that appearance.” Similarly, James Webb Young writes, “Out of nowhere, the Idea will appear.”

The key here is to actually be ready to experience and preserve the idea. You’ll know when you feel it. There’s a chance it might not come to you all at once, but instead in flashes and chunks—sometimes fast, and sometimes slow, and with varying degrees of clarity. I write these moments down on index cards, in journals, or on my laptop or phone—whatever surface happens to be closest to me at the time.

Of course, there’s still one more phase. Recall Freeman Dyson, who just had his moment of illumination on a bus trip going through Kansas. While his idea became clear, he still spent another six months working out the details, and writing it up into two long papers for the Physical Review.

4. Verification: Make the Idea Ready for Others to Experience

After the glorious illumination comes, is what advertising executive James Webb Young calls, “The cold gray dawn of the morning after.” Verification involves hard work, similar to the preparation phase. Wallas describes some examples of this phase, saying, “The validity of the idea was tested, and the idea itself was reduced to exact form.” You will test your illumination through hearing what other people think, or through proofs and matching theories in science.

In addition to Dyson’s example, Paul McCartney describes the process of writing his song, “Yesterday,”  as not believing he wrote it. He played chords for other people to make sure he wasn’t unintentionally copying anyone else. In other words, McCartney spent over a year literally verifying the originality of “Yesterday,” but also making sure people liked it and thought it was worth pursuing.

There’s a lot that happens at this phase, so much so that in his book Creativity, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi actually breaks this Verification stage down into two stages—evaluation and elaboration:

4a. Evaluation: Decide If the Idea Is Worth Pursuing

After the idea has revealed itself to you, you must decide: what will you do with it? You’ll need to make a decision on the timing of this idea. Does it make personal or business sense to try? Should you invest the time and energy to bring it to life? Can you afford the risk? 

Csikszentmihalyi writes, “This is often the most emotionally trying part of the process, when one feels most uncertain and insecure.” 

This evaluation might depend on your own criteria, and or what you know about your field. If you’re not sure where to start, you can use UC Davis Distinguished Professor of Psychology Dean Keith Simonton’s three qualities—how original, useful, and surprising an idea is. It’s actually difficult to find something that fits all three, because most of the time they’re tradeoffs. For example, an original idea might not be as useful, a practical idea may not be as surprising.  

If you’re interested in harnessing the creative process for business, marketing, or entrepreneurship, this is the stage where you’d figure out the feasibility of the idea. Is it possible to make the numbers work out? What is the total addressable market for this idea? Are potential customers ready for something like this?

4b. Elaboration: Develop and Refine the Idea to Something Acceptable

Once you’ve decided the idea is worth bringing to life, this is the phase you actually make it happen. If you’re the only person executing on it, you’ll need to plan, schedule, and work. If it’s more complicated, you might need to involve other people, or find money and infrastructure. Csikszentmihalyi writes, “It is probably the one that takes up the most time and involves the hardest work. This is what Edison was referring to when he said that creativity consists of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Simonton has advised that trying to make something perfect is often a high risk strategy; it’s  usually better to make more, smaller, elaborations on an idea and allow perfection to emerge through quantity.

You could consider the creative process linear, since it starts with preparation and ends with verification. For the practical case of your project, maybe the closing of this stage is the final stage of this creative process. You’re done! Just like how Freeman Dyson has submitted his draft, Paul McCartney has released his song, or Twyla Tharp finalized the choreography for her dance production. 

Play Around with the Different Phases of the Creative Process

While this four-stage creative process may sound defined, it doesn’t have to be four distinctly separate phases, or frankly even that complicated. After you get acquainted with the structure, you can apply it however you like. “Without play, only Shit Happens. With play, Serendipity Happens,” writes David Weinberger in The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Consider Shantell Martin’s live performance drawing, in which she goes through all four stages of the creative process in minutes, and with a live audience watching. She might say that her life is preparation, incubation, and illumination for her art. There is no chance for her to evaluate her work; the second her marker hits the surface, she is experiencing illumination, verifying and elaborating on the concept.

Similarly, for Kanye West’s album cover of Cruel Summer, the preparation and incubation phases were gathered through a trip West took to Europe; the illumination happened with four photos that his collaborator Fabian Montique selected out of many others, of Baroque interior architecture. For three months, seven days a week, 16 hours per day, West’s other collaborator graphic designer Joe Perez and his team worked the Cruel Summer album cover with those four photos as a starting point. In a video Perez uploaded on YouTube, there are 325 different variations of the album cover. 

“If you really want to do what you say you do, leave this conversation and do it,” says Louis Vuitton menswear director, and former West collaborator, Virgil Abloh. “Go and print that T-shirt today, and by today I mean in the next 30 minutes. If you don’t do it, that’s your problem. If I hadn’t sat on Illustrator and gone to the screen printers to make it a reality, then it wouldn’t have happened – everything else is a domino effect.” 

It’s important to keep in mind here, like Bre Pettis and Kio Stark write in the Done Manifesto, everything is a draft. As artist Pablo Picasso says, “If it were possible … there would never be a ‘finished’ canvas but just different states of a single painting.”

Similarly, Walter Isaacson describes Leonardo da Vinci as reluctant to complete work because, “Relinquishing a work, declaring it finished, froze its evolution. Leonardo did not like to do that. There was always something more to be learned, another stroke to be gleaned from nature that would make a picture closer to perfect.” 

From that perspective, the verification phase isn’t always an end point; it doubles as the preparation phase for new incubations, illuminations, and further verifications. The creative process isn’t just a line with a point starting at preparation, and ending at verification, but a circle that goes in loops, or has a fractal relationship with another circle. Like the changing of seasons, verification becomes preparation for a new project or an update of a previous completed one.

The Creative Process Continues Onward

“Nothing is ever done,” Kanye West says, echoing his heroes Picasso and Da Vinci. Perhaps noise artist Merzbow provides a clearer visual, saying of his music, “The music of Merzbow should be viewed as changing, while being part of a continuum. What matters to me is this line of progression, more so than the individual works that comprise it.” Each piece of work you make, and every creative process you experience and work through, is a part of your own larger body of work. 

It’s also possible to expand Merzbow’s view to go beyond just your own creative process. Your line of progression intersects with everyone else’s lines. In Eat a Peach, David Chang describes being a chef as being a part of a centuries-old continuum; every action in the kitchen connects to previous ones, for hundreds of years. Every action adds a new pattern to the fabric of culinary history. 

So it is with your creative process—every action you take, every mistake you make, every doubt you experience and work through, all goes into a fabric of human history that goes back hundreds of years. In that sense, it’s a privilege and power to make the choice to create. 
If you want more ideas and starting points like these, I wrote a book about creativity entitled, There Is No Right Way to Do This. If you want to improve your creativity for your full-time job, or independently pursue creative skills and projects in your spare time, this is the book for you. It’s also the perfect companion for people doing or interested in trying daily creative challenges (such as #The100DayProject, #100daysofpractice, or SketchDaily).

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