For More Creative Problem Solving, Follow These Five Steps

Almost all great ideas follow a similar creative process, and this article explains how the process works. Understanding this is important because creative thinking is one of the most rewarding skills you can possess. Just about every problem you face at work and in life can benefit from creative solutions, thinking outside the box, and innovative ideas.

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Anyone can learn to be creative using these five steps. This does not mean that being creative is easy. Unleashing your creative genius takes courage and a lot of practice . However, this five-step approach should help demystify the creative process and light the way for more innovative thinking.

To explain how this process works, let me tell you a little story.

A problem requiring a creative solution

In the 1870s, newspapers and printing houses faced a very specific and very costly problem. At the time, photography was a new and exciting medium. Readers wanted to see more images, but no one could figure out how to print images quickly and cheaply.

For example, if in the 1870s a newspaper wanted to print an image, it had to hire an engraver to hand-engrave a copy of the photograph on a steel plate. These plates were used to press the image onto the page, but they often broke after a few uses. You can imagine that this photo engraving process was extremely time consuming and costly.

The man who invented the solution to this problem was Frederick Eugene Ives. He was a pioneer in photography and had over 70 patents by the end of his career. His story of creativity and innovation, which I will now share, is a useful case study for understanding the five key stages of the creative process.

Flash of epiphany

Ives began his career as an apprentice printer in Ithaca, New York. After two years of studying the intricacies of the printing process, he began running a darkroom at nearby Cornell University. He spent the rest of the decade experimenting with new photography techniques and studying cameras, printers, and optics.

In 1881, Ives suddenly figured out the best way to type, as quoted in this book :

“While working on the photostereotyping process in Ithaca, I studied the problem of halftone processing,” Ives said. “One night I went to bed in a state of brain fog due to this problem, and the moment I woke up in the morning, I saw a fully-worked process and equipment in front of me, clearly projected onto the ceiling.”

Ives quickly brought his vision to life and patented his approach to printing in 1881. He spent the rest of the decade perfecting it. By 1885, he had developed a simplified process that produced even better results. The Ives Process, as it came to be called, reduced the cost of printing images by 15 times and remained the standard printing technique for the next 80 years.

Okay, now let’s discuss what lessons we can learn from the creative process from Ives.

Five stages of the creative process

In 1940, an advertising manager named James Webb Young published a short guide called Idea Creation Techniques . In this tutorial, he made a simple yet profound statement about generating creative ideas.

According to Young, innovative ideas arise when you develop new combinations of old elements. In other words, creative thinking is not about creating something new from scratch, but about taking what is already there and combining these pieces and parts in a way that has not been done before.

Most importantly, the ability to generate new combinations depends on your ability to see relationships between concepts. If you can make a new connection between two old ideas, you’ve done something creative.

Young believed that this process of creative connection always occurs in five stages.

  1. Collect new material. You learn first. At this stage, you focus on 1) studying specific material directly related to your task, and 2) studying general material, being carried away by a wide range of concepts.
  2. Work the materials carefully in your mind. In this step, you explore what you have learned by looking at facts from different angles and experimenting with combining different ideas.
  3. Get away from the problem. Then you’ll completely get the problem out of your head and do something else that excites and energizes you.
  4. Let your idea come back to you. At some point, but only after you stop thinking about it, your idea will come back to you with a flash of insight and renewed energy.
  5. Form and develop your idea based on feedback. For any idea to succeed, you must release it to the world, criticize it, and adapt it if necessary.

Idea in practice

The creative process used by Frederick Eugene Ives is a perfect example of these five steps in action.

First, Ives collected new material. He worked as a printer’s apprentice for two years, and then ran the darkroom at Cornell University for four years. This experience gave him a lot of material to rely on and create associations between photography and printing.

Second, Ives began mentally working on everything he learned. By 1878, Ives was spending nearly all of his time experimenting with new techniques. He constantly fiddled with and experimented with different ways of combining ideas.

Third, Ives moved away from the problem. In this case, he fell asleep for several hours before the flash of insight. Solving creative problems for a longer time can also help. No matter how long you go away, you need to do something that interests you and distracts you from the problem.

Fourth, his idea came back to him. Ives woke up with the solution to his problem presented to him. (Personally, I often find that creative ideas hit me when I go to bed. Once I allow my brain to stop working during the day, the solution comes easily.)

Finally, Ives continued to revise his idea over the years. In fact, he improved on so many aspects of the process that he filed a second patent. This is a critical moment that is often overlooked. It can be easy to fall in love with the original version of your idea, but great ideas always develop.

Briefly about the creative process

The creative process is the process of making new connections between old ideas. Thus, we can say that creative thinking is the task of recognizing relationships between concepts.

“An idea is a feat of association, and its height is a good metaphor.” – Robert Frost

One way to solve creative problems is to follow a five-step process: 1) collecting the material, 2) working intensively on the material in your mind, 3) moving away from the problem, 4) letting the idea naturally come back to you. and 5) testing your idea in the real world and adjusting based on feedback.

Creativity doesn’t mean being the first (or only) person to come up with an idea. Most often, creativity is associated with the combination of ideas.

For more creative thinking, follow these 5 steps | James Clear


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