The Three Stages of Creativity
After more than 20 years of experience in the design industry, I can recognise patterns. The one I want to talk about today is the pattern I have witnessed around creativity. In my work as a product designer I have observed three distinct stages in the creative process, all of which are important. However, I’ve found that it’s the third stage that is the most powerful in terms of creative output and yet also the most undervalued one in the work environment.
But let’s start at the beginning.
The first stage of the creative process is called Immersion. At the beginning of a project one needs to understand its context and its environment. So, initially, I spend time reading reports, observing customers and making inquiries. For example, a few years ago I was designing aquarium tanks. I spent a number of days with the end customers, the retail people, the wholesalers, the workers at the warehouse, and so on. This process gave me a new perspective on all the stakeholders involved in the product. And because an aquarium tank is part of your house, I studied interior design trends, the short term, as well as the long term ones.
So, immersion is about collecting all the necessary information on the product and its context.
After you have all the facts, you’re ready for the second stage: creative work. This may mean sitting down at your desk with a pen, digital sketching and writing down ideas. It could be experimenting with your 3D software. And did I mention sketching?
When I was studying Industrial Design, my teacher advised us to draw hundreds of sketches. No just a few – but literally hundreds. His intention was for us to go way beyond 500 sketches, so that we go through a lot of ideas and, most importantly, through some personal emotional process. Walking through this process is the key to innovation – something I’ve witnessed for myself.
How does it work? Well, in a nutshell, in the process of drawing the same product again and again – and again – the experience is so profound that one effectively goes through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), and then comes out of that with a fresh, new angle that one wasn’t even aware of before. It’s a process I have used when coaching engineers and designers and it’s amazing how useful it is. Yes, very often one sketches the same idea over and over again, but that’s the point!
Regarding its duration, creative work is uncertain. Sometimes, the process can be quite fast and it has happened that I have found ideas and solutions to problems after just a few minutes of work, but, for the most part, this is more the exception than the rule. In my experience, creative work often requires days and sometimes weeks, so I like when I can start working with my clients at very early stages in their project, because then I will have that time creativity needs.
Creative work can be a painful process for some. For me it is an uncertain, yet beautiful stage. Uncertain, because I have no idea where it’s going to lead me. Beautiful, because I have seen time and time again that it leads to unique designs, which push the boundaries. I tend to think innovation lies after this process, but this will be the topic of another discussion!
Finally we’re ready for the third stage: letting go. We have probably all heard that story of an engineer or a designer who found his or her idea in the shower. Well, this is also true for me. I have found that relaxing and “letting go” is the root of my best ideas. It has happened many times that I have found an idea while falling asleep, having a bath, taking a walk in nature, and so on. It usually happens in an unexpected moment, at a time when my mind is at ease and not focused on “work”. Then the idea just appears! However, I also discovered that this “aha” moment is more likely to happen when I have progressed through the first two stages – immersion and creative work. Conversely, I noticed that if I continued working on stage two for too long, I could get stuck. So, in order to be efficient, I realised that I needed to alternate between working and letting go.
When I was designing the aquarium tanks mentioned above, the creative-work stage was taking months: the marketing department kept changing their ideas and weren’t clear on what they actually wanted. I was living in a spacious flat in Annecy, near the mountains in the south of France. One evening, after having concentrated all day on various aspects of the design, including technical challenges of where to place power points and cords, I decided to have a bath. I completely let go of work and just relaxed for a moment – and suddenly I had a vision of the whole project, from the technology involved, to the graphic design. I stepped out of the bath and went straight into my office to sketch and those ideas and sketches led to a series of very successful products. (And even the marketing department was finally happy!).
I really believe this third stage to be immensely important and my concern is that I don’t see that “creative/letting go” time valued in the business world. A client is happy when they see many sketches because it looks very productive, but that same client would probably be wondering what I’m doing if he discovers I’m not available for a meeting, because I’m wandering in the woods, or relaxing in the spa. Yet, “it” happens at these moments and their project may benefit much more from my walk, or spa, than from another hour sitting at the computer.
Can the workplace change for creative people and allow them this highly productive time, even though it can appear like they are on holidays? I hope so.