Wallas and the Creative Process

Graham Wallas – Professor of Political Science 1914-1923 and Creativity theorist
Source: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science (Creative Commons)

Helmholtz (1896) first suggested three steps in creativity (Helmholtz, H. von (1896) Vorträge und Reden, Brunswick: Friedrich Viewig und Sohn).

In 1926, Professor Graham Wallas published The Art of Thought (Wallas 1926) in which he expanded Helmholtz, outlining four key steps on the creative process.

Wallas Model

Csikszentmihalyi also elaborates on these in Creativity, 1996 (note – there is an `extra step’ added):

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Insight
  4. Evaluation
  5. Elaboration

He writes:

`The creative process has traditionally been described as taking five steps.

The first is a period of preparation, becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity…

The second phase of creativity is a period of incubation, during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made. When we intend to solve a problem consciously, we process information in a linear, logical fashion. But when ideas call to each other on their own, without our leading them down a straight and narrow path, unexpected combinations may come into being.

The third component of the creative process is insight, sometimes called the “Aha!” moment… In real life, there may be several insights interspersed with periods of incubation, evaluation and elaboration…

The fourth component is evaluation, when the person must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing. This is often the most emotionally trying part of the process, when one feels most uncertain and insecure. This is also when the internalized criteria of the domain, and the internalized opinion of the field, usually become prominent. Is this idea really novel, or is it obvious? It is the period of self-criticism, of soul-searching…

The fifth and last component of the process is elaboration. It is probably the one that takes up the most time and involves the hardest work. This is what Edison was referring to when he said that creativity consists of 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration…

But this classical analytic framework leading from preparation to elaboration gives a severely distorted picture of the creative process if it is taken too literally.

A person who makes a creative contribution never just slogs through long last stage of elaboration. This part of the process is constantly interrupted by periods of incubation and is punctuated by small epiphanies. Many fresh insights emerge as one is presumably just putting finishing touches on the initial insight…

The five-stage view of the creative process may be too simplified, and it can be misleading, but it does offer a relatively valid and simple way to organize the complexities involved. It is essential to remember however… that that the five stages in reality are not exclusive but typically overlap and recur several times before the process is completed. (Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 79-83)

So, there you go. And: here we are.

And: That – is how you do Creativity.

Interestingly, from How To Get Ideas (1996) by Jack Foster mentions the legendary German philosopher, physician and physicist Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894):

`Helmholtz, the German philosopher, said he used three steps to get new thoughts.

The first was “Preparation”, the time during which he investigated the problem, “in all directions”…

The second was “Incubation”, when he didn’t think consciously about the problem at all…

The third was “Illumination”, when “happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration” ’

(Foster 1996, p. 3)

To me, this process seems the same as the scientific method

i.e. Popper’s (1934-1999) model of how science generally proceeds, as presented in his paper `The Logic and Evolution of Scientific Theory(Popper 1999):

`We arrive at the four-stage model characteristic of scientific theory:

  1. the old problem;
  2. formation of tentative theories;
  3. attempts at elimination through critical discussion including experimental testing;
  4. the new problems that arise from the critical discussion of our theories.

…I personally prefer the problem as the starting point, but I am well aware that the cyclical character of the model makes it possible to regard any of the stages as the starting point for a new development.’

(Popper 1999, pp. 14-5)

But then, I tend to see all creativity as problem-solving.

For more on that, see:

StoryAlity #143 – All of life is doing science


…Thoughts? Comments? Other thoughts?

(Other-other thoughts, that are also a Comment?)


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1st edn.; New York: HarperCollins) viii, 456 p.

Foster, J (1996), How To Get Ideas, 1st edn, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

Popper, KR 1999, All Life is Problem Solving, Routledge, London; New York.

Wallas, Graham (1926), The Art of Thought (London: Jonathan Cape).

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