The Creative Process

Reliable methods for coming up with great ideas

Posted on: November 9th, 2011 by Shaun Hensher 34 Comments

In the last couple of posts, we’ve been talking about how to be creative. In The Creative Mind, we covered the mindset required for creative production. In The Creative Space, we talked about how our surroundings can help us foster our creative thinking. Now let’s talk about the actual creative process.

The Creative Process

How do we go about solving creative problems? Although it may sometimes seem like a mystical or mysterious process, creative ideation is no mystery. Creative problem-solving can actually be made quite simple by following a few tried and true methods.


Research isn’t really part of the ideation process, but is more like the prelude to it. Nevertheless, it’s a crucial step. The internet is my primary source of research information. Depending on the problem you are trying to solve, your research may include a trip to the local reference library, a visit to the field, or conversations with customers. Either way you need to gather as much information about the problem as you can in the time you have. Are there existing solutions? What’s working? What’s not? What is the competition doing? What is the market asking for? Are there places you can look to for inspiration?


Traditional brainstorming is most effective with groups (I think 5 to 10 is a good size). It is a method that allows you to generate lots of ideas from different perspectives. The more diverse people are in their experience, role, and outlook, the better. One person will have to act as a facilitator and write the ideas down on a board or large sheet of paper. Some suggest giving yourself a time limit or an idea limit. I’m not convinced this is necessary. You’ll get a sense of when people are tapped for ideas. If you do want to set a time limit, 15 to 30 minutes is probably about right.

  1. Define your problem. Make sure everyone understands the goal of the exercise. The problem is sometimes best posed as a question, such as “How can we reduce the cost of producing our widgets?”, “What can we do to get people to join our mailing list?”, or “How can we improve the design of our thingamajig?”

  2. Generate ideas. Get everyone to verbalize their ideas. Put absolutely everything on the board. No filtering of any sort should be happening. Criticism has no place at this stage.

  3. Filter the ideas down. Once all the ideas have been written down, ask for input on which ideas have true merit. Try to narrow it down to 5 or so.

  4. Evaluate the ideas. Now is the time for critical analysis. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each idea? What are potential problems? You may wish to have a list of criteria and assign a score to each solution depending on the criteria they meet.

  5. Decide which idea is the strongest. The decision may be made by a vote, by enumerating the score assigned to each idea, or by executive decision. Depending on the problem, it may be that multiple solutions can be used simultaneously. Regardless of which solution you choose, make sure to record all the ideas, in case you want to go back to them and reevaluate.

Mind Mapping

In ideation, a mind map is a sort of concept diagram that is formed via mental association. This is my preferred initial method of brainstorming. It works quite well for graphic design and branding problems. I think the reason for this is that it mirrors the way the brain actually works. It starts with a central idea and expands outwards as associations are made.

Many people recommend starting with an image that is representative of your main idea, as well as using images to represent ideas. I guess it’s a matter of personal preference. It can make the resultant mind map more engaging and memorable, but personally, I don’t find it helpful. Perhaps it’s because I am a visual thinker and can easy visualize imagery around the words without having to actually illustrate them. Do whatever works for you.

  1. Start with a large blank sheet of paper (in landscape) or a big whiteboard and place your main idea in the center.

    Mind Map Step 1

  2. Think of things associated with that idea and place them around it, drawing branches to each.

    Mind Map Step 2

  3. Now take one of the new things and start building associations around it, adding them to the main branch.

    Mind Map Step 3

  4. Keep expanding outwards until you have as many ideas to draw from as you think you need.

    Mind Map Step 4

  5. Highlight ideas that you think have potential in solving your problem.

    Mind Map Step 5

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is the process of solving problems by way of an indirect approach. It approaches a problem obliquely, using ideas that may not be immediately obvious and may not be obtainable using traditional logic. Here are a few of my favorite techniques:

Aleatoricism (a.k.a. Introducing Randomness): It’s a big word, but it’s a simple idea. Aleatory creation involves the introduction of chance into your creative process. It can be a great way to break thought patterns and clear creative blocks. There are innumerable ways to do this. Try taking a random dictionary word. How can you associate that word with your problem? How can you incorporate it into your solution? Pick up a random object. Think hard about how the design of that object might relate to your problem. John Cage, one of the early pioneers of aleatoric music, created compositions by consulting the I Ching, overlaying star maps on blank music sheets, or by rolling dice and flipping coins. There are no limits to the methods used. Be creative. In design, everything we do must have purpose, but sometimes the way we find that purpose might surprise you.

Challenge Facts and Ideas: Consider what you assume to be the facts related to the problem. What differences or advantages might exist if they are not, in fact, fact? Could a particular fact possibly be wrong? Can you modify the fact to better suit the situation? Ask “Why?”. Why is something designed a certain way? Why does it exist at all? What happens if you assume that an idea is wrong? A computer mouse should have multiple buttons and a scroll wheel. Why? Does it have to be that way? By challenging this idea, Apple created the multi-touch magic mouse.

Wishful Thinking: This is sort of related to the challenge facts technique, but it approaches it a different way. This technique asks you to imagine if everything was ideal. What if conditions were perfect? What if money wasn’t an object? What if laws and regulations weren’t an issue? What would your ideal solution look like? Once you’ve dreamed up this perfect situation, what can you take from it? Are there parts of this ideal solution that can be adapted and used?

SCAMPER: This technique uses a series of directed questions to spark creativity and break thought patterns. I won’t go through all the questions, but a thorough explanation can be found here: Creative Problem Solving with SCAMPER

Now that you know my secret, I’ll have to…

…ask you to share it! If you found this article helpful, please pass it along to anyone you think would like to learn about the creative process.

So now you can see, creative ideation is not a mystery. All it takes is the right mindset, a conducive environment, and knowledge of these methods and processes. You now have all the tools you need to be a creative genius. Go out there and create something amazing!

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34 Responses

  1. Reese says:

    Among all those mentioned, researching works best for me. Before the internet I would have several books spread out before me. I like brainstorming but only when I am around people who have something to contribute. Sometimes at work I am forced to brainstorm with lazy people and its just annoying and I end up doing most of the work. Mind map is unnecessary for me too. I am highly visual myself.
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  2. John | Start Mission

    This is such an awesome post. It’s like if I could clone myself, I’d use this post as a guide to learn the fundamentals of becoming a creative individual.

    So awesome…

  3. Whenever our team gets together we try to have an open exchange of ideas without too much structure. Your suggestions are great for bring a little more focus to the process!

  4. Jeff Casmer

    Brainstorming is underrated. I was taught in middle school about brainstorming before writing a paper, doing a science fair project etc so its a very worthwhile exercise.
    Jeff Casmer recently posted..2012′s Best Home Business Ideas: Start Today!My Profile

  5. Audrey Ross | coconut grove luxury homes says:

    Research defines me best. I have the habit of researching, now that we have the internet I usually find myself with 11-12 tbs on one topic :) Whether its about products or services research helps me make wiser decisions.

  6. Michael says:

    I will mos-def will share this awesome post in my FB page..

    Michael recently posted..3D Animation EducationMy Profile

  7. Erich

    This post made me smile today. For a writer like me who needs to keep the creative juices flowing, the tips here serve as good reminders for what else to try whenever I’d feel my creative well running dry. As a side note, would daydreaming count as a possible source of creative ideas?
    Erich recently posted..Should You Get the HTC Rezound Instead of the LG Nitro HD?My Profile

  8. Larry

    I understand the points you’re making under “Brainstorming.” But, for the average lone blogger (or other sole proprietor), for instance, looking for business/topic ideas, it’s hard to assemble that many people all at once, as few as it may seem, for their individual takes.
    Larry recently posted..Reindeer Cupcakes That Will Go Down in HistoryMy Profile

  9. I am always looking for ideas to help with creativity when it comes to writing articles and content. I’m going to try your Scamper method and your Mind Map method.
    Jennifer MacKay recently posted..Panama City Real Estate | Here we grow again!My Profile (dofollow)

  10. Rob Thomson

    This is an article that I’m going to forward to my graphic arts team as well as my content team. I think you have a lot of solid advice in this post. I’m a very visual person so anything I can do to see an idea, the better.
    Rob Thomson recently posted..In Search of the Best Real Estate Company to Work For?My Profile (dofollow)

  11. You talk about the creative process and the design process as if they are the same thing. Musicians, artists and designers may well use different processes.
    Earl Dickerson recently posted..Project Management Software OnlineMy Profile

  12. Jason Davis says:

    Great!I like brainstorming but only when I am around people who have something to contribute. Thanks for sharing this.
    Jason Davis recently posted..Six Sigma and the Use of Cause and Effect DiagramsMy Profile

  13. Balu says:

    Brainstorming is an good idea for being creative.

  14. Was Haben says:

    Great!I like brainstorming. I would like to extend my appreciation regarding this article said. Thank you for sharing it. It is very informative and helpful. It plays a big change in my career.

  15. Steven Papas says:

    One of the ways I come up with my greatest ideas for any subject is to let my mind do its own thing. I will write as fast as I can about what I am looking for and whatever comes to my mind I write. This is kind of like disengaging my conscious mind and engaging my subconscious mind.
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  16. Katrina says:

    It is really a very informative post to read and lots of great idea on how to become creative. These are great suggestion to follow for being creative.

  17. Elena Anne says:

    I loved your charts. That was a really unique way of posting about the creative process. What helps me best is to write and read and then write again. It is important to think outside the box and seek inspiration from others. Without communication with others, we will lack insight that we would not have otherwise.

  18. Selda says:

    Observation should be one we should keep practicing every moment of our daily life. It helps me a lot.

  19. Advin says:

    Creativity is important part of any process which makes process effective. Your given images of chart and information seems interesting concept of creative thinking. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  20. Great posting..I personally think checking other related creative works also helps big time.

  21. Balu says:

    Great idea for solving problems, creativity really matters a lot.

  22. Jenni | joomla themes says:

    Great post
    very innovative
    its really an treat to watch

  23. firdosh joy says:

    Great motivating article dedicated to creativity . Creativity needs ideas and your article is really very helpful in that
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  24. soniya says:

    Dear Admin

    Thanks for providing an effective Blog that offers complete synchronization between creativity and information.Your Blogs meets all the requirements of the readers and is user friendly and provide the best and best information to the reader.

    Thank you so much for share the great information !!!

  25. Tim | Miami Beach Condos

    Research seems to be the most important one for me. Checking out sample works and getting inspired by some works..

  26. Dwayne Casey

    Great ideas!. I was looking at ideas on how to think up new painting compositions, which I think this may help with. I think that this will come in handy in developing new landing page ideas. We often we use a formula that seems to work in general, but I like the idea of challenging ideas.
    Dwayne Casey recently posted..Oil pastelMy Profile

  27. The unexpected success is what you are to spot and then understand in order to create your own great ideas. They are the seeds of great ideas. Great article.
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  28. Chris | Pinterest

    Creative people experience more sense of control. They are proactively involved in living and therefore less reactive.

  29. robert | agence référencement says:

    Creativity is one of the ways that lead to the development of our world.Necessity is the mother of invention.Creativity comes from a certain need especially , pain and sadness this is in my point of view.

  30. Martin says:

    I an going to try these methods when im in the creative zone.
    I do sometimes find it difficult to find inspiration when writing and hopefully this will help.

  31. I love brainstorming using the mind map method. I am definitely more of a visual person so this post had a lot of useful information in it. Thanks and good job!

  32. Yeah. Research helps a lot in keeping my creative juices flowing.
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