Creative thinking

What’s this all about?

If you’ve landed on this page without reading the introduction, you can take a look at it here. I’m describing ten versions or definitions of ‘creativity’ to give the lie to the idea that you’re ‘not creative’. I’m also celebrating the publication of a book called The Creative Critic.

What is Creative Thinking?

This is (almost!) the opposite of the last definition – Creative Practice – and I think that sense of opposition is sometimes the cause of people talking at cross-purposes. How do you know when someone is talking about creative thinking rather than creative practice? Often it’s because they’re trying to solve a problem. Ask them what the question is, and ask them to be specific.

What happens when you ask them to state the question?

Someone who needs creative thinking strategies will look relieved or pained depending on the stage they’re at, and try to articulate the problem. Asking a novelist or musician or artist what problem they’re trying to solve will produce a puzzled look, a shrug, or a long-winded answer, but no specific question – unless it’s to do with plotting or how to play a particularly tricky sequence in their next concert or how to deal with light and shade in the portrait they are painting. (In which case, they could do with some creative thinking skills too!)

The answer you get from a creative practitioner will probably be something that only other practitioners will fully appreciate, where as someone outside your context can often help with creative thinking if you can articulate the problem clearly enough – in fact, knowing too much about the problem can hamper your thinking.

Think outside the box

The creative thinking cliches are ‘think outside the box’ and ‘blue sky thinking’. In fact, these are such cliches now that if someone mentions either without some self-awareness, take that as a warning sign! Unfortunately, ‘think outside the box’ often comes with a caveat: but don’t think too far outside the box. ‘Throwing ideas on the table’ is another cliche and involves brainstorming in groups. Actually, this process doesn’t necessarily produce the most creative ideas as the loudest voice tends to get heard and people tend to agree with a general consensus, which can be rather vague. Plus, many people prefer to brainstorm creative ideas on their own.

What does creative thinking involve?

Without going into it in detail, there are three aspects to creative thinking, and they’re all connected:

  • Idea generation. You’ll have some kind of constraint or project, say rebranding your business, which you’ll be able to break down into steps, with specific problems looking for solutions. For example, coming up with a new strapline for your website.
  • Making connections between ideas. These are often innovative or unusual connections. The process involves looking at the whole of a organisation or project or challenge and to find ways to bring disparate parts together. For example: I love the colour blue when it comes to clothes – why don’t I use blues that I love plus contrasting colours on my website?
  • Problem solving. You’ve got a problem and a certain amount of time to find a solution. This could be at home or at work. How do I entertain the kids on a rainy afternoon? How do I set up a recording studio for my podcast for the least amount of money? How do I come up with a name for my copywriting business? How do I find a workable colour palette for my website? You also need to be able to identify the problem specifically in the first place AND work out what the learning point is afterwards. What do you need to learn or research as a result of your creative thinking session? What action do you need to take?

The creative thinking comes in when you try to go for a whole range of answers – some of them a bit ‘out there’ – until you get to something you like. The ideas need to fit the brief, but also be relevant.

What helps?

Drawing the whole picture helps because it literally allows you to see the whole project or whole problem on one sheet of paper. There are various ways of doing this, for example:

  • Get contributors to write on post-its or on a white board.
  • Have an illustrator ‘draw’ your meetings.
  • Use Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats and illustrate the problem on large sheets of paper.
  • Learn mind mapping. Tony Buzan’s website is a good place to start.

Want more?

Try Guildford’s Alternative Uses Test. There’s a blog post about it on the Creative Huddle site.

Up next: Self-Actualisation


Top Ten Tips for Increasing Your Productivity

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