M.C. Escher is famous for the unique creative application of mathematical concepts in his lithographs and woodcuts.

At The Phuse we talk a lot about the business side of web design and development. We’ve written about how we hire, where the company is headed and the benefits of working remotely.

We talk shop a lot. But we never talk about the work itself, the elusive creative process that all manner of creative professionals (writers, designers, developers, consultants, strategists, illustrators, etc.) go through every day.

For a long time no one was sure exactly how it worked. The concepts of genius and daimon are associated with the creative process as far back as Ancient Greece. Today, there is still much we don’t know about creativity–but modern investigations have started to make some progress.

Results yielded from these investigations have started to uncover the mystery of how creativity works. And creatives professionals can take these results and use them to improve their writing, their design, their illustrations, their [insert field of interest here].

Update 8/13/2012: Passage revised for clarity

Historical perspective of creativity

Ancient culture’s grasp on the inner workings of the creative process has always been abstract and externalized.

Even today, it’s common practice to think of creativity as an intangible celestial force, like a muse,  an angel or a “flash of inspiration.” But at best all that does is externalize the process by making it otherworldly, or not-of-this-earth.

Fortunately, a more accurate definition of creativity can be found in a recent book written by Jonah Lehrer called Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer approaches the nature of creativity from a historical perspective, thereby shedding some light on the matter:

“[T]he standard definition of creativity is completely wrong. Ever since the ancient Greeks, people have assumed that the imagination is separate from other kinds of cognition. But the latest science suggests that this assumption is false. Instead, creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes. (The brain is the ultimate category buster.)

[…]

For most of human history, people have believed that the imagination is inherently inscrutable, an impenetrable biological gift. As a result, we cling to a series of false myths about what creativity is and where it comes from. These myths don’t just mislead — they also interfere with the imagination.”

Although absolutist in his phrasing, this is nonetheless a huge advance in understanding: by returning creativity to the earthly plane and vacuuming up the cobwebs of old myths, Lehrer paves the road to a practical conception of creativity that we can study and improve on.

Psychological perspective of creativity

Liane Gabora, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia at Okanagan, has a theory that takes the idea of practical creativity a step further.

She calls it “honing theory” and writes that in the effort to quantify creativity, “there is [often] little objective basis for comparison” between one area of expertise and another, or indeed between different individuals.

Instead, she finds that creativity exists relative to a person’s world view. In other words, no two people have a creative process that works the same, or even gives the same results:

“Accordingly, each individual has a unique potential to creatively contribute to the world.”

What this means for creative professionals

Now you know two things about creativity:

  1. Creativity comes from inside us and should not be considered “otherworldly.”
  2. Each individual has a unique potential to creatively contribute to the world.

So how can you use your new understanding of creativity to improve your work?

Start by believing that creativity comes from inside yourself, and not from some mystical external source. Make a study of your habits, your processes, of what works and what doesn’t, and apply that to your work.

Instead of cursing the gods or staring up the impossible wall of writer’s block, do something about it.

At The Phuse, we like to say that our process is perfected by practice over time. Every project we work on teaches us something new, and we try to implement what we’ve learned right away.

Get Inspired

Apart from improving the process, there’s the problem of actually doing the work. Every creative professional has dealt with some form of creative block. Learning what gets you inspired will help you do your work, too.

By “inspired”, we don’t mean an otherworldly ray of light that shines down from the glorious heavens. Getting inspired to us simply means getting excited about the work you’re doing.

One thing that works particularly well for me is watching TED videos. There’s even a video by Eat, Pray, Love novelist Elizabeth Gilbert about the nature of creativity, whose parting words I leave you with. She has a very different conception of creativity than that given by the psychologists above. I’ll leave you to decide where you stand on the debate. Watch the video below, or check out many more TED talks on creativity.

“Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Ole!’ And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless,just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

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