The three types of creative problems

What type of creative problem are you dealing with?

In March of 2012, writer and creative savant Jonah Lehrer wrote in The Wall Street Journal about what it takes to be creative.

What was intriguing about the article wasn’t necessarily all of the various understandings (and misunderstandings) humans have about creative thought, it was Lehrer’s outline of three distinct types of creative problems.

If you know what type of creative problem it is you’re trying to solve or work on, you’ll be able to easily identify what strategies and tactics work best for getting to a solution quicker.

For just that reason, here are the three types of creative problems.

Moment-of-insight problems

The most common creative solutions seem to be the result of some magical insight. You’ve likely experienced it yourself at one point or another.

Sitting toiling away on some work, then momentarily doing something different – taking a walk, doing the dishes, hoping in the shower, having a beer – when an insight suddenly and mysteriously strikes.

“Eureka,” is the most commonly-associated response, as Archimedes once famously shouted when first struck with an insight on how to measure the mass of gold in a crown. Eureka, in Ancient Greek, literally means ”I have found (it)!”

While it used to be that such insights were attributed to a ethereal sources, science is beginning to show that such insights are the result of deep digging and connections made in our subconscious brain.

Lehrer explains:

“Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounois has identified where that flash probably came from. In the seconds before the insight appears, a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity.”

For creative problems where the answer is likely buried in our past experiences (or typically the result of a combination of previous knowledge), simply taking a step away – by having a drink, taking a nap, doing the dishes, etc. – will help yield the problem.

Nose-to-the-grindstone problems

Taking a step away from the problem isn’t always the way to solve it, unfortunately.

There are problems that require constant and diligent effort. They’re when we have to bury ourselves in the work in order to see the answers.

Lehrer quotes the great philosopher and crick Nietzsche here by writing: “All great artists and thinkers are great workers.”

Some problems require that we simply keep working and keep thinking about them. The answers lie somewhere in the deep recesses of our brains, and it’s only when we’ve exhausted almost all other possibilities that the right one will make itself evident.

Like the work of Milton Glaser on the iconic “I Love New York” design. That familiar red on white design came about only as a result of Glaser’s habitual work ethic. It was from a taxi car, after already having received approval of a different, initial design for the campaign that the big heart icon and design layout struck Glaser.

How do you know when to stick with a problem versus take a break (per the previous creative problem type)? Lehrer explains that it’s all about intuition:

“Researchers call these intuitions ‘feelings of knowing,’ and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don’t require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved…”

A painter, for example, knows she can find the right strokes for her work simply by continuously working away on different strokes. Her intuition is all she needs, thanks to the years of experience she’s had painting.

A start-up inventor, on the other hand, may need to seek out other types of inspiration in order to move forward on his project due to his inexperience (and therefore lack of intuition) in the field. Which brings us to the next type of creative problems…

Connecting-the-right-material problems

We don’t always have the answer we need. It’s common for the required material (in this case: knowledge) to come from somewhere outside of the scope of what we’re dealing with.

The Wright Brothers, for example, were able to take their knowledge of mechanical work and engineering on bicycles and apply it to aviation. “Their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings,” Lehrer reminds us.

For these types of creative problems the best thing to do is to have many diverse experiences. Taking up new hobbies, exploring uncharted (for ourselves, anyway) territories, meeting new people, diversifying the knowledge we have to call from when encountering a new type of creative problem.

Why does connecting the right material (often outside of our comfort zone) work? It’s a problem of mental focus more than anything.

When you’ve been staring at the same type of problems for so long the material starts to look the same, breakthroughs become difficult to see. If you’re considered an expert than you may shy away from asking naive questions, but it’s those questions and that child-like mentality that help break focus long enough to see the solution floating just outside your vision – in a way.

To again quote Lehrer: “It’s this ability to attack problems as a beginner, to let go of all preconceptions and fear of failure, that’s the key to creativity.”

Illustration by Chris Potter.