The 5 Key Stages of the Creative Process

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


Creativity can often seem like a random and spontaneous process – perhaps something we believe that most people are just lucky to be born with – however, a lot of ideas follow a creative process that isn’t so mysterious once we understand how it works.

The five key stages of the creative process include: consumption, brainstorming, critical thinking, incubation, and production. If any of these stages aren’t met, then it is unlikely your ideas will reach full fruition.

Once you understand this creative process that most ideas follow, anyone can begin improving their own creativity. Some people may naturally be more creative than others, but everyone can become more creative with the right knowledge and practice.

Before reading about these stages, please keep in mind that we often cycle through this “creative process” several times before we reach a final product. And in some cases we may jump from one stage to the next, it’s not always a linear process.


Consumption

The first stage of creativity is “consumption.”

Everything that we create begins from our experiences and the information we take in from our environment. This includes everything we see, hear, taste, smell, touch and feel.

An idea can begin from almost anywhere. It may be a conversation we had, or something we read, or something we saw in a movie, or a specific event we experienced in our own life.

The more you consume, the more inspiration you have to draw from. It would be incredibly difficult to be a successful writer if you only read 1 or 2 books your whole life. People that are creative in a specific domain are often connoisseurs in that domain as well.

If you want to improve your creative process, start by consuming more. Diversify your experiences. Give yourself a rich reservoir of information to draw from and let influence your creative process.


Brainstorming

The next stage of the creative process is “brainstorming.”

Brainstorming is when you take the information you’ve consumed and try to rearrange it in a way that’s never been done before. At this stage, it’s important to just let your imagination take over and try to think of as many new ideas as possible with no restrictions.

Get a paper and pen, and write down as many ideas as you can think of in a 5-10 minute span. Go wild. Don’t evaluate how “realistic” your ideas are, just record anything that pops into your head. What may seem ridiculous now may help lead to a creative insight later.

When working in groups, it’s been shown that brainstorming works best when everyone is allowed to submit their ideas anonymously. This helps avoid any “social pressures” of not sharing a certain idea, or being made fun of for it.

The goal of brainstorming is to entertain any idea as a potential possibility, so don’t hold anything back during this stage of the creative process. Make it as easy as possible to share ideas without being personally judged for them.


Critical Thinking

Once you have a bunch of ideas to work from, the next step is “critical thinking.”

At this stage of the creative process it’s time to look at each idea and evaluate both its strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself questions:

  • “What kind of resources would I need to make this idea a reality?”
  • “What’s the most difficult obstacle in following through with this idea?”
  • “What’s the worst that can happen if this idea goes wrong?”

Many of your original ideas you’re going to be able to shoot down rather quickly, but you’ll find a few that are worth further consideration and adjustment.

The key to “critical thinking” is that you need to at least be able to imagine how you can actually make this idea happen. You don’t need to have all the answers, but you do need to at least be honest with yourself.

We have a tendency to be overly optimistic with our ideas. A big part of this is the planning fallacy, our tendency to underestimate the time, effort, and resources it would take to complete something.

Keep in mind every idea is going to have its weakness and downfalls. The goal isn’t to find the “perfect idea,” there’s no such thing, but you have to be as practical as possible so that you can best prepare yourself for the possible difficulties ahead.


Incubation

When you think critically about your ideas, you’re going to find problems that you don’t immediately have an answer for. At this point, “incubation” plays an important role in the creative process.

This is the stage of the creative process where you need to take a break and give yourself some space.

Our biggest moments of creativity and insight rarely happen when we try to “force” ourselves to think of an answer. Instead we often need to walk away from a problem to give our unconscious mind time to digest it on its own.

Often times we can only create the conditions for creative thought to happen, but how and when it happens can seem spontaneous and random. You may be taking a shower or sitting in traffic, and then all of a sudden a really great idea comes to you.

We have to give ourselves time and space during the creative process. Sometimes the more you try to force or rush creativity, the more it can elude you.


Production

The final stage of the creative process is “production.” In fact, every other stage of the creative process is useless if you never take your creative idea and actually put it into action in some way.

At the end of the day, you need to have something that you can physically show other people – a book, a song, a movie, a business, or whatever it is that you are planning to create.

Don’t just think about your ideas or talk about them, find small ways to begin turning them into a tangible reality.

Take action and start building something. Only then can you get feedback from others, and that’s the best way to continue to learn and grow into the future.

As I mentioned earlier, often we cycle through this creative process many times before something we create is finally “complete.”

You may produce something small (a rough draft of a creative project) and then want to go back to a “brainstorming” stage or “incubation” stage for a little while before continuing.

The last thing to do with any creative project is to call it “done” and leave it alone. Try to avoid too much procrastination and perfectionism – eventually you need to swallow your pride and show your final product to the world.


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