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The Creative Process: Process vs Chaos

A discussion around the two schools of thought regarding creativity within advertising practice: Process vs Chaos.

This essay will explore how the development of creative ideas can be viewed as a process, through examining creative processes and techniques within the context of advertising. Discussion will focus on the shared and conflicting viewpoints stemming from creative approaches within advertising, incorporating my own experience of producing creative deliverables and highlighting consensus and disparities between academic literature and real world practice.


Initially, it is important to establish a definition of just ‘what is creativity?’ and ‘what is process?’. Importantly, “very few people have a clear idea of what is meant by creativity or what it means to be creative” (Hegarty, 2014, p.11). Out of this ambiguity, the term ‘creative’ has largely become diluted and devalued in its meaning. Despite many cultural dependencies, widely accepted, Western scholarly definitions frame creativity as a problem-solving activity (Griffin and Morrison, 2010). However, John Hegarty, founder of BBH, contrasts this standpoint by viewing creativity as “the expression of self” (2014, p.11). Considering Hegarty’s own view, it is important to then contemplate just how far advertisers can be considered ‘creative’, if they in fact ‘create’ for the effective expression of communication and marketing objectives (not for “the expression of self”). Indeed, an “advertisement is not considered a creative success in the real world unless it achieves a client's communication objectives” (Kover, James, and Sonner, 1997). Therefore, it is arguable that much of the confusion around defining creativity, within the context of advertising, is in fact self-inflicted by the industry itself— despite the term being one of advertising most important factors.  

Creativity can be conceptualised as a personal trait, environment, process, or product (Mumford and Gustafson, 1988). Consequently, on defining creativity in the context of advertising, I believe the traditional view of creativity that includes originality and functionality (Kersting, 2003) and the view that sees “creativity as appropriate novelty that is recognised as such by people knowledgeable in a domain” (Amabile, 2012, p.4) are suitably fitting— with recognition by people knowledgable in the domain as illustrated in advertising through countless, canonised, intra-industry awards for creativity. This view also compromises the many dimensions of advertising and is consistent with Gardner’s (1982) view that artistry does not equate to creativity— “as indeed, one can be creative or noncreative in every sphere” (Gardner, 2011, p.304).

Hegarty highlights two schools of thought regarding creativity within advertising practice: Process vs Chaos

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘process’ as “A series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end”— implying structure, order, routine and an ultimate outcome. Hegarty (2014) highlights two schools of thought regarding creativity within advertising practice: “Process vs Chaos” (p.26). Hegarty illustrates these conflicting standpoints within advertising, that argue whether creativity flourishes through formal ‘process’, or whether creativity is a chaotic entity that is impaired by too much structure. Hegarty’s (2011) view highlights disparity between what can be understood as ‘advertising creativity’ and ‘pure creativity’; stating “creativity is not a process, advertising is a process” (p.28). This disparity may stem from Hegarty’s (2011) failure to distinguish ‘formula’ from ‘process’.


Unlike Hegarty’s view of a “formula-led” (2011, p.27) notion of process, the concept of a creative ‘process’ is not formulaic or linear, it is iterative; it is not freeform thinking, but nor is it strongly regulated. Contrary to Hegarty’s commonly held belief, I believe creativity is not something magical— that can only be achieved through chaos and disorder— but something that flourishes through process. Indeed, Hegarty (2014) somewhat agrees, stating how “people talk about processes liberating creativity” (p.26). Accordingly, ‘creativity’ and ‘process’ as discussed in the context of this essay will be in regard to ‘advertising creativity’ processes and approaches, as opposed to ‘pure creativity’ (artistic self-expression).


Within academic literature, despite general agreements over the essentials of what makes a creative product, there is considerable disagreement over the distinctive nature of the creative process itself. Guildford (1950) considers the creative process as having different qualities to everyday thinking, suggesting creativity utilises non-formulaic thinking in the generation of solutions, as opposed to the readymade formulas utilised in ordinary thinking. Contrastingly, reductionists believe that creativity utilises only ordinary thinking and is therefore only quantitively different from ordinary thinking (Johar, Holbrook and Stern, 2001). 


Griffin (2008) found that when exposed to a variety of ideation strategies, advertising students were encouraged to adopt techniques in an effort to build a personal “toolbox” for generating ideas; resulting in potentially unique and individual creative processes. Disparities between Griffin’s (2008) ‘beginners’ and ‘masters’ potentially suggests that creativity can be cultivated, learned and informed through education of process, tools, mindset, behaviour and approach. Nonetheless, Griffin’s (2008) Performance and Mastery Models characterise the creative process as a combination of cognitive operations, thus are better described as componential models, not an encompassing ‘creative process’.


Through my own delivery and application of creative processes, in producing a creative deliverable, it is my view that the most important aspect of the advertising creativity process is the introduction of constraints. John, Holbrook and Stern (2001) agree with this view, stating that “innovative idea generation occurs because (rather than in spite) of the constraints imposed by preformed mental categories” (p.2). It is through working within boundaries that the “imaginative use of formulaic elements results in an elegant outcome” (p.2). The creative brief imposes constraints that inspire divergent thinking and the generation of imaginative solutions that would otherwise remain unexplored. 

The creative brief, if it’s good, will constrain you and lead to insights about the target audience that go beyond the superficial … recognise your crutches and step outside your comfort zone.
— Sam Cannon, Razorfish. (Nudd, 2013)

Moreover, Csikszentmihalyi and Getzels (1971) suggest that the most important part of creativity may be the “problem formulation” stage of the process, which involves framing, discovery, or envisioning of the creative question to be answered or the problem to be solved. In this frame, the creative process is purely a methodical approach for finding solutions to problems—“solutions that reveal our ability to adapt and advance as human beings” (Griffin and Morrison, 2010, p.13)— therefore the problem must be suitably defined, and constraints set, before ideas are explored. The integrative view of creativity realises the balance between freedom and constraints; with the process becoming unbalanced if there are too many restrictions or too much freedom (Finke, Ward, and Smith, 1992). Accordingly, many theorists have offered stage-based models of the creative process, with problem identification and the setting of constraints consistent throughout.

Wallas' Four-Stage Model

Wallas' Four-Stage Model

Wallas (1926) was the first to formalise a theory of creativity, identifying four necessary steps of the creative process: (1) preparation (2) incubation (3) illumination (4) verification. In their paper, Stewart, Cheng and Wan (2008) develop on several stage-based models, including Wallas’ (1926) fours-step model, towards their own five-stage model of creative idea development. The key steps that they outline are: identify the problem; think deliberately; illumination; evaluate and verify; and implement. Stewart, Cheng and Wan (2008) argue that the application of a disciplined process helps channel ideas and is more productive than spontaneous (chaotic) approaches. Furthermore, they emphasise the need for interaction, iteration and non-compartmentalisation of each step of the process; away form linear approaches, towards more cyclical processes of ideation.

Despite certain distinct characteristics, one attribute that most stage-based models share is the emphasis on non-conscious cognitive processes in the generation of creative solutions and ideas. Gallate et al (2012) focus on this phenomenon— the “Incubation Effect”— and found evidence that creativity is heavily facilitated by non-conscious processes. 

For anyone on the verge of an insight, whether you’re cracking nuts or math equations, knowing the exact incubation process is less important than trusting that there is one.
— Jaffe (2014)

Working towards my creative deliverable; I wrote the creative brief, then intentionally interrupted myself (to let my project reach a low level of conscious awareness) and then took notes of ideas whenever they would arise. After several weeks, I gathered my notes, then ideated, refined, evaluated and iterated towards a final solution. Griffin (2008) describes this technique as “mindscribing”; where ideas gathered through non-conscious incubation build “a database of “raw materials”— words, sketches, phrases, associations— that would fuel ideation” (p.103). 


In conclusion, I firmly believe that for creativity in advertising to be productive, it must be approached and recognised as a process for solving problems; avoiding chaos by following stages that mediate idea development and encourage the utilisation of tools from the individual’s cognitive toolbox (Griffin, 2008). The notion of chaotic creativity may be embraced in the service of art, however advertisers must remind themselves that their purpose is not self-expression, but to effectively solve commercial problems, create innovative, irreverent and culturally resonant solutions that express the thoughts and ideas of others; working from and within constraints to create fresh work that challenges and inspires, but also meets the client’s objectives. Ultimately, advertising creativity is not magic, it is a process; a way of thinking and approaching problems that can be nurtured, cultivated and unleashed from within any one. 



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