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Creative problem solving: connecting logic and creativity.

Many people may think of design as a purely creative process that relies on artistic inspiration. In actuality, design should be a marriage of logic and creativity and Creative Problem Solving (CPS) is the essential process that powers that marriage.

Creative Problem Solving (CPS) has been an important aspect of my time in design long before I heard of the term. Looking back, history’s great minds and inventors have also been using CPS long before any formal process was developed. Many of humanity’s greatest innovations and accomplishments, especially in science and technology, seem to be only a spontaneous spark of creative genius, but was, in fact, a mental march of logical problem solving. The incredible works of great physicists like Newton, Einstein and Hawking, as well as great entrepreneurial minds like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates can all be attributed to some form of CPS. Now a much more formal and organized system of thought, CPS can be utilized to lead to the same type of breakthroughs and overcome challenges in the world of design. When we examine CPS more closely, we actually find it to be a bare necessity for successful design.

Creative Problem Solving (CPS) can be defined in many ways and have a wide variety of steps depending on who you ask, but the core principles are generally the same:

  1. Identification: Start by clarifying and identifying a specific problem. Define your objectives or issue that needs to be solved-- this may or may not include a research phase. Then, create open-ended questions or “creative challenges” derived from the larger problem. These usually start with “What if…?” “How can I…?” “What happens if…?”.
  2. Ideation (divergent thinking): Generate ideas and solutions. Brainstorm as many ideas as possible to answer the questions from the previous step. It is important to stay within divergent thinking, that is, to avoid judgment on the validity of the ideas. Issuing early judgment could prematurely eliminate ideas that have the potential to lead to a viable solution.
  3. Evaluation (convergent thinking): Evaluate the potential solutions. This is where convergent thinking and practical judgment should be used to select the best ideas/solutions. Some solutions may need further development for strengthening.
  4. Implementation: Implement and test the selected solution(s). If the problem exists or a new problem arises you may need to return to previous steps.

This process of thinking is especially successful in the design field. In fact, over time I’ve found CPS to be inherent and almost unavoidable in any type of design. After all, the main goal of graphic design is to provide creative, new solutions to specific problems. This is what separates design from the fine arts. While we still strive to be creative and groundbreaking like any artist, the goal is to create functional work within the parameters of the client. No matter the field of design or scope of the problem, CPS often becomes the basic tool for finding and implementing logical, creative solutions.

In application, a client may request a new brand that communicates a countless number of characteristics all while differentiating them from competition, while appearing to be minimalistic, bold, and timeless. Presented is a large challenge composed of a myriad of smaller challenges. While the final identity is meant to appear as the product of effortless artistic inspiration, the process of design involves a more arduous, logical sequence of decisions. In my experience, I’ve found that the better we follow the steps of CPS, the more creative and artistic the final solution becomes. Staying with the above example of brand identity, we can see how the rest of the CPS steps may lead to a viable creative solution. To come up with a successful brand we must, at the very least:

  1. Identify a problem: How can a client best represent their internal values and goods or services? How can a client stand out from their competition?
  2. Generate ideas/solutions: Use divergent thinking to brainstorm a large number of concepts for a logo, typography, brand elements, brand colors, etc.
  3. Evaluate the potential solution: Use convergent thinking to select the best concepts to best communicate the client’s needs and messaging.
  4. Implement the solution: Build the brand and collateral based on the generated solutions and test whether it resonates appropriately with the intended audience.

The CPS process can be used not only for large projects like brand identity creation, but also smaller challenges such as fitting content in a provided space. You can see how the process could be implemented with a problem as small as “this content won’t fit.” Quickly, we’d generate ideas such as; using a different typeface, eliminating a photo, making the type size smaller, adjusting the margins, etc.

Even when we aren’t intentionally following the formal steps of CPS, its core principles are almost inescapable in design. It’s this marriage of logic and creativity that made a career in graphic design so appealing to me in the first place. When we recognize the CPS principles and consciously follow the process, we can utilize the full power of our creative minds. Whether we’re trying to redefine the laws of physics or implement a successful publication layout, CPS is the engine that drives us to creative, new solutions.

(Source: The CPS Process and Learner’s Model by the Creative Education Foundation, based on the work of Alex Osborn and Sid Parnes. Adapted by G.J. Puccio, M. Mance, M.C. Murdock, B. Miller, J. Vehar, R. Firestein, S. Thurber, and D. Nielsen (2011).)