understanding creativity

November 18, 2008

Understanding Creativity

Philosophers, poets and psychoanalysts have all tried to understand what creativity is and how (and why) it occurs.

Aristotle refers to natural processes of production as well as spontaneous, chance occurrences (although he states the latter play no role in the creation of art).

Plato and his belief in creativity being generated outside of the individual by ‘divine inspiration’ and ‘the muse’ only muddied the waters, starting the ‘inexplicability’ of creativity which we are still trying to shake off, (the mad/drug-induced/visionary artist) in spite of the work of –

Kant who emphasised the individual’s role in creativity and thus the possibility of art not merely reflecting the natural world but following rules set down by its creator, the artist.

Galton wanted to develop a comprehensive theory of creativity, believing there was some sort of inherited mechanism responsible for it, thus laying the ground for the search for ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ later mined by such Behaviourists as-

B.F. Skinner in his attempt to define creativity through response and reward.

Freud, typically, saw the creative urge as a sublimated sexual urge and believed creativity was the same psychological process as fantasy or day-dreaming. Freud added pointedly that he believed that psychoanalysis would never solve ‘the problem’ of the creative artist. Thank God for that.

All of these commentators discuss creativity solely in regard to the making of art (paintings, sculpture, literature, music). They do not consider that there is any other kind of creativity. Current work on creativity and the processes that help manifest it focuses almost exclusively on non-artistic creativity, as if there was some sort of separation of creative processes (this one for scientists, that one for artists) and De Bono in the introduction to one of his books positively rails against the use of his techniques by artists and designers stating they were not meant for such people.

I believe that this is not the case: there are a wide variety of creative processes and methodologies, just as there are many different kinds of individuals, and there a numerous problems that have to be solved. Any one process or combination of processes can be applied by any individual or group to solve any problem they may encounter, whether it is coming up with an idea for a topical illustration in a daily newspaper, designing a mobile phone or building a bridge. It is for this reason that I am concerned about the adoption of CoRT [Cognitive Research Trust] Thinking Lessons (De Bono‘s own amalgam of all of his different tools for thinking specifically aimed at education) by some in education as if it is ‘the answer’. It is just one of many possible answers.

Recent research has moved away from trying to identify general attributes of creativity and more towards domain specific abilities. Teresa Amabile (assisted at various times by Ruscio, Phillips and Collins) has developed a componential model of creativity. The three components are domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant skills and intrinsic task motivation.

In her 1995 paperHow Does Creativity Happen?” she defines domain-relevant skills as those sets of information, facts, principles and opinions that directly relate to the subject domain (e.g. chemistry, product design) of the problem. This body of information and knowledge is usually acquired through formal education.

The nature of this information and the way in which it is stored also contribute to how it is deployed creatively. If it is organised according to general principles rather than specific, narrow applications it is more useful in solving problems. Thus, says Amabile, the more you know about the domain- if the information is correctly stored– the more successful you will be utilising it creatively.

Amabile defines creativity-relevant processes as those which deal with the cognitive style of problem solvers. She identifies a number of aspects of cognitive style which are advantageous: a facility in understanding complexity; an ability to abandon old patterns or sets of problem-solving strategies in order to explore new ways of thinking; the questioning of rules or accepted methods; keeping response options open as long as possible; suspending judgement (during brainstorming, for example); using wide categories to be able to link apparently diverse pieces of information or thought; accurately remembering large amounts of detail.

Also involved is the ability to concentrate for long periods at a time; a knowledge of when to leave a problem alone for a while and a high energy level. Creativity-relevant processes are dependent on personality traits such as “self-discipline, ability to delay gratification, perseverance in the face of frustration, independence and an absence of conformity in thinking or dependence on social approval.” [Amabile quoting Campbell; Hogarth; Simon: Feldman; Golann; Hogarth; Stein]  She also adds that an implicit or explicit knowledge of how creativity works, the methods or processes by which problems are solved (whether discovered or learned), is an essential part of creativity-relevant processes.

Intrinsic task motivation is, for Amabile, the most important. No matter how skilled a problem solver is in the other two processes, she writes, if they do not feel engaged with the problem, if they do not find it “interesting, enjoyable or challenging”, then they may well fail to solve the problem. In her experience, “the motivational role in creativity is often overlooked.”

Here I must again respectfully disagree with Amabile. My experience as a teacher of illustration and graphic design (and my own professional experience as an illustrator) led me to the discovery of the motivational role in creativity in the 1980s. However, many professional illustrators and designers (and most students of the subjects) are regularly required to be creative about problems that are of no direct concern or interest to them. How then do they achieve this successfully? Amabile maintains (and says she has the laboratory experiments to prove it) that being creative for extrinsic motivation is always less successful than creativity for intrinsic motivation.

This would mean damning about 80% of all the illustration and graphic design ever featured in award annuals as second rate. The only works of a first rate calibre would be in the unpublished section since these would be the product of intrinsic motivation. Does this sound reasonable?

Amabile quotes the journals of numerous artists (everyone from Mozart to Woody Allen) as all evidencing the fact that people are most creative when they are intrinsically motivated. She makes particular mention of Pablo Casals talking of his passion for playing the cello and then quotes physicist Arthur Schawlow saying that the difference between a very creative scientist and a less creative scientist is “the labor of love”.

I willingly admit to the importance of passion in the creative process. From Ron Kitaj advising the young, despairing David Hockney at the Royal College of Art to ‘draw what you love’ through Sir Peter Blake advising students to make their passion the focus of their work, to the Talking Heads’ lyric “if your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right”, artists and designers have long known the value of passion. But surely then the key to being successfully creative working to extrinsic motivation is to find a method of injecting this passion into the problem and its solution? If, as Amabile rightly says, curiosity is a key element in creative people, why can we not be curious about extrinsic problems?

In my own work, and in the teaching approaches I have used with students for over twenty years, I have developed a methodology for treating external, given briefs as if they were self-generated projects. Otherwise, it would not be possible for students (or professionals) to generate satisfactory work for clients. The money would simply not be enough of a motivator (no matter how large an amount- and it often isn’t a very large amount in illustration). My methodology requires the student to know what motivates them, what interests and passions they possess and to try and ‘pull’ the external brief towards these until it engages them intrinsically without losing validity to the external references, since the resulting artwork must satisfy the client and the illustrator. Incidentally it is the ability to do this that often distinguishes painters trying to be illustrators from illustrators. The painters cannot manoeuvre the brief until it both pleases their creative criteria and the client’s; or perhaps they don’t know how to.

Next: How To Be Creative On Demand


5 Responses to “understanding creativity”

  1. […] understanding creativity « Sharrock’s Blog artist partners art school bill clinton biography britain byatt caricature cartoon centaur chef christopher sharrock classical classics conceptual illustration cooking editorial illustration election gordon ramsay hell’s kitchen how to … […]

  2. Carole Bode Says:

    Hello Christopher..
    interesting article…and a subject very close to my heart as a cog.psych.
    In terms of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations debate (Amabile)…I think the argument is rather circular..and Could ” drawing what we love” also be interpreted as drawing what we perceive best? Perhaps the key to the illustrators skill, is the specific ability to produce an ‘aesthetic primitive’ or prototype that appeals to us all. a skill painters certainly have, The visual & neural mechanisms used to produce an illustration are almost certainly the same as those used in painting…the rest is embedded in cultural contexts. How can then one group (illustrators) be deemed inferior to another (painters)?uff!
    Love the blog..you certainly were the best dressed lecturer I ever had and definitely the most entertaining!

    P.S As a matter of interest, do you still use your left & right hand to draw different styles??It was one of the things that set me on the road to becoming a psychologist:)

  3. sharrock Says:

    Hi Carol! Great to hear from you! Interesting comment and an interesting question about love/perceiving best. I usually tell students nowadays not to try and pick the subject they are interested in but let it pick them, as I think it is about they way they see the world rather than their taste. So perhaps you are right!

    As for use of our visual/neural pathways I think illustrators make much more and better use of them (but I would, wouldn’t I!) as we do so much in such a short space of time, whereas painters can take as long as they want (or as long as their gallery will give them!). I think the speed with which illustrators work is really under-regarded.

    Thanks for your kind comments about my blog 😉 and my wardrobe. I can still get into most of it (i.e. the bits that the moths haven’t eaten!). I’m glad I entertained you and very interested in your new career. I think there is insufficient research being done into artists/illustrators and how we see the world and re-interpret it. In some respects it overlaps with research into synaesthesia.

    I don’t draw with both hands any more, mostly because my left hand eventually got quite good and spoiled the whole reason behind my choice! Still, I’m glad it set you off on the road to psychology!

    And a Merry Christmas!

  4. Carole Bode Says:

    and a merry Christmas to you..
    if you are ever interested in taking part in some experiments, let me know!!
    Take a look at out labhttp: http://www.liv.ac.uk/VP/home.html
    Carole Bode
    aka Fizz!!

  5. sharrock Says:


    I had a look at the website for the lab/experiments. V. interesting! I think we should talk!

    Did you know I am colour blind? That (and myopia!) was what set me off wondering about how/what we see and whether we all see the same things…

    Have a great Christmas and sign me up for your lab!

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