Creative Problem Solving Process

Art 200/ Art 260 / Greg Clayton

4th Stage: Incubate

Creative Problem-Solving: Incubation

This stage is different from all of the other stages because here, you do not concentrate on the problem — you walk away from it. You concentrate on something else — anything else, whatever else will take your mind off of "the problem."

You let go of your control and allow processes that lie outside your conscious control to work.
Everything you have done thus far served to saturate your mind with the issues, resources and goals that you must synthesize into a solution. But now you are going to stop trying to make something happen and, instead, allow something to happen.

The premises behind incubation include subconscious creative processes in your mind, heightened attention to relevant relationships, and pure inspiration by spirit or the muses. However you choose to explain creative thought, the creative experiences recounted by artists, designers, engineers, writers and scientists affirm that our best conceptual breakthroughs often arise unexpectedly. Ideas come when they come, not when we make them come.

On the other hand, just diving in and filling the (blank) page is also a valid process enabling ideas to flow.


Breaks and Breakthroughs - some research

Incubation is preparation for Ideating — which comes next.
(sometimes when you least expect it.)

Attention — Escape — Movement

Paul E. Plsek, and his creativity-training organization,, identifies three tasks that are common to all creativity models and creativity tools: Attention, Escape and Movement. (note: the current web site uses html frames liberally...which makes linking to particular pages difficult. So, explore the site freely.)

Note the comments on "Escape: Incubation", below.


• Attention: focusing your mind on the problem to be solved ( Accept, Analyze, Define, Select, Evaluate)


• Escape: Incubation

"Having focused our attention on the way things are currently done, the second principle behind all creative thinking methods calls us to mentally escape our current patterns of thinking... The principle of escape explains why a simple walk in the woods can bring about creative thoughts. When we walk in the woods, we escape the confines of the current ways, both mentally and physically. Similarly, staring at yourself in the mirror while you shave or put on make-up provides a momentary mental escape that may allow a novel mental connection about a work problem to emerge. I am not suggesting the use of these relatively passive techniques in the active pursuit of directed creativity. I think we can do better. But, to the extent that simple distraction works in creative thinking, it works because it is a means of mental escape." Plsek/


• Movement: taking action to produce ideas, solutions, designs, products... ( Ideation, Implementation )

Process artists, especially, trust that action evoke insight — doing stimulates creatity.
What process or activities help you get rolling?
Do you have any rituals that begin each creative session? Many artists do.
Dive into the deep end -- make marks on the sketchbook or the blank canvas! Claim the territory as yours.


Getting Away: escapes that work

Incubation involves getting away from focus on a problem-solution.

However, as stated, you're asking yourself to do a negative.
Remember the challenge to "don't think of a polka-dot elephant"?
Try it.
What do you think of?
An elephant in dots.

We don't do negatives well.
So the key, here, is to give ourselves a positive — in order to NOT focus on "A", we need to redirect our focus to "B."
It doesn't matter much what "B" is, as long as it holds our attention. Because as long as our attention is on "B", its no longer on "A", and that was our original goal.

So, to incubate successfully, you have to know what will draw and hold your attention — and then give yourself that.

Getting away looks different for each one of us. What I call play, you might call work or drudgery. But what you call play might not work for me — or it might be a wonderful new vista for me. In any case, there is likely no "one size fits all" incubation. We each need our own get aways, distractions, releases and meditations.

This article asserts that exercise is a prime way to get away from stress, and evoke a more creative mindset... though the study referenced doesn't really arrive at a difinitive answer to "why?" Based on a study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Your job is to be sure you do get away from the problem you are trying to solve. Give yourself something else to give attention to. It may be going to a movie. It might be surfing the web in a sort of stream-of-consciousness "let's see where this link leads" sort of meandering. You might go running or riding for a few miles — highly repetitive, physically demanding exercise create a state of mind in which there is often "spare room" for creative processing. That is, its not unusual to get an idea when 4 miles into a 5 mile run, or 15 miles into a 20 mile ride.
Driving long distances works for some of us — there are few things that demand sustained attention, but only a small portion of your mind, as does highway driving. (well, in good weather, with light traffic and a well-maintained car... absent any of these, you should pay full attention to driving.)
Some creatives do well with a relaxing shower, a long bath or a massage — such sensory experiences sometimes allow thoughts to wander and ideas to surface nicely.
So what works for you? A walk in the woods? A stroll through the mall?
You might keep a page of your sketchbook just for incubation ideas. When I really need some "get away" time, what works for me?


Sources: things, ideas or experiences that stimulate creative insight

Sources, in the context of creativity, are things that stimulates ideas or insights. Sources can become the core of design solutions, or can be no more than a catalyst for creative process.

What do you like to look at to get ideas? What do you listen to? What do you read and who might you talk to?
Some of us search for images on the web. Some of us flip through design journals to see what's been going on. Some might wander the galleries or museums. Some might stroll through an arboretum or botanical garden.

We're not necessarily searching with goal in mind — we may not have any criteria or measuring stick for the right or wrong things to find. We're just looking to see what we notice. We trust that we we notice has, somehow, a meaning— things that draw our attention are relevant at some level of our being. We don't have to know why — at least not at first. We just have to look, wander, search, and then respond to what we find — usually by collecting, sketching or photographing what we found so that we can stockpile our findings for later perusal.
(After all, All who wander are not lost. Tolkien)

British sculptor Henry Moore, strolled the beaches of the Englsh coast, collecting shells, stones and driftwood that caught his eye. Back at his studio — with neighboring hog farm and sheep pastures, he might stroll, noticing and collecting bone fragments. Those odds and ends returned with him to his studio where, often, sitting on his shelves, they became the starting point for sculpture concepts.
Thus, those bones, shells and driftwood were sources — seeds for a creative process and genomes for sculptural forms.
(Course Text: discussion of Henry Moore's casual collecting of shells and bones )

Sources are those objects or experiences that prompt ideas or insights. Sources are catalysts to creativity.

Each person has their own sources — we are each inspired and prompted by different stimuli and conditions. Aim to notice and learn the kinds of activities or experiences that heighten your creative insight. Know what you might do or explore in order open your eyes to as-yet-unnoticed possibilities. Know the sources that tend to work for you... then wander through them freely with no expectation but ample anticipation.


Creativity | Creative Process | Prior Stage—Define | Next Stage—Ideate

Accept | Analyze | Define | Incubate | Ideate | Select | Implement | Evaluate | Let Go


Greg Clayton
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