Professor Wu's Rulebook

Turning ideas into reality: the four stages of creativity

‘Krakow Sunset’ – Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images, via Flickr

One of the defining features of humanity is our ability to create; and to turn flashes of inspiration and new ideas into solid creative constructions: be they works of art; photography; writing; film; dance or any other one of the forms through which creativity can be channelled.

Yet just as creativity is an intrinsic part of who we are; so too is the difficulty in actually working through the creative process. “Creative Block” seems to be utterly tied with creativity, and we will all have encountered it in some form or other during our lives.

We’ve previously documented how various great writers and artists have tried to circumnavigate the various travails of creativity by developing rigid routines; but is there a more general structure we can, as aspiring creatives, use to culture our ideas and inspiration, and turn them into creative works of art?

Well of course there is! We wouldn’t have started writing a post about it if there wasn’t, would we?

In fact, the question of how to master the strange process through which the conscious develops with the unconscious; the voluntary becomes entwined with the involuntary; and we are able to somehow bring something physical out of the mystical realm of the imagination, was pondered 90 years ago in 1926 by the founder of the London School of Economics; Graham Wallas.

68 at the time, Wallas penned a rather incredible book called The Art of Thought – an insightful theory outlining what he saw as “the four stages” of the creative process. He based this theory on both his own empirical observations, as well as by drawing on the accounts of famous inventors and polymaths.

Sadly, the book is now long out of print, and only available in a handful of public libraries. You can, if you’re lucky (and rich), purchase one of the few surviving copies; but be prepared to spend around £1000 or so.

However, not so sadly, the general outline of Wallas’s model has been preserved in a chapter of the 1976 collection of essays titled The Creativity Question. Within this tome are to be found an invaluable selection of meditations on and approaches to creativity by some of history’s greatest minds; and we heartily recommend you purchasing a copy of your own (it won’t cost you a fortune).

Yet what caught our eye was Wallas’s outline of the four stages of the creative process, which he sees as being preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. These stages can be seen as essentially universal across all forms of creativity. They proceed as follows:

  1. Preparation
Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images. Via Flickr

Of course, some might argue that you can never prepare yourself for creativity or inspiration: ideas, surely, are known most of all for their ability to fly out at the most unexpected of moments, catching us off guard as we idly clip our begonias. However, consider the way in which ideas so often come to us shortly after doing or seeing something that inspired us. There is a reason so many ‘advice for writers’ articles place “reading” as one of the most important parts of writing: it is part of the process of preparation.

To return to gardening imagery, for a moment, during the preparation stage we ready the mental soil for the sowing of creative seeds; and the subsequent growth of ideas. Wallas describes this as “investigation in all directions”; by which he means the accumulation of intellectual resources out of which we are able to construct new ideas. Through this deliberate, fully conscious process, the unconscious is exercised, and the involuntary production of ideas and inspiration made possible.

It entails research, planning, and developing the right frame of mind and holding the right level of attention. Wallas writes:

“The educated man has, again, learnt, and can, in the Preparation stage, voluntarily or habitually follow out, rules as to the order in which he shall direct his attention to successive elements.”

  1. Incubation
‘Dickens’s Dream’ by Robert William Buss. 

Once we have prepared ourselves, the next part of the process is a period of unconscious processing – the time we get the clippers ready and head into the garden; the times we sit quietly by ourselves and listen. It requires no direct or deliberate effort; it takes place in our unconscious; in our souls.

Wallas notes that the stage has two divergent elements – the “negative fact” that during Incubation we don’t consciously deliberate on a particular problem, and the “positive fact” of a series of unconscious, involuntary – Wallas terms it “foreconscious” and “forevoluntary” – mental events taking place. He writes:

“Voluntary abstention from conscious thought on any problem may, itself, take two forms: the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work. The first kind of Incubation economizes time, and is therefore often the better.”

Wallas proposes a technique for optimising the fruits of the Incubation stage by deliberately building interruptions of concentrated effort into our workflow:

“We can often get more result in the same way by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting.”

  1. Illumination
Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images. Via Flickr

This is the stage that makes you drop your trowel/hoe/spade/cultivator (delete as appropriate), and gasp at the sudden exhilaration that comes with stumbling upon a new idea or creative thought.

Wallas based this stage on French polymath Henri Poincare’s concept of “sudden illumation” – the flash of insight that the conscious self can’t conjure itself and the unconscious self can only produce once all the elements gathered during the Preparation stage have been nurtured during the Incubation stage. The famous “Eureka” moment.

Wallas writes:

“If we so define the Illumination stage as to restrict it to this instantaneous “flash,” it is obvious that we cannot influence it by a direct effort of will; because we can only bring our will to bear upon psychological events which last for an appreciable time. On the other hand, the final “flash,” or “click” … is the culmination of a successful train of association, which may have lasted for an appreciable time, and which has probably been preceded by a series of tentative and unsuccessful trains. The series of unsuccessful trains of association may last for periods varying from a few seconds to several hours.


Sometimes the successful train seems to consist of a single leap of association, or of successive leaps which are so rapid as to be almost instantaneous.”

  1. Verification
Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images. Via Flickr

The final stage of the creative process shares a more deliberate, conscious effort of focused will, as was necessary during the Preparation stage. It involves the practical art of testing whether or not the idea created during phases two and three is actually any good or not. For scientific discovery, this means testing the chemistry or maths behind it; for art, the act of putting paintbrush to blank canvas; and for the writer, the act of “putting one word after another”, as Neil Gaiman advised.

Wallas writes:

“It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation in which we only have to apply fixed rules… All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations. As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which the results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced. … They demand discipline, attention, will, and consequently, conscious work.”

All together now

Wallas is keen to note that it is not possible to conjure creativity through any one of these stages alone – regardless of how well one executes that particular stage. None of them exist in isolation from the others, because they are each part of a much grander mechanism of creativity, which is built from innumerable complex, perpetually moving bits and pieces. He writes:

“In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems. An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning’s letters, may at the same time be “incubating” on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in “preparation” for a second problem, and be “verifying” his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a “problem and solution” scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other.”


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