Creativity as understanding or exploration

When we talk about what it means to be creative, we start at a foundation of originality. But creative ideas are rarely as original as we would hope they might be. Some of the best ideas are often entirely unoriginal, such as the lightbulb or telephone.

“Every artist learns through imitation,” Bill Watterson once said.

What this tells us about creativity is that maybe, just maybe, we should focus on talking about creativity in the context of understanding. Either understanding, or exploration. Conceptual or experimental.

Research has shown that creativity as understanding is, indeed, one approach that works: a means by which we attempt to create order from chaos, building bridges in the mind where there are none. We can look at conceptual artists and innovators, who use this perspective of creativity (of understanding the details) to generate ideas, as source of inspiration.

For conceptual thinkers, creativity is the ability to understand the complexities of things around us and, in doing so, seeing all the ways in which everything connects (one way or another). There is, after all, a lot of value in being able to see–to really see–what already exists in order to understand it and build off it.

If we look at all we know about creativity it is not that big of a stretch to see how understanding is at the core of it all.

How can you expect to bridge the gap between ideas if you don’t first understand where they might logically connect? Understanding matters.

We use creative exercises–like “asking ‘why’ five times,” or “pretending you’re someone else”–in an effort to generate new ideas, but what those types of thinking exercises are actually doing is helping us to understand concepts. They help us dive deeper into what it is we’re dealing with conceptually, and how the details of those concepts might relate to other details elsewhere.

As Socrates once taught: “Understanding a question is half an answer.”

To be more creative as conceptual thinkers, we must seek to more fully understand what it is we’re working with in the first place. Not completely, as complete understanding could blind us to possibilities. But some deeper understanding than what’s on the surface. Not seeing paragraphs on a page, but instead seeing ink in the shape of letters.

This type of creative exploration often leads to insights, but nothing that fellow conceptual thinkers couldn’t identify if they only took the time to look at the details.

Conversely, there exists experimental thinkers, who learn not by looking at the details, but who spend their time experimenting with different ideas (splashes of paint against the canvas, sporadic writing, etc.) in order to let previously unseen ideas naturally evolve.

This perspective of creativity works too, we know. But at a much more emotional level.

It’s the writer who sputters words out on a page and then has to revise what’s written repeatedly in order to make some sense of it. Or the painter who creates a thousand paintings in a year, only finding two or three truly worthwhile.

Which direction toward creativity is right? That depends on what type of person you are and the work you are doing.

Conceptual, or understanding-driven, creative thinking is extremely valuable in the realms of sciences, where discoveries must be developed and evolved over time. Conversely, experimental creativity is remarkably powerful for artists and traditionally creative crafts persons.

But an interesting thing happens when you take one perspective of creative thinking and put it where it doesn’t belong. The scientist whose experiments lead to happy accidents, as Alexander Fleming learned when he discovered penicillin. Or the artist who seeks to understand form and function of the paint, as Pablo Picasso uncovered through cubism.

When you find yourself thinking creatively, are you seeking to understand or explore? If you find yourself drawn to one perspective rather than the other, what do you think would happen if you switched? Rather than seeking to understand, seek to be more explorative, or vice-versa.

Photo by Mik Salac.