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The Broader Creative Process in Creative Thinking

The Broader Creative Process in Creative Thinking

Observing, Imagining, and Abstracting are broader creative processes than the individual creative tools. A creative tool can be used to inspire a creative process to begin, but these processes represent broader approaches to furthering personal creativity, and to process ideas to be used with a project.


Observation is a cornerstone of science and has vast applications to all aspects of life. We touched on this process when discussing the senses as a part of creative potential. Observation is the use of the senses to deliberately take in information about the world around us. There is often a focus on the senses of sight and sound, but touch, smell, and taste can also provide valuable data and information for conducting scientific research, or gathering details about the world for the generation of something artistic or creative in nature. The senses represent all our modes of input for the details our brains process and store. Everything we recall was either brought in by one of our senses, or built from previous data collected through our senses. As such, it serves all processes, including personal creativity, to develop and practice the use of our senses.

Observing begins with attending to the world around us. Information can, and will, be taken in passively by our senses. Our brains will continue to process inputs, even if we are distracted or mentally disconnected from the world around us. Observation requires a deliberate effort to take in the data around us. Good observation involves watching for the details. This can also mean the details about the details. Those observations may prove valuable later, when considered in context with other data; but they will be better available if the process for taking them in is an active one.

Don't just pay attention to the color of someone's shirt. If you are observing them to understand something about them as a customer, as an audience, as a thinker, as a citizen, etc., pay attention to other details about the make of the shirt. How has he worn it? How has he modified it? How new or faded does it appear? What does that mean? How does the shirt go with what else he wears? What does that mean? How comfortable does he look? How else is he behaving? What can we tell from posture, actions -- big and small -- or facial expressions? All of these questions are answered through attending to specific details brought in by your senses. What he says, and other details about our subject, could prove quite important, too.

An important aspect of observing is the recording or cataloging. This can involve written records of observations, or a mental checklist. Obviously there are some advantages to a written or typed record of observations in terms of retaining and revisiting details, but it is not required, nor is it ideal in every situation or every use of observation. It is valuable to catalog, either in recorded form, or mentally. In addition to the active process of conscious observation of details, correlating those inputs into an order will help them to make sense, and to be recalled for processing later in a meaningful way.

This can be done with categories of details. You can set these up yourself in advance to be sure you get all the observations possible, or you can develop categories as you go, and details dictate what those groupings are.

This organization can be category-free, being set by sequence or in order of importance. Sometimes it is best to use the organizational technique that works best for the observer or is most natural for his or her way of thinking. This is especially true if this cataloging of observed details is a mental process.

Observation should be considered from two different ends of a spectrum. There are scientific observations that follow a particular set of rules in order to be considered valid; and then there are affective observations, which can be more free-form and use emotional components and speculation that scientific processes would reject. This spectrum could be looked at as running from vertical thinking to lateral thinking.

In a scientific context, observations must be measurable. These are very concrete details. They can be quantified. Even when observing and recording a quality, it must be described in definitive terms. These observations must be able to use these measurement-based terms to be accurately recreated in the lab, so they can be accurately understood by anyone who reads them. Anything else would not meet the demands of science. This style of observation and recording can be useful even outside of formal science, due to its accuracy and ability to be used by others.

Affective observations can follow emotional guidelines. It can interpret and form assumptions. It can approximate and make qualitative assessments that can not be defined by a definitive system of measure. As human beings, we are making these types of observations constantly. Affective observation informs our social interactions and helps us make decisions on the spot where there is not time for formal observations.

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Observations can be either formal or informal. There can be a set time and conditions for the observations, which are recorded in an organized way. An informal process, on the other hand, can be impromptu and just take the details that are noticed on the spot.

Observing can be invaluable in a scientific setting, but also in all forms of the arts.


Imagining is a mental process. It is also a very personal and internalized process that builds off the sum total of our experiences and identity. Imaging can be traced to key observations and thoughts, but it also builds mental images and scenarios from a wide range of intangibles that can make the imagination a surprising, creative force.

Imagining is a free-form process. Imagination can be guided and utilized to play out specific scenes in precise ways, but imagination moves in many unexpected directions, apart from the rules of life or the universe.

Imagining utilizes all the mental building blocks. It can jump off of inputs from the senses instantly. It can accompany the processing of these inputs with the brain, and even become a part of those memories. Memory is a major building block of imagination. As we replay memories, we are utilizing the same processes of imagination that we use to create original scenes and stories in our minds. This is part of the reason that personal memory is handled with skepticism in court cases and other fact-gathering efforts. In a sense, each replay is a re-imagining of the details from previous imaginings. Details can shift and be altered. Other details and actions can be intensified or underplayed. All of these tools work together to fuel our imaginations.

Imagining is vital for predicting the future and even making decisions based on likely outcomes. We use the building blocks of our mind, and even emotions, and we formulate scenarios. This can lead to exaggerating risks or fears, but it allows us to avoid reasonable risks, as well. We often imagine things that cause us to worry about the future, and very often, these fears never manifest. If handled properly though, we can use our imagination to identify and face our fears. We can create alternate options. Even if we don't end up having to use these imagined escape routes, having them can give us the confidence to take reasonable risks to try to accomplish something. Those that accomplish great things often develop the capacity to imagine great things that others might dismiss as impossible.

Imagination is possibilities. Even when we imagine impossible worlds, those can be expressed through novels, film, and artwork. It can result in inventions that make what was once impossible become common place. In some ways, the only way anything becomes possible is because someone imagines it. Even small things are brought into reality by someone imagining the idea, the production, and the world in which that idea, big or small, is real.

To fully utilize our imagination for any purpose, it is good to think in terms of scenes and stories. This structure is well known to us from childhood through adulthood, yet it has unlimited possibilities. We understand characters, setting, and action. We can see scenes as a single picture in which we form, and then study, the details. We can play out a story to anticipate people's actions and the results of new ideas being introduced to our mental story.

The value and power of imagining, in terms of personal creativity, is that we can reconfigure the pieces and run new, mental experiments. The characters can be changed. The dialogue can be re-examined. The action can follow a different course. The entire world can be changed using our own mental powers. This can lead to all manner of discoveries and creative ideas.


Abstracting builds off of observing and imagination. The notion of the abstract is the ideas that are not able to be held in the hand or easily compartmentalized. In this way, the idea of the abstract is very much attuned to the idea of creativity. The abstract deals with the theoretical and tends to move away from the concrete, often thought of as the opposite of abstract.

Abstracting, in a way, moves in the opposite direction of the abstract. In business, science, or other projects, an abstract -- the noun -- is meant to take the theoretical, and that which doesn't yet exist, and document that imagined possibility in a way that can allow others to move toward making it real. Sometimes an abstract is the beginning of a written plan. Sometimes it is the plan for a plan. It gives the pieces that could be used for forming a plan of action.

Abstracting and the abstract often focus on an aesthetic. It is tackling an issue that has not already been played out. It is starting from the feeling of the goal that wants to be reached or the effects of the intended results. Though abstracts are often used in science with the same stringent demands as on scientific observation, abstracting can be used with projects that are going to remain more abstract even in their execution. The abstract of an art instillation or an interior design project is imagining what will eventually be concrete and real, but the goals and desired outcomes are still centered around the feelings of aesthetic effect that will be achieved. Abstracting in this way, even when leading to a physical product, may access more lateral thinking than the planning involved in a vertical thinking process.

Abstracting can be the articulation of a desired construction. This can be a physical build of some type, or it can be a mental construction that will result in a product that can still be experienced, but maybe not be held or touched directly. Abstracting may require explaining the connections between the pieces of the project or the issue so that those connections can be utilized in the desired way, or to the desired effect. It is reaching into the world of ideas to explain what they are, and what they mean. It is specifically concerned with what they mean within an existing system or within a system that the one abstracting desires to bring into reality. It is not quite as simple as putting together a machine according to step by step instructions, but abstracting often does have a view toward constructing as a concept.

Abstracting can be separated from time. This can be a complex concept, but it is important to unlocking the full creativity and full potential of abstracting. Inventions are created at a particular point in history. The world was one way before, and another way at some point after the designated point of invention. Abstracting, however, holds that the ideas and concepts behind the invention or discovery existed prior to that point. The pieces of those concepts existed before that. According to some theories, the roots of those ideas always existed in some abstract form. What that means to us is that, with abstracting, all future inventions and discoveries have either roots, pieces, or partially formed conceptualizations in the world and in the mind, now. Abstracting is the process of locking onto those ethereal bits and making the connections now to lead to that point or series of points in history where the concepts could potentially become reality. The work of abstracting is taking these ideas out of the abstract. This can be a powerful way of looking at creativity and understanding our own potential as creative people.

Abstracting can also be seen as changing the state of something. Beyond changes in form, abstracting seeks to change the composition of ideas. It is more than just putting them together in different ways or in different sequences. It is more than just building an idea up or playing it out to some future goal. Abstracting takes an idea, fully formed or in a developing state, and changes that process or structure into something completely different. That change in state does not even have to be fully understood to be valid. The act of changing its state can essentially form a new idea or set the idea for a different course. Others can take the result of that abstract and build from there.

Abstracting can address the very identity of an object or a concept. It can explore the meaning of the name. It can pull the idea from the context and examine it in isolation from the rest of the physical world. It can examine the meaning of a name to fully understand an idea or to unravel that understanding and meaning for another purpose. It can free the mind from the tracks of thinking that are set by a name for an idea, and lead to a deeper or changing understanding.

Abstracting has implications for the study of language, art, science, and psychology. The process is a powerful tool for deconstructing ideas and constructing new concepts in an environment and with tools that are not fully formed or understood. It allows for the consideration of possibilities that are not yet truly possibilities. It also allows for leaps from one idea to another, which would not be possible from current patterns of understanding. These big ideas obviously have applications to many different areas and projects.

Observing, Imaging, and Abstracting are concepts that are bigger than simple mind games or mental prompts. They are bigger than a basic, creative tool. They are used to make huge leaps in projects -- and great use of creativity. The development of personal creativity relies very heavily on the utilization of observation, imagination, and abstraction.

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