Exploring Creativity

The Four Steps of Creativity

A Simple Acronym for the 4 Major Stages of the Creative Process

By Chris Dunmire | Posted 3/1/04 | Updated 12/11/20

4 Steps of CreativityWhat is creativity? You may get a different response depending on who you ask, but studying the concept reveals creativity permeates all aspects of life from personal creation and artistic expression to collaborative business innovation, relationships, and problem solving in every realm possible.

When we consider standard definitions of creativity, we see it involves both an innate ability and a process repeatedly engaged in as we move through our days to meet challenges and find solutions, not just as artists or inventors, but as every kind of person in every profession in every aspect of life.




  1. the state or quality of being creative.
  2. the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination:
    the need for creativity in modern industry; creativity in the performing arts.
  3. the process by which one utilizes creative ability:
    Extensive reading stimulated his creativity.


Creativity Through the Lens of a Process

PreparationCreativity is a powerful dynamic medium to bring new things into being and meet unexpected challenges in every area of life. And when we look at creativity through the lens of a process, it is interesting to note a common framework — stages or steps — one progresses through from beginning to end. These stages are referred to as The Four Steps of Creativity, which are Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Implementation, and progress along a logical framework one uses to research, develop, and implement ideas and solutions from beginning to end.

I first learned about the four steps in a college art appreciation course as we studied the creative processes of famous artists. Alexander Calder (1898-1976) (, known for his colorful mobiles and stabile sculptures — some which are installed outdoors — is one of my favorite subjects. If we use him as an example of how the creative process is set into motion, it could start with him asking the question: How will I design my next mobile or sculpture based on my clients' parameters and the challenging environmental conditions where it will be installed?

If offered a work on commission with a budget and restrictions for the art size or display due to environmental elements, Calder would move through the stages of the creative process by gathering information, putting ideas on paper and proposing sketches or models, and finally executing the work of art to the client's specifications. During the process however, he might encounter a number of challenges that cause him to rework the steps, like re-designing a mobile so it balances correctly, adding more weight to withstand high winds, or coating the artwork with a modified finish to withstand temperatures in a hot climate.

Once a problem or a question prompts us into action, these four basic creative steps are engaged:

The 4 Stages of the Creative Process

IncubationStart with a question to answer or a problem to solve.

Step 1: Preparation

Research: Collect information or data.

Preparation requires a research stage of collecting information or data.

Step 2: Incubation

Percolation: Milling over collected information.

Step 3: Illumination

Light Bulb Idea: Aha moment.

Step 4: Implementation

Actual Making, creating: Verification.

Problems and Solutions for Everyone

Everyone faces questions and problems to solve. It might not look like a "problem" when composer begins to write a new piece music out of pure joy of the craft, but he is still working through a process that essentially begins with, "What will I create, and how will I do it?" In any area where fresh ideas are needed or solutions are sought after, the creative process is primed for action. Here are some common scenarios:

IlluminationA Retired Artist:
"I want to paint a beautiful art piece to donate to the silent auction, but I don't know what to paint and I feel overwhelmed because it's been so long since I've picked up a paintbrush."

An Advertising Agency:
"Our business client wants a fresh approach to branding and marketing their new restaurant chain. What can we propose that hasn't already been done?"

A Writer:
"My publisher wants my next children's book to include an important life lesson. What timely message can I weave into the adventure-themed story I'm currently writing for preschoolers?"

A Company President:
"What are some ways our senior management team can boost employee morale and motivation in the next two quarters after the recent downsizing?"

Mom or Dad Cooking:
"How might this jar of hot Giardiniera be used with that roast beef in a slow-cooked crockpot recipe for dinner company Sunday?"

Lead Microbiologist:
"A new virus is sweeping the population and current vaccinations are too weak for it. How can we use the scientific method to create and test a new vaccine to best deter its course?"

A Parent:
"What age-appropriate strategies can I use to help my first-grader learn her spelling and vocabulary words easier?"

Me at Work:
"A button just popped off my sweater. How am I going to keep my shirt together for the rest of the day until I get home to sew it back on?"

An Animal Lover:
"How might I entertain my kitty for the next twenty minutes with these three plastic paperclips?"

An Automobile Manufacturer:
"What's the most cost-effective way to manufacture slash-resistant tires for our next line of self-driving cars?"

ImplementationAs with most processes, The Four Steps of Creativity are not always linear and steps can be repeated, looped-back-around-to, and tried again during the act of creation, trouble-shooting, and implementation. No set amount of time is required for each step (some pass quickly) nor do they need equal weight or consideration due to prior experience.

For example, a scientist engaged in an experiment may find the expected results were not achieved during Implementation, so will start over to try, try again at step 1 for more research and information gathering (think of Edison and his light bulb experiments). Or, because of his extensive earlier research combined with the new results, briefly loops back to the Illumination stage (3), and simply makes a small tweak in time or temperature, and the reward of results is achieved.

Easy as PIII

We all gain experience through meeting challenges in our work and elsewhere which is useful training and practice we can quickly draw upon for future use. If you are new to the concept of the four steps, or stages, of creativity, keep them in mind as you embark on your next creative project, are asked to contribute new ideas at work, or collaborate with others on a project. Notice how you move through the stages towards a solution or revisit the steps when something doesn't work quite right and needs major or minor tweaks. The framework is fascinating.

Again, the four steps of creativity are: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Implementation, stages that will guide you through defining, researching, developing, and implementing new ideas and achieving solutions. A simple acronym to help you remember the steps is PIII. Easy as pie!

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