Zig ZagThe Surprising Path to Greater Creativity
"Exceptional creators often zigzag through all eight steps, in varying order, every day. That’s part of the secret...Each step feeds the other seven."
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Psychologists have been studying the creative process for decades, and they’ve often observed that creativity tends to occur in a sequence of stages. The simplest model of the creative process is a two stage model sometimes called the balloon—an expanding stage of divergent thinking where many possibilities are generated, followed by convergent thinking as you converge on the one best idea. The balloon is a useful shorthand, but most theories of the creative process have expanded upon the simple balloon model to propose four or more stages, giving us a deeper understanding of the mental activities that people engage in when they’re creating. Zig Zag is organized around an integrated framework that captures the key stages of all of the various models that psychologists have proposed. The eight steps align with a range of psychological models of the creative process.

All of these psychologists have concluded that creativity isn’t a single, unitary mental process. The consensus among psychologists is that creativity results from many different mental processes, each associated with one of the eight steps.

The Zig Zag model is a useful way of capturing all of the cognitive processes involved in the creative act. The eight steps are domain general; that means that the creative process in all domains, from science to technological invention to fine art painting, involves these steps. But creativity rarely unfolds in a linear fashion. The mental processes associated with the eight steps can overlap, or cycle repeatedly, or sometimes appear in reverse order. This is why some creativity researchers prefer to describe them as eight “disciplines” or “habits of mind” that are associated with highly creative individuals; some of the models are presented this way, including (Burnard et al., 2006; Scott et al., 2004).

When we do intensive biographical studies of the origins of transformative discoveries and inventions, we see that creativity emerges over time in a complex, non-linear fashion. Many creative products evolve over months and years, so these biographical studies involve a lot of work—poring over journals, notes, preliminary drafts, and letters. One of the most influential biographical studies was Howard Gruber’s close reading of Darwin’s journals. Gruber’s analysis of how Darwin’s theory emerged over 14 years filled a rather large book (Gruber, 1974). Most such studies require a book to tell the whole story—other examples include Seth Shulman’s story of the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtis, and the airplane (2002), and Tom Standage’s story of how the telegraph emerged from Samuel Morse’s twelve year effort (1998). Creativity researchers are still fleshing out theories about these long-term processes: how long creative periods are sustained, and how one multiyear period is succeeded by a shift to another research question or another style of visual representation (cf. Gruber, 1988; Feinstein, 2006; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Rather than coming in a single moment of insight, creativity involves a lot of hard work over an extended period of time. While doing the work, the creator experiences frequent but small mini-insights. These mini-insights are usually easy to explain in terms of the hard conscious work that immediately preceded them. Psychologists still don’t know exactly what goes on in the mind, but we do know that insights are based in previous experiences, they build on acquired knowledge and memory, and they result from combinations of existing mental material.

These psychological studies have shown that the moment of insight is overrated. It’s only one small component of a complex creative process, and it’s not all that mysterious. The typical creator experiences many small mini-insights every day, and these mini-insights can be traced back to the material they were consciously working on. We only think we see dramatic leaps of insight because we didn’t observe the many small, incremental steps that preceded it. Instead of the light bulb, a better metaphor for an insight would be the tip of an iceberg, or the final brick in a wall. And I think the best visual image of the creative process is the zig zag (hence the name of the book). Creative activities require problem solving and decision making throughout the process, and each one of these decision points involves a small amount of creative inspiration; when these mini-insights are viewed in the context of the ongoing creative work, they no longer seem so mysterious. Creativity researchers today agree that “creativity takes time . . . the creative process is not generally considered to be something that occurs in an instant with a single flash of insight, even though insights may occur” (Tardif & Sternberg, 1988, p. 430).

Research Sources

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Burnard, P., Craft, A., & Grainger, T. (2006). Possibility thinking. International Journal for Early Years Education, 14(3), 243-262.

Feinstein, J. S. (2006). The nature of creative development. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books.

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Gruber, H. E. (1974). Darwin on man: A psychological study of scientific creativity. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Gruber, H. E. (1988). The evolving systems approach to creative work. Creativity Research Journal, 1, 27-51.

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Kelley, T. (2001). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, America's leading design firm. New York: Doubleday.

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Scott, G., Leritz, L. E., & Mumford, M. D. (2004). The effectiveness of creativity training: A quantitative review. Creativity Research Journal, 16(4), 361-388.

Shulman, S. (2002). Unlocking the sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the race to invent the airplane. New York: HarperCollins.

Standage, T. (1998). The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century's on-line pioneers. New York: Walker and Company.

Sternberg, R. J. (2006). Stalking the elusive creativity quark: Toward a comprehensive theory of creativity. In P. Locher, C. Martindale & L. Dorfman (Eds.), New directions in aesthetics, creativity, and the arts (pp. 79-104). Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company.

Tardif, T. Z., & Sternberg, R. J. (1988). What do we know about creativity? In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), The nature of creativity (pp. 429-440). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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