How Understanding the Creative Process Will Help You Develop Your Best Ideas

Where do great ideas that spur our creativity come from?

Sometimes they just smack us upside the head like a 2×4, but more often than not, they are part of what is known as the creative process.

The creative process, which comprises four steps, is backed by science.

It might seem a little weird to apply science to creative activities, but you will find that you probably do some of this on your own already.

There are seven fundamentals of creative theory, and a solid understanding of how they work will help you be more creative and come up with your best ideas!

Steps 1 and 2 of the creative process

Dr. Gerard Puccio, department chair and professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University in New York, created the Foursight Thinking Profile.

Puccio claims that there are four stages to the creative process.

His research in the 1990s helped identify four types of thinking that are required to arrive at a creative outcome.

He also did some further research to help people figure out their thinking profile, which uses the process distinctly.

These stages are: clarify (preparation), ideate (incubation), develop (illumination), and implementation (verification).

The first step, clarifying (or preparation), will help you get set up for success from the start.

This is the step where you make sure you have all the tools you need or that you understand the problem you are trying to solve.

If you are trying to create a painting, make sure you have a canvas, all the paint you might need, and some brushes.

If you are looking for an innovative solution to a business problem, then it is essential you know exactly what you are trying to solve.

Any data available would be gathered in this step of the process.

The second step in the process is ideate (incubation).

During this step, you would generate ideas.

If you are writing a story, you might use tools like a story map or brainstorming.

There is likely a great idea in your subconscious brewing, and it hasn’t been able to make it to the forefront of your brain.

The key to this step is limiting distractions.

Let your mind wander and consider all the possibilities while jotting things down.

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Just keep letting the ideas flow.

If you are stuck, clear your mind even a little further.

Felicia Day’s book Embrace Your Weird, is full of ways to help your brain wander and create space for creative ideas to flow.

There is a part where she had me scribbling aimlessly on two pages of the book; for no real purpose other than to free my mind and help things flow.

So many things in this book seemed weird, but they work!

Steps 3 and 4 of the creative process

Ideation (or incubation) leads to the third process step, development (or illumination).

This stage sounds exactly like it is; it’s that light bulb moment.

If you were a cartoon, you would have a big flashing bulb over your head!

This is the very thing creative people live every day for.

The creative urge becomes impossible to ignore, and we immerse ourselves in whatever we are working on.

The driving impulse to move our idea from our brains to whatever creative medium we are using is almost all-consuming.

Unfortunately, it happens when it is not convenient.

This time, I had to recite an entire article idea into a recorded message on my phone.

I was in the middle of a nature trail that wove around the lake near my house.

I had the perfect words and knew they would be gone if I didn’t get them down at that moment.


This need to get your ideas out of the confines of your mind leads to the last stage, implementation (or verification).

The implementation (verification) phase is when the rubber hits the road.

It is writing that crazy story you have been weaving.

Or getting those song lyrics just right so someone can sing them.

Maybe it is showing a room full of management professionals just why this out-the-box theory will not only work but benefit them in ways they may not see immediately.

It’s also the part of the process where you have to question the idea and determine if it’s good, but only after seeing it come to fruition first.

This is where Margaret Atwood reminds me that “the wastepaper basket is your friend.

It was invented for you by god.”

Of course, it is frustrating to throw away pages or sketches.

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However, we must do it to figure out where our great ideas will end up.

Wastepaper basket or best-selling novel?

The creative process starts with work, and it ends with work.

It isn’t enough to just think of things if your goal is to create something.

Move into the ultimate phase of physically doing the work; typing and deleting, writing and crumbling up pieces of paper, or painting and throwing canvases in the trash!

Understanding the steps of the process will help you better employ the seven principles of the creative theory.

Principles of the creative theory

Emer McPolin says, “Creativity is what sets humans apart from most other animals; it was a factor in securing our position at the top of the food chain.

We have evolved to be creative.”

In her research paper, The Fundamentals of Creativity, she lays out the seven principles she calls the “most relevant and insightful.”

These principles and tips for helping you tap into your creativity are:

  • Break your patterns
  • The rule of three thirds
  • Quantity leads to quality
  • Creativity loves constraint
  • There are no bad ideas
  • The creative adult is the child who survived
  • Understanding HIPPOS and other animals

Breaking your patterns is a great way to jumpstart your creative energy.

I walked around the lake near my house every day for nearly a year.

One day, about six months into my journey, I walked around the lake in the opposite direction.

Why that thought hadn’t occurred to me before then, I don’t know.

It was one of the most productive idea-generating walks I went on.

It was like my brain was firing on a different level.

I was looking at things from a new perspective and feeling a slight hum of anticipation because things looked “new.”

McPolin reminds us that changing our patterns is a chance to ask,

“What can you do, instead of what should you do.”

The rule of three-thirds breaks a creative session into thirds.

McPolin suggests that the first two-thirds of that session will be filled with the most obvious solutions.

You will move from the familiar to discovering new ideas when you enter the final third.

She notes that “monkey noises,” high energy, and excitement often identify when this happens.

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Quantity leads to quality suggests that the more ideas you come up with, the more likely there is a phenomenal one in the group.

It is why brainstorming for a set amount of time is helpful.

For instance, you will challenge yourself to write as many ideas as possible (generating quantity), and there is bound to be a winner (quality) in the bunch.

She posits that creativity loves constraint.

Things like a timed brainstorming session would count for this principle as well.

Yet another thing that could feed your creativity by applying restraint might be competition.

These will both provide the brain with stimuli, inspiration, and collaboration.


Remember, there are no bad ideas.

Using POINt can help you slow down the critiquing stage of idea generation.

POINt stands for Pluses, Opportunities, Issues, and New thinking.

Going with the good points first will stop you from shooting an idea down before it even germinates.

McPolin says, “We are leveraging 80% of our creative potential at five years old.

By reaching out to teens, our creative output has dropped to about 2%.”

By the time we get to our teens, most of us have become used to conforming to rules and creating patterns (remember to break those!).

A creative adult has kept some of that childlike behavior alive.

They will play, make room for fun activities, and always consider what is possible instead of what is in front of them.

HIPPOS and other animals come into play when a creative person is trying to make a decision in a business or corporate setting.

A HIPPO is the “highest-paid person’s opinion.”

As a result, having the “problem holder” in a brainstorming session can cause group thinking and stifle creative energy.

Now that you better understand how the creative process works, here are a few quick tips to get yourself in the right frame of mind.

You are about to come up with your best idea ever.

First, get yourself moving, as increasing physical activity increases cognition.

Then shift your perspective and do something that seems counter-intuitive.

Finally, go out and create anything, feed that part of your soul.

Your million-dollar idea is waiting for you to embrace it and do the work.

Good luck!

Danielle is the Managing Editor for She has a Master's in Management and Leadership and is also a Life Coach. These skills, coupled with her background, both professional and personal, help her write on a variety of topics. This content is centered on team and self-development, trauma, motivation, and other inspirational messages. She lives in Montana with her husband and two children. When not writing she can found reading, cooking, and helping others overcome obstacles in their daily lives.