Knowing creativity

In conversations I have people from all sorts of backgrounds creativity is often linked to inspiration; that magic moment when an idea just seems to come from nowhere. This leaves me wondering whether something can really come from nowhere.. and why it might be that some people seem to be so much better at finding this nowhere and extracting new insights or ideas from it. So what is creativity..?

The best answer I have found so far comes from a book published in 1940 on the business of advertising. Therein, James Webb Young writes of the techniques he uses for producing ‘ideas’.

“an idea is nothing more of less than a new combination of old elements”

Far from being the preserve of a gifted few, Webb Young describes a notion of creativity which anyone could adopt which is defined less by inspiration and more by graft. To him, in order to be able to come up with new ideas, one must be well versed in the old ones and, as such, must become well versed in the widest possible range of things.

Webb Young’s entire (short) book is well worth a read, but he summarises the process of coming up with ideas as such:


“First, the gathering of raw materials – both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea – the ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage.

And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.”


What struck me most about his process was the emphasis on the collection and research of a wide variety of existing notions; the concept that being really creative requires a lot of background work, not simply a lot of waiting for inspiration to appear. Webb Young goes into much detail about the first and second phases of his process, urging would be creatives to read widely, to learn large amounts of factual information, and to keep this information at hand with a large collection of index cards (one of the very few passages in which the book shows it’s age).

There is an awful lot of work before stage three; the archetypal musing phase which I feel educators often associate with creativity. His insight to me is that whilst a person’s general knowledge and experience might allow them to combine a few old ideas into a few new ones, to be reliably creative involves working very hard at finding out about what is already there. Only then do you have the mental resources to reliably come up with ideas in an ongoing fashion.

Perhaps the knowledge of facts and the skill of creativity are not so far removed after all… 



Webb Young, J. (2003) A technique for producing ideas. New York: Mcgraw-Hill.

Image: CC BY ND SA Beat Küng





5 responses to “Knowing creativity”

  1. Hannah Jones Avatar

    What! Are you saying that Mr Gove might be on to something!

    Oliver, your blog helps me to understand my idea conundrum.

    I have ideas, lots and lots of ideas. I have more ideas than I know what to do with some months! I would give myself the label creative, but with an engineering degree under my belt, I am not your typical ‘creative’.
    I can now see that my creativity is supported by the wealth of experiences I fill my life with, the books I read and the people I meet.
    it also helps me to appreciate the importance of taking time out of my busy world to devote to learning even if not directly relevant to my most urgent priorities.
    Thank you

  2. Iorek Byrnisson Avatar

    I think this kind of thinking nails the issue; creativity never has existed in a vacuum. Perhaps this is where professional creatives could be utilised more by educators; the life of experts in their fields may seem easy, but in many cases, they need to draw on their creative reflexes even when they may not feel particularly inspired.

    To be an attribute worth developing, creativity can’t just be something that pops up from time to time, but carefully nurtured. That nurture comes from developing a thorough knowledge of the field in which you are developing expertise and careful examination of what came before.

  3. Teresa Avatar

    I think that creativity is something in our mind that cannot be defined. It can be explained in thousand ways which are all valid. It is many things at the same time. In this sense creativity is the essence of freedom.

  4. Sheli Blackburn Avatar

    A great post to share, thank you Oliver – I will be sharing with others. I agree that creativity comes from hard work -and this is something that all teachers should ponder over. My teaching practice has been considered by others to be highly creative, but this is not due to me having countless unique ideas, it is because I read, adapt and experiment with other people’s. I am an obssessive collector of successful educational approaches and my competitive nature requires me to do it better. That is not creativity, it is pure graft.

  5. Mike Ball Avatar

    I really don’t think the spectre of Michael Gove should be raised so easily in a discussion on creativity. He is hardly creatively engaging educators at the moment. In fact, quite the opposite, with unprecedented votes of ” No Confidence.” His notion of facts seem to lie more in a notional, manacled national narrative sense with little or no room for creative reflection or interpretation. It’s a narrow version of facts that this man espouses, not the open ended review of ideas, facts, history which lie at the heart of creativity. A creativity which is not limited to the Arts but open to all disciplines and across disciplines. (As humans we deserve to lose these false boundaries.)

    I love the third stage when you can say to your brain “Right you work it out” and go off and a have well deserved cup of tea. Or more likely wake up in the morning and ‘problem solved’

    Don’t forget the sixth stage – the reflection on what was good, bad and improvements that could be made. Do I detect the notion of a reflective practitioner here and then the cycle begins again. But don’t forget to get off the bike and try something else occasionally.

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