What makes you think creative thinking should be or could be easy?

james helms
7 min readDec 1, 2020


The Universal Traveler, New Horizons Edition, Don Koberg & Jim Bagnall, 1991

It started as a snarky post I made in my college major’s alumni Facebook group. I was poking fun at a book that was required reading my Sophomore year. I pointed out some of the flaws in its layout, and its tedious book-long metaphor about traveling. But mostly — just how hard it was to read as a college student. The post drew a few notes of agreement from fellow alumni, some laughs, and comments from my friends and fellow University of Delaware Visual Communications alumni. And then my professor, Ray Nichols, a regular in the alumni group, asked this question — right between the eyes:

“What makes you think creative thinking should be or could be easy?”

This was the type of challenge Ray would have aimed at us, as a class, while we watched him evaluate, denigrate — and occasionally eat (seriously) — our various design assignments during our critique. As intended, it made me stop and think. For a minute, a few days. Was he being defensive about a book he had to know had been notoriously derided by his students, year after year? I’ve been rolling that question over in my head now for a week. SHOULD creative thinking be easy? Should a book about behaving creatively — about becoming a creative problem solver — be an easy book to read? Could it?

Isn’t design literally about reduction, simplification, and efficient problem-solving? Isn’t it about embracing content, aesthetics, and form to convey ideas swiftly, inspirationally, magnetically?

And then wrestling with the opposite: Should creative thinking be hard? Is the fact that it’s hard what makes it valuable and important? Is the title “Creative Thinker” a rare one, precisely because there’s some kind of scarcity attached? Or because it implies risk — and therefore mitigation, accountability, and consequences?

Setting aside whether it should or could be easy — Is creative thinking hard? I’ve tried to break it down into what I think it is. And isn’t.

Creativity requires intention
Creativity requires a reason. That reason may come from curiosity, ambition, love, fear, anger, humor. Creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum. Creative inspiration comes from an intention to change. Change can be hard.

Creativity requires effort
Creativity requires working against the inertia of habit and routine. Creative habits tend to involve exposing oneself to new sensory stimuli — and new ideas. A trip to an art museum, or a walk in the forest, or meeting a new person, or watching a movie. Doing something is infinitely more creative than sitting there thinking about doing something. The definition of hard is something that requires effort. So, technically, one might argue that creative thinking is hard.

Creativity requires an elevated practice of observation
When one goes to the art museum, one must get curious: about the artist, the subject matter, the brush strokes, the use of color, the frame selection, the arrangement in the gallery. Every detail is a new piece of data that can be remembered, assimilated, and recast later. A walk in the forest opens you up to the quality of light, the smell of biology at work, subtle and not-so-subtle noises, and feel of a breeze, and the crunch of leaves and sticks underfoot. You must notice. And characterize. And commit these sensations to memory. What do they remind you of? What stories do they evoke?
Watching movies once for the story, then again for the editing, the art direction, the composition, the lighting, the wardrobe, the sound design, and scoring. There is so much detail considered in the telling of those stories. It’s too rich for a single viewing. Need some examples? Watch a Cohen brothers movie, or a Wes Anderson movie, or a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. This kind of curiosity, attention to detail, focus — is it hard? Is it a slog? Is this what separates “creative thinkers” from “other”?
I hear my design research peers arguing about rigor here, and I agree wholeheartedly. Research is all about the structuring of productive detail collection, and the thoughtful attention to detail. Which details matter and will provide the necessary inputs to make critical creative decisions? Where will we find them? How will we convey them effectively? How do we leave ourselves open for surprises beyond validating our assumptions?

Creativity requires making
Ultimately, creativity is about creating. Making something or things from other things. Making an image with a material based on a memory or an interpretation. Luxuriating in how a medium unfolds in use (from olive oil in a hot pan to cold clay in your hands to a diagram on a whiteboard to prototypes made of duct tape and coat hangers.) Intention, imbued with data and energy, can become an idea incarnate. And that idea can be tested and refined, remixed, revisited, or shelved. Not all creativity results in usefulness or is pleasing and satisfying as design or art or food or fashion. But all of those things arrive in their final state in this way. So is making stuff hard? Surely making GOOD stuff takes more effort than making crappy stuff. Or at least it takes practice. And we all know practice can be hard — especially when you’re currently bad at it. That valley of despair known as “conscious incompetence” is particularly hard: I know I’m bad — and I haven’t practiced enough to get good yet. So everything I make is pretty bad. It’s tempting to quit. Quitting can be easy.

But hang on. What ISN’T creativity?

Creativity is NOT talent
You aren't “born creative”. You may naturally behave with more humility, curiosity, and bravery. You may be predisposed, motivated or otherwise empowered to make stuff. But these behaviors and mindsets can be learned by anyone who a) cares and b) gets out of their chair to try. The practices of observation combined with the effort of repetition and refinement can make ANYONE a chef, an artist, a designer, an engineer, etc. Learning those things is admittedly not easy.

Creativity is NOT a stand-alone identity
Being “a creative” is a fallacy. If you have the intention, exercise curiosity, and observation, and make things — you are creating. But a measure of someone's creativity is the sum of those things: do you operate with intention, based on inspiration? Is that inspiration based on solving your immediate needs, those of others? And at what scale? It’s not hard to be creative about foraging lunch from a well-provisioned pantry. It is much harder to feed a whole town for a year from the same pantry.

Creativity is NOT finite
Creativity is not portioned out to some people in gallons and others in ounces. It is only limited by:

That which inspires you to create something new. To make a change. To solve a problem.

Your collective imagination — informed by your experience, your network/peer group/support group/friends/family, your powers of observation and ability to think critically about what you’ve observed, and your ability to suspend reality to explore possibilities. You can improve your imagination by surrounding yourself with people who are more imaginative. People who hold you to a higher standard. Like Ray, chewing on my bad design explorations.

Your resources (time, energy, capital, influence, etc.)

So — is creative thinking hard?
It requires more effort for some than for others. But not insurmountable effort. It’s usually worth it. And things that are worth it never feel as hard as things that seem pointless. Maybe that’s the hardest part — picturing a creative outcome.

Some might tie the difficulty of creative thinking to things like scale or complexity — but that’s not necessarily true, either. Sometimes large problems are easier to see and more urgent to solve. Sometimes simple problems require incredible effort.

Some people might tie difficulty to “the ability to think outside the box.” If you live in a box, it’s hard to imagine what’s outside. But that’s why you go outside. To the movies, to restaurants and to other countries. It’s why we read books and listen to podcasts and watch documentaries and (flinch) read Twitter.

On the one hand, I have no reason to think creative thinking should be or could be easy. Then again, I don't think there’s anything all that special about it at all. We’re all capable. Of caring. Of gathering experience. Of using the tools we have, and learning some new ones, to assemble our thoughts in pursuit of change. And if there’s a tool or method of creation we don't yet master — that’s really just a matter of practice. Some of the most creative thinkers seem to do so with such elegance and grace that it appears effortless.

By the way — the book is actually ok. I still hate the art direction. I’m not a fan of the typography. The justified layout creates massive and problematic word-spacing. The illustrations are counter-productive — they complicate the already dense and somewhat oblique text, which drags a traveling metaphor about 5 miles too far, in my opinion. But it does lay out some key behaviors for creative people, and ties closely to the methods we’d describe as the design process. I might recommend different design books, but this is not a “bad design book.” Just a badly designed one.



james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.