A Beginner’s Guide to Creativity Part 1


Ask anyone if they are a creative person. Most people will probably give you a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

Then, ask them what creativity is, and watch the myriad of definitions come flooding in.

In the lead-up to this post, I ran a quick, wholly unscientific poll advertised on a few local community groups on Facebook doing exactly that. Unsurprisingly, when the invitation asked people if they would like to participate in a short poll about creativity, it attracted only those people who viewed themselves as creative, hence the biased results.

Even so, the responses made for an interesting read. Some defined creativity as being able to dream, imagine and come up with ideas that were ‘outside of the box’, and some placed a greater emphasis on having the actual skills needed to turn those ideas into reality. Some focused on the creative arts and one person pointed out that even mathematicians can be creative in their field.

So, what exactly is creativity? It is used to describe people, activities, and products. Entire books can and have been written to answer that question and I’m going to try and summarise it in a blog post you can read in seven minutes. Here goes…

A Brief, Incomplete, Western History of the Concept of Creativity

Definition 1: ‘Creating’ is making something from nothing. Only the gods can ‘create’. Humans only ‘discover’ and ‘imitate’.

The one thing that all responses to the poll had in common was that creativity was a human trait – we think of the ideas ourselves and we bring those ideas into reality if we can. But for much of written history, ‘creativity’ was the realm of the divine, and not of humanity. ‘Creating’ meant bringing something into existence out of nothing. Only the gods could do that. Humanity merely ‘discovered’ what the gods had created, and only when the gods allowed them to.

Plato and the theory of forms - in this case a bed

Plato is often paraphrased as saying that painters do not create, they merely imitate. I’m paraphrasing the paraphrase, but the original, lengthy passage in Plato’s The Republic is a fictional discussion between Socrates and his student about who creates objects, in this case a bed. The conclusion is that:

  1. The gods create the concept of a bed and instil that idea within a person
  2. A carpenter then builds a specific bed based on the concept
  3. A painter/artist then imitates the bed built by the carpenter by painting a representation of it.

Neither the carpenter nor the painter ‘creates’ anything, they merely mimic what has come before.

The philosophers also concluded that painting is a waste of everyone’s time and effort and should generally be avoided.

Plato wasn’t fond of painters.

“Well,” I concluded, “we seem to be pretty well agreed that the artist knows little or nothing about the subjects that he represents and that the art of representation is something that has no serious value.”

(Plato, The Republic, Book X:602b)

Definition 2: Humans can create. That’s what poets do, and maybe some artists.

The idea that only God or the gods could ‘create’ anything persisted in various forms throughout much of written history. But, eventually, the concept of creativity edged its way out of the realm of the divine and into the realm of humanity. There was a hint of this in Ancient Greece at the time of Plato – poets were given at least a small amount of credit for their work in at least being able to exercise some of their own imagination. Aristotle even went so far as to say that maybe some artists did so as well. Generally, however, artists, poets, playwriters, and other artistic personalities were assumed to have received instruction from the Muses during fits of madness.

In the late 14th and 15th century, humanistic ideas hit the Renaissance world and, in amongst religious reformations and the rise of the polymath, came the idea that humanity possessed freedom of thought and control over its own destiny. People could come up with their own ideas and be the drivers of their own destiny. Investment into the creative arts took off. Polish poet Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski is credited as the first person to truly attribute poets with the ability to create something ‘new’ in his 17th century treatise De perfecta poesi.

This concept was brought forward into the Age of Enlightenment (the late 17th to early 19th centuries), when ‘scientific research’ had arrived. People now went out and found the answers to their own questions, rather than waiting on the gods dish out knowledge. The word ‘research’ entered the English language in 1639 to describe deliberate scientific enquiry. In 1767, William Duff began the first research into what makes a person creative, concluding that creative people needed imagination, judgement and taste. Linked with imagination, rather than just artistry, the concept of creativity now the potential for a much broader scope.

Definition 3: Creativity is making something new in any field. Creativity is in building, making, innovating, inventing, reorganising and problem solving.

As it became accepted knowledge that humans are capable of creativity in their own merit, questions regarding why we are able to be creative started to emerge. Finally, by the 20th century, creativity research had started to take hold and bloomed into a fully-formed area of psychological research with dedicated scholarly journals and theories exploring what it means to be creative.

With this increase in research, the concept of creativity was inextricably linked with problem solving and originality, and with that came recognition that creativity was present on many levels and in many fields. Artistry was no longer the sole avenue for creativity this definition recognised the innovative solutions to be found in science, business management, engineering, and more.

In the mid-1990s, this concept of creativity found its way into the mainstream world beyond psychological academia with the advent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (when art was added to the list) education. Regardless of the success of specific STEM and STEAM programs, the aim of the original creators of STEM was to address the rapidly declining investment in art within schools, and the program was an easy sell to policy makers focused on economic development because of the demonstration that creativity in these areas leads to innovation, which leads to a strong economy.

This has also meant that the concept of creativity now must cover everything from everyday creative pursuits to major, world-changing ‘aha moments’ had by the likes of Einstein, Da Vinci, Gates, Jobs, Tolstoy, Darwin and the like. Attempts to solve this issue usually include subheadings and split definitions, along the lines of ‘Big-C and little-c creativity’ or ‘functional and aesthetic creativity’.


Creativity Today

So, what is the true definition of creativity today? The answer is complicated, disputed, and sometimes contentious.

Are all artists creative, and are all creative personalities artistic? Some people use the words ‘artistic’ and ‘creative’ almost interchangeably, while others are adamant that they are two very different things. Are you exercising creativity when you grab a colouring-in book, or are you simply making meaningless decisions about colour choice – does it really matter if that flower is red or yellow? And are engineers being creative if they design a new bridge based on tried-and-true methods?

Where you stand on creativity could lie in how you interpret the criteria for creativity. Current definitions of creativity tend to have two criteria in common: a) newness, novelty, or originality, and b) usefulness or appropriateness for the purpose for which it was created:

“Creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel (i.e. original, unexpected) and appropriate (i.e. useful, adaptive concerning task constraints)”

Sternberg, R and Lubart, T., ‘The Concept of Creativity’ in Sternberg, R. (ed), 1999. Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge University Press.

“Two things can be said with certainty when defining creativity. First, creative products are always original. Different labels are used, including novelty, unusualness, or uniqueness… the second thing that can be said with certainty when defining creativity is that creative products are more than just original. They are fitting, apt, or in some way effective.”

Runco, M. A., ‘Creativity, Definition’ in in Kerr, B. (ed), 2009. Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity and Talent, Sage Publications Inc, Vol 1, p. 200

With this in mind, go and grab a pencil and sheet of paper, then draw a face. Any face, just whatever takes your fancy.

Now think about how it fits into the criteria above.  

Is it new or original?

  • Yes – it is a picture drawn by yourself based on your personal perception of a face and that exact image does not exist elsewhere in the world.
  • No – the odds are that you have stuck to a style that is common-place around the world, be it stick figure, comic, impressionist or photo-realistic, unless you are a budding Picasso and have just unleased your equivalent of cubism on an unsuspecting world.

Now, is it useful?

  • Yes – you may have relaxed as you drew, which is beneficial for your mental health, or you may feel inclined to stick the picture up on the wall, giving it a greater purpose towards interior decoration.
  • No – you drew the picture purely because you were instructed to do so. Has it solved a specific problem that you had, will it pass information on to those who view it later that they will benefit from learning, or make them think about the world in a new way?

Defining creativity today is immensely subjective because determining if something meets the criteria is based entirely on our individual experiences and judgement. The possibilities for what is creative then become endless.

Which is great, because it means I can write about almost anything I like in this blog! 😉

That was probably more than the seven-minute read that I promised, so thank you for sticking through to the end. Stay turned for Part Two – What does Creativity Need? Or, check out some other posts that may interest you below.

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Albert, R.S., and Runco, M.A., 1998. ‘A History of Research on Creativity’ in Sternberg, R.J (ed), 1998 Handbook of Creativity, Cambridge university Press, Cambridge.

Catterall, L.G., 2017. ‘A brief history of STEM and STEAM from an inadvertent insider’, in The STEAM Journal, Vol 3, Issue 1, Article 5. Available at: http://scholarship.claremont.edu/steam/vol3/iss1/5

Kearney, K., 2009. ‘A History of Creativity’ in Kerr, B. (ed), 2009. Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity and Talent, Sage Publications Inc, Vol 1, p.425

Niu, W., and Sternberg, R.J., 2006. ‘The Philosophical Roots of Western and Eastern Conceptions of Creativity’, in Journal of Theoretical and Physiological Psychology, Vol 26

Runco, M. A., ‘Creativity, Definition’ in in Kerr, B. (ed), 2009. Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity and Talent, Sage Publications Inc, Vol 1, p. 200

Sternberg, R and Lubart, T., ‘The Concept of Creativity’ in Sternberg, R. (ed), 1999. Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge University Press. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Eb42AAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false


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