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Understanding Creative Thinking

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Read Time: 8 min
This post is part of a series called Let’s Talk About Creativity.
The Concept of Creativity
Creative Block 101

In this article I'll explain how we think during the process of being creative. This knowledge will help you understand creativity and will form a foundation in helping you understand why we have creative blocks and how we can combat them.

Before we start, let's glimpse back at the previous article. Did you take my advice in exercising your creativity every day, regardless of the form or outcome? Consider it a challenge to maintain this habit until the end of the session. Who knows what brilliant ideas you might have in the meantime!

Everyone Thinks Differently

"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." - Voltaire

Everyone solves problems differently and each has his own way of thinking. As designers, the way we think impacts how we design and how we provide our clients with solutions. In the creative industry it's important to master different thinking styles and the great news is that anyone can switch easily between them. The only problem is that you are probably more effective in one style of thinking than the others.

To keep it simple, you often think in three specific ways:

  • logically,
  • practically,
  • or creatively.

What does this mean in reality? Logical thinking often involves making judgments. You make a rational decision as to why something is more or less suitable. For example, this could involve choosing a certain design style, declining work or defining the needs of a customer.

Practical thinking is often the most difficult. It determines how you interact with people and how you are able to communicate with and convince others. If you're exceptionally good at selling websites for example, then you're probably a great practical thinker. Putting your logical thinking to practice will encourage practical thinking.

Creative thinking involves problem solving. The difference between creative thinking and logical or practical thinking is that you often look at the problem from an unorthodox perspective and your thoughts are less structured. It often passes through several phases and this is considered the creative thinking process.

The Creative Thinking Process

Although creativity is often somewhat unstructured, there's a definite recognizable process.


This process is heavily individual, however. The steps may be the same, but how they manifest themselves is entirely unique to you. In particular, the length of each phase, the methods used in each phase and the efficiency of our creative thinking process in general varies greatly from person to person.

Understanding this process is very important when combatting creative block; certain problems can often be linked to a specific phase of the process. Identifying the phase during which your creative block reared its ugly head is the key to solving the problem.

Step 1: First Look

We've spoken of problems quite a lot; as designers we encounter them on a regular basis.


"Invest a few moments in thinking. It will pay good interest." - Author Unknown

These problems may appear obvious: "I don't have a website and I want one, could you make me one?" In fact, describing the problem in such a way that it includes everything necessary to provide a great solution, is difficult. Why does the customer want the website? What is the target audience for the website? What is the purpose of the website? A good problem is extensive and makes the creative process easier since you're no longer expanding the problem during the solving.

Defining the exact problem is creative in itself. One of the functions of creative thinking is not just solving the existing problem, but also discovering and providing deeper questions to answer. It's this first insight which is important to help you understand why you need to be creative and defining the full problem helps you pin-point the correct solution.

Step 2: Saturation

The second step we unconsciously go through is in saturating the mind. Simply put, you gather as much information as possible which helps with solving the problem. Fairly typical for this phase is that it's quite rational and analytic. It's often the phase which is the least creative.


You can compare this phase to a big puzzle with all the pieces scattered across the table. You already know that some pieces might not be included in the final solution, but what lies in front of you will form the start of the solution for your problem you've defined in the first phase.

Knowledge is your foundation for creativity.

This information often includes inspiration gained from other designers, tutorials, books you've read but also general things which inspire you like music, for example. This remains quite a strange aspect of creativity: you often need to know how other people have solved similar problems, before you're able to deliver your own solution.

Being able to find solutions without the need of inspiration suggests someone who's incredibly independent. Toward the end of the session, we'll have a closer look on being original in your work.

Step 3: Incubation

Having collected enough information to solve the problem, you start thinking of possible solutions (often a slow process that requires time and patience).


A typical hurdle during this phase is being consciously aware of the fact that you are searching for a solution. Pressure may adversely affect your creativity, causing the much-detested creative block.

Using our metaphor of the puzzle, during this phase you are slowly attempting to fit the pieces together. Some pieces fit, others don't and sometimes you end up restarting your puzzle. For many people this is the most difficult phase and in general you'll always encounter some blocks while you process the information from phase two.

For Example

Trial and error during the development of a website is a great example. Rarely do you hold on to your first draft of a website. Design is something that lives and redevelops a number of times during the design process. These changes, reworking and interpreting information differently are typical of the incubation phase.

Step 4: Relief

Creativity is often a sudden stroke of genius, when all the pieces finally fall into place (there's that puzzle again). Your solution meets all conditions and is achievable!


"My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living." - Anais Nin

Often, this phase happens at an unexpected time while you're not concerned with the problem - such as while showering, or having a dinner, or just watching television.

Often it's an association between two elements that had nothing to do with each other at first sight, that provide your solution. This leap forward in thinking can be difficult, as it requires the incubation of the information you've processed. However, you can train yourself in reaching the relief phase faster, by working on your creativity in general.

Step 5: Verification

During verification, your solution gets tested in reality.


Success isn't always easy to measure; does the problem desist when the client is happy? When the needs of the users are met? In general, it's good to assume that your first design is never perfect. Dare to be critical of your own work as it will only make things better.

Does it stop after this phase? It might, but usually you'll repeat certain phases during creative thinking. After verification, you might conclude that your solution is not really suited and you fall back to the incubation phase, for example. Even worse, you understand that you are approaching the problem in the wrong way and you start again from the beginning. Important to realize is that there is never a useless phase. You always learn something from every step you take.


One example could be that you deliver a website that makes both you and your client happy, but that users have some problems finding specific content. In that case you have failed to provide the full solution, as providing the needs of the users is a requirement. Once you notice this, you restart with thinking how you could improve the navigation of your website. In other words, you return to the incubation phase.

The Creative Process in Your Workflow

This article should have offered a foundation for solving potential creative block, and the ability to respond to certain phases of the process more effectively.

For example, during the saturation phase you could create a more efficient structure to guide yourself. I like to start with an hour brainstorming after I've read a client brief, absorbing as much information as possible during this limited time span. I try to become aware of as much as possible before I rewrite the brief to include even more details. After the saturation, I shut down my computer, I take pen and paper and develop concepts that way. Again, within the limited time span of an hour.

Understanding the creative thinking process helps you to define your strengths and weaknesses. This can be particularly useful when working in a team. Some people are great at the verification phase and are able to offer useful criticism, other people are great at the incubation phase and are able to offer the first steps towards the final solution. Cope with the weaknesses of yourself and your team by compensating for and complimenting these tendancies.


This concludes the creative thinking process. I hope you found it interesting and it makes you understand how we exactly work when we're creative. In the next article we'll raise the stakes and explain what a creative block is, what the different types are and how we can solve this. These will be our first practical steps in making you more creative. Try to stay creative every day, and feel free to leave behind a comment about what you'd like to see in the coming articles!

One More Thing..

What do you think of the five colors used for the illustrations in this article? I grabbed them from Adobe Kuler; a swatch called "Cobalt River". The idea struck me, quite by chance, during the incubation phase :)

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