“I’m not creative.” “I’m not feeling so creative today.” “Some people are just more creative than others.”
These are phrases we’ve all said out loud.
But here’s the truth:
Creativity doesn’t just happen.
You are not born with a figurative light bulb on top of your head.
A real cognitive process is involved in producing new ideas and transforming old ideas into something new.
It’s called the creative process.
And it’s something you can apply to any part of your life, regardless if it’s creative or not.
We all have creative potential inside of us.
Somehow, in some way, we make decisions and act on them by using creativity. A lot of our daily problems need a creative solution.
In this article, we’ll talk about the 5 stages of the creative process and how you can use it to get better results and outcomes.
What is the creative process?
For decades, James Webb Young’s 5-step technique for creating new ideas has influenced the world in many ways. From business, advertising, to marketing, his process is widely used to this day.
How does he define the creative process?
Simply put, the creative process is the act of creating “new” connections from old, existing concepts.
According to Young, being “creative” is not about being the first to come up with a new idea. Rather, it’s about connecting ideas from what is already available around you.
For him, innovation is about combining old elements and piecing them together in a “new” or “updated” way. It’s like recycling ideas.
This means we are all capable of creativity.
What separates actively creative people from dormant creative people is the ability to go through the creative process effectively.
And since we tend to have a fixated mindset of what we can and can’t do, most people believe that being creative is beyond them.
You’ll find out that’s simply not true.
You may have even created your own unique creative process without realizing it. Nevertheless, Young’s 5 stages might still help bring out the inner inventor in you.
Here are the 5 stages of the creative process
“Creativity is a lot like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. You look at a set of elements, the same ones everyone else sees, but then reassemble those floating bits and pieces into an enticing new possibility.”
– Rosabeth Kanter
Young’s creative model involves 5 unique stages. Much like how we prove a hypothesis in science, creating a new idea involves a series of processes.
His 5-step technique includes preparation, incubation, illumination, evaluation, and implementation.
1. Preparation Stage
An idea can come from anywhere. It feels like it happens spontaneously, but that’s actually very rarely the case.
Most of the time, ideas come from consumption. The more you consume, the more inspiration you can draw from.
The preparation stage involves gathering as much information as you can, immersing yourself in something, and preparing an environment where ideas can grow.
A lot of people consider the preparation stage as “work.” That’s because, in this stage, you’re actively doing something to induce creativity.
Creative expert and keynote speaker James Taylor sums it up perfectly when he says:
“If you’re a musician you are absorbing a lot of the music that is inspiring you to create this new piece. If you’re a writer you are reading other writers in this area. If you are an artist you are looking at other artist’s work in the area that you are looking at creating something in.
“If you are a scientist you are looking at all the background research. And if you are an entrepreneur or marketer you are looking at all the previous market research and what other companies have done before.”
Creativity is a mixture of influence, imitation, and the process of finding your own interpretation of it.
If you want to improve your creativity, start by consuming as much as you can. Open yourself to new experiences. Feed yourself with as much information as you can get your hands on.
Because creativity doesn’t just happen. It needs to be cultivated.
2. Incubation Stage
If the Preparation Stage is about working, the Incubation Stage is about taking the time.
And with this stage, there is no knowing how long it will take.
According to Taylor:
“This is an extremely important stage because sometimes it can takes days, or weeks, or months or sometimes even years.”
“Now the interesting thing about the incubation stages it that to a certain extent it is not really under your control how long that stage will take. It is something you cannot really rush.”
This is because the incubation stage involves thoroughly working over the resources you’ve collected, examining concepts, looking at them in different angles, and experimenting how they fit together.
Sometimes, you may even have to walk away from your idea and do something else that energizes you and excites you to come back to it eventually.
The Incubation Stage might happen consciously, when you are working on a project, or actively brainstorming about something in particular.
But it can also be subconscious. You might have been unwittingly churning ideas in your head until not realizing it until you reach the third stage of the creative process…
3. Illumination Stage
The “eureka moment.”
The Illumination Stage is the “Aha!” part of the creative process, when your incubation has come to fruition.
Once you’ve turned over and pieced together different concepts, you eventually come to a breakthrough.
It often comes as an epiphany, and somehow everything finally makes sense.
What’s more, it can happen quite unexpectedly. Typically, it happens while doing some kind of low-level activity, completely unrelated to your idea. You might be taking a shower, doing chores, or diving.
There’s a reason why. According to Taylor:
“This is because your subconsciousness in the previous stages is bubbling away and this insight stage really allows the mind to work on something else. And then bring these ideas to the forefront of your mind.”
The illumination stage is the shortest stage in the creative process.
4. Evaluation Stage
The Evaluation Stage is the reasoning stage.
You’ve come up with an idea or a solution, so you ask yourself:
- Is it worth pursuing?
- Is it novel enough, or has it been done too many times before?
- Are there necessary changes I could make?
- What do my superiors or colleagues think of the idea?
Many people tend to struggle in this stage because it requires a lot of self-reflection, honesty, even blunt self-criticism. If they deem there are ideas are simply “not good enough,” they just drop them.
More creative-minded people find success at this stage, though. They are typically more emotionally equipped at criticizing themselves and are not afraid to look at the idea’s reflectively.
That’s why it’s also good to consider the opinions of friends and colleagues – consider, not take at heart. At the end of the day, it’s your decision what to do with it.
5. Elaboration Stage.
If you think the preparation stage included work, that’s because you haven’t reached the Elaboration or Implementation Stage yet.
As Edison famously says, “1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
The creative process is also about working hard at an idea. A good idea, a life-changing idea, doesn’t just come to you automatically.
And once it does, you still have your work cut out for you.
Now you have to grind.
If you’re a businessman with a great idea for a product, you might have to look for investors, start production, then market your creation. If you’re a writer, you have to create your manuscript from outline to finish.
Your idea is only the start of the journey, and it’s important you go and work for it.
Because at the end of the day, many people come up with great ideas, but few are willing to put in the work to make them a reality.
Unpacking bad habits in your creative process.
“The fact that order and creativity are complementary has been basic to man’s cultural development; for he has to internalize order to be able to give external form to his creativity.”
– Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine
Are you unable to finish creative projects? Quick to give up? Or frustrated you never come up with anything in the first place?
There is a reason why many people believe they’re incapable of the navigating creative process successfully .
It’s because, along the way, we tend to create bad habits that inhibit our capacity for innovation.
Some people neglect the preparation stage, so they never even incubate ideas in the first place. Some are unwilling to experiment on different concepts, only looking at things in a certain way.
To others, it’s hard to step away from the evaluation process, obsessing about their ideas over and over until they wear themselves down. The worst is when people neglect to work on their ideas.
Whichever area you are struggling with, it’s important to develop grit.
Create a growth mindset that will enable you to reach your full creative potential. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out our growth mindset quotes.
As author and science writer David DiSalvo says:
“It doesn’t matter where the ideas originate — it matters where they take you. To the extent that we limit our exposure to an array of creative ideas (and focus instead on just one source; TV, for example), we limit our creative potential.
“The solution: get up, get out, and get exposed.”
While there is merit in Young’s 5-Step technique to generating new ideas, it’s also important to remember that what might work for others might not necessarily work for you.
Creativity has no definite process to it. Yes, it’s crucial to have direction, to know how to start and where to go with what you find – but the word creativity itself implies a discovery process.
So you should discover your own creative process. Find what induces passion.
There are no set rules to it. You might like working in a noisy cafe with people passing you by. Maybe you need to be close to nature. Perhaps you even need considerable alone time before creativity sparks.
Explore what works best for you, and just go with it.
Ideapod founder Justin Brown recently shared his own creative process while walking through the sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil. Check it out in his short video below.