Do designers have a formula for finding creative solutions? Milton Glaser and Paula Scher provide surprising insights

I find it odd that in the current corporate quest to codify creativity and design thinking, not much is said about the unconscious or the imagination, yet these are integral to any creative process, be it art, design or business innovation. Legendary designers Milton Glaser and Paula Scher have a similar process to activate the imagination and enhance creative ideas, which corresponds to the incubation phase of the creative process.

Milton Glaser, one of the great graphic designers of our time (and best known for creating the I Heart NY logo,) had this to say about his design process in a Smashing Magazine interview:

I know it’s often codified and done as a process, but it’s harder than that. The issue is that all this stuff exists in your brain already and the question is how you access it and what you believe about your own process. I depend on my unconscious to do most of my work by now because I’ve spent so many years working consciously to get my mind into shape so it can work unconsciously. So my process is I would say at best, random, and that I depend on after 60 years of doing this stuff, the fact that there’s a lot of stuff at the back of my mind and the job is to just bring it forward.

In a Fast Company interview, Paula Scher, principal of the legendary design firm Pentagram, gets all her best ideas in a taxi cab! Boredom is an important part of her creative process: “I realize that when I’m sitting in a taxicab in traffic, or on my way to the airport, or waiting to get on a plane, or trapped in some other boring situation, that’s when I get the best ideas, because I’ve got nothing else interfering with it. I have to stop reading emails or being anywhere near the internet to be able to create.”

Scher contends digital media take away our downtime thus eating up really good creative time. “If I’m alone, I try really hard to shut down, because that’s when I’ll figure out a whole pile of stuff… The idea for me is to find these moments of supreme focus where I gather the shreds of things I’ve thought of independently in moments of boredom or downtime and pushed them through. That seems to be my method.”

I realize that the analytical thinkers among us will baulk at this sort of talk, so let’s dig into what science has to say about the matter. Henri Poincaré, in his 1904 book on The Foundations of Science, wrote:

The role of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable, and traces of it would be found in other cases where it is less evident. Often when one works at a hard question, nothing good is accomplished at the first attack. Then one takes a rest, longer or shorter, and sits down anew to the work. During the first half-hour, as before, nothing is found, and then all of a sudden the decisive idea presents itself to the mind. It might be said that the conscious work has been more fruitful because it has been interrupted and the rest has given back to the mind its force and freshness.

Where does incubation fit into the creative process?

The Art of ThoughtGraham Wallas, social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder, codified the creative process in his influential book on The Art of Thought 1926), based on his own empirical observations and on the works of psychologists, philosophers, and scientists, including Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Henri Poincaré and William James. In the four stages of the creative process, incubation follows preparation:

  1. Preparation (preparatory work on a problem that focuses on the individual’s mind on the problem and explores the problem’s dimensions),
  2. Incubation (where the problem is internalized into the unconscious mind and nothing appears externally to be happening),
  3. Illumination or insight (where the creative idea bursts forth from its preconscious processing into conscious awareness);
  4. Verification (where the idea is consciously verified, elaborated, and then applied).

Dr Shelley Carson, neuroscientist and author of Your Creative Brain, says, “The first and arguably most important strategy for thinking and acting creatively is to develop your ability to absorb information non-judgmentally.” Carson believes in activating what she calls the “absorb mindset” during the preparation and incubation stages of creativity.

When you open your mind to new experiences and ideas, you become receptive to sensory stimuli, information from your environment, and “within your own (usually unconscious) thought processes.” Being in a state of openness, receptivity and relaxed absorption enables your brain to start making novel associations between diverse stimuli that lead to “sudden and meaningful burst of neural excitement.” These ‘aha!’ moments of illumination are central to the “spontaneous pathway to creative ideas.

Quick tips:

  • Incubation is hindered by interruption or by continuous passive reading, according to Wallas, so beware of trivialities that hijack your attention.
  • Spend time in natural beauty and go for walks
  • Increase your exposure to creative works by other people, especially polymaths
  • Practice Meditation, especially Open Monitoring and Focused Attention meditation techniques.

The original version of this article was published in my column on

Update: This post was first published Feb 2, 2018.  Milton Glaser passed away June 26, 2020.

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