Five Types of Creative Thinking
This is an outtake of my Master’s thesis on what role creative thinking plays when we think about the future. Part of this research was to go through a vast amount of literature on creative thinking, which I categorised into five main types of creative thinking:
Much of the management research and general literature combines these five types into one type, simply called ‘creative thinking’. This is based on old bi-polar concepts such as right vs. left-brain thinking or rational vs. intuitive thinking. So that’s why we often hear that a person is either a right-brain or a left-brain thinker, or have either a creative or a logical personality. That can certainly be useful sometimes. But much of the research around creativity paints a more nuanced picture.
There are similarities and correlations between the five clusters, and instead of five, I could have picked ten. Another challenge in my study was that much of the literature on creativity is based on personal stories, which makes any classification difficult as it can never be proven whether different accounts of creativity and creative thinking are referring to the same experiences for different people.
1. Divergent thinking
“The work of art is the exaggeration of the idea”.
– André Gide
The American psychologist J.P. Guilford was the first who proposed that an element of divergence is involved in the creative process. He made a distinction between convergent and divergent production, which he also called convergent and divergent thinking.
Divergent thinking is the process of thought where a person uses flexibility, fluency and originality to explore as many solutions or options to a problem or issue as possible. It is the opposite of convergent thinking, which has the characteristic to focus on only one idea or single solution.
Brainstorming is a typical example of divergent thinking, where “downloading” or emptying the brain of a certain topic takes place. This technique is however limited in that it builds on releasing the ideas that are already stored in a person’s brain, and not to generate any new ideas.
Other tools for divergent thinking are for instance to assume that something known for certain is false, or to explore ideas that cause discomfort.
2. Lateral thinking
“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”
– Edward De Bono
Creativity researcher Edward De Bono came up with the term lateral thinking in 1967 to “distinguish between artistic creativity and idea creativity”. The term was invented as an alternative to step-by-step thinking, so-called vertical thinking, which is justified with sequential steps based on logic.
Lateral thinking can be used for generation of new ideas and problem solving as it by definition leaves the already-used behind and looks for completely new options. This type of thinking is based on avoiding the intrinsic limitations in the brain, which rapidly sees patterns and handles information in a distinctive way, where long thought sequences are not broken up once formed. Instead, lateral thinking tools and techniques can be used to restructure and escape such “clichéd” patterns and think “outside the box”.
Lateral thinking is related to divergent thinking, as discussed above. Both have the purpose to break out of habitual ways of thinking. Both falls “outside the box”, but divergent thinking is still sequential in that it follows on an earlier thought, while lateral thinking has no direct connection to an earlier thought.
If rational or vertical thinking is described as following the most likely path; divergent thinking is following an extreme path, while lateral thinking is following the least likely path.
3. Aesthetic thinking
“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”.
– Pablo Picasso
The philosophy of aesthetics concerns the creation and appreciation of art and beauty. Taste is also a key concept here and the study of for instance form, colour and shape can augment a person’s aesthetic thinking.
This type of thinking involves producing or discovering things, which are pleasant, harmonious and beautiful to our senses. It is an ancient form of thinking within us humans, and can be learned by anyone.
Some of the types of aesthetic thinking are visual and spatial, where knowledge of structure, composition, colour schemes and shapes can be used to make things aesthetically pleasing. Many architects, designers, painters and other aesthetic thinkers through the ages have been fascinated with mathematical characteristics of aesthetics, and how patterns, ratios and proportions found in nature can be represented by numbers and also in creative pursuits. Music, drama and other forms of culture can also be considered aesthetic thinking, where tempo, dramaturgy, rhythm, melody and other structural elements are applied to make output beautiful and harmonious.
Scientific formulas themselves can also be considered beautiful, and many chemists, physicists and mathematicians consider their work elegant and aesthetic. Many aspects of storytelling can also be included in this category, as this “art” is based on dramaturgic elements, pace, a well-crafted dialogue, etc.
It is however important to emphasize that this type of creative thinking might be enough to build a story, but in order to create a great work of art, other types of creative thinking are needed too. The same goes for all work, which is built on aesthetic thinking. A person will not become a great artist only by going to art school.
4. Systems thinking
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while”.
– Steve Jobs
Systems thinking can be described as the ability to see how things are interrelated and form a larger “whole”. Some people seem to be able to perceive such links more easily than others, to “connect the dots” and understand that if one thing is changed, the whole system will change.
There are a number of different principles for a ‘systems thinking approach‘; some of which are interdependence of objects, holism (emergent properties not possible to detect by analysis but possible to define by a holistic approach) and hierarchy (complex wholes are made up of smaller subsystems).
A foundational aspect of systems thinking is the synthesis of several elements into one, which transcends the significance of the sum of the two independent elements.
Systems thinking is closely related to aesthetic thinking, as mentioned above, in that synthesis and making things “whole” and perfect, somehow is related to elegance and beauty. It is also closely related to the next type of thinking — inspirational thinking.
5. Inspirational thinking
“I was living in a little flat at the top of a house and I had a piano by my bed. I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know this tune — or do I?’ It was like a jazz melody. My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes; I thought maybe I’d just remembered it from the past. I went to the piano and found the chords to it, made sure I remembered it and then hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: ‘Do you know this? It’s a good little tune, but I couldn’t have written it because I dreamt it”.
– Paul McCartney recounting how he wrote the song “Yesterday” in early 1964
This type of creative thinking concerns the perception of receiving insights from somewhere or someone else. It often happens in dreams or other states, but sometimes in extremely powerful, rapid bursts of clarity and focus, known as light-bulb moments or peak experiences.
Some researchers call these breakthrough insights higher creativity. Compared to normal creative outputs, these seem to take a quantum leap beyond what can be achieved with other types of thinking. These extraordinary experiences, when everything seems to make sense in one instant moment, have been called poetic imagination, revelation and sometimes channelling. The last word indicates the belief that someone else is involved and the person with the breakthrough insight is simply a medium for the collective unconscious or a higher spirit.
Inspirational thoughts are something valuable, which needs to be noticed, recorded and put to use. This is clearly illustrated in the example of Paul McCartney above. He had a piano next to his bed, immediately found the chords, but also asked his friends for feedback. Countless personal experiences of this kind have been reported, but they are hard to measure with scientific rigour, as they are very difficult to generate at will.
For more detailed descriptions about these types of creative thinking and further references, see chapter 4 in my Master’s Thesis (Sep 2012).