Characteristics of Creativity and Creative People

This is a paper I wrote in grad school at Duquesne University in 1999. I think it holds up reasonably well.
I thought about some of what I learned doing this paper when I provided my "featured artist" story for Cynthia Tinapple's book "Polymer Clay Global Perspectives."

Characteristics of Creativity and Creative People
Rebecca Watkins  |  Advertising: The Creative Process  |  March 16, 1999

I hear people say: “I’m not creative. I can’t even draw a stick figure.”

            I tell them, “Creativity doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not you can draw.” Creative and artistic are not the same thing. Sometimes they are found in the same person, but one can be creative and not at all talented with a pencil or brush. To me, creativity depends on whether or not you can think—think of something new, recognize something new and act on it, make a connection between two disparate things or dare to do something in a way it hasn’t been done before.
         I am an artist. I paint, I draw, I design brochures. For a hobby, I paint terra cotta pots using a technique I developed while trapped in the house on a very rainy weekend. I sell my work at craft shows and a few shops. During a show I always study the competition and I am struck by how many of the items look the same and how inexpensive many of them are. Can the crafters make enough money to make it worth their time? After seeing the millionth snowman/doll/scarecrow with the same face—squiggly mouth, dot eyes, rosy cheeks—I realized the items looked this way because that’s how the instructions say to make it. Some crafters are “crafty” but not especially creative. Ultimately, their lack of creativity hurts their bottom line because in selling merchandise that looks nearly identical, they can only charge as much as the crafter in the next booth.
            In my college art and design classes, everyone was given the same assignment. But when we put our projects up front for the critique session, not one of the pictures was a twin of any other. However, all of them were acceptable solutions to the assignment. The whole idea was to come up with an execution of an idea in a way we had never seen before. We had to stretch our brains to come up with something different.

What are the characteristics of creative people?
            Until 1950, most studies of creativity focused on the process of creating. J.P. Guilford’s 1950 address to the APA redirected the field of study to a focus on the person (Amabile, 1996). In 1959, Guilford was amazed at the widespread interest in his hypotheses concerning the various talents that contribute to creativity. He found there was actually more interest from outside the field of psychology, indicating a need for increased creative performance in the country as a whole and a desire to know more about the nature of creativity. Hudson (1967) suggested why this might be. Although creativity had been a subject of interest since the field of psychology was invented, before the 1950s, the study focused on artistic types, the “romantic, humanistic figure of the artist-genius.” But during the 1950s and 1960s, the focus shifted to the successful physical scientist. Hudson traces this to America’s concern “with the state of their armaments industry,” probably as a consequence of World War II. What cemented the nation’s interest in scientific creativity and how to instill it in American youth was Sputnik. America realized it had a serious technological rival in Russia and global superiority was at stake.
            The study of highly creative individuals in both artistic and non-artistic fields took off. In a 1962 lecture D.W. MacKinnon reported on his study of architects, specially selected because architecture must be aesthetically pleasing as well as scientifically sound. He admits a difficulty in studying creative people—researchers studying them have to agree on what constitutes creativity. Researchers have addressed this issue by letting other practitioners in the field being measured choose their most creative colleagues and that is what MacKinnon did. 
            Another problem with creativity tests is that they rate certain qualities—originality, verbal fluency, quality of ideas as opposed to quantity, etc.—so specifically that it is difficult to consider them as an indicator of general “creativeness” (Amabile, 1996). In other words, there is no perfect test to precisely measure creativity.
            Taking all the shortcomings into consideration, MacKinnon’s efforts still yielded statistically significant results. He found that creative people:
  • are more open and self-aware;
  • show a preference for the complex, asymmetrical and spontaneous and have a higher tolerance for disorder and chaos. They prefer it to the “stark barrenness of the simple;”
  • look for a bridge or link between the obviously sensed (through sight, sound, touch) and the possibilities of what could be (intuitive thinking). In the average population, 25% of people respond this way. According to MacKinnon’s studies, 90% of the creative writers, 92% of the mathematicians, 93% of the research scientists and 100% of the architects qualified as intuitive thinkers;
  • are more concerned with meanings and implications than facts and small details;
  • are verbally skillful and good at communicating with others;
  • are intellectually curious; and
  • are relatively uninterested in policing their own or others’ impulses.

      Additionally, he notes that high intelligence does not always equal greater creativity.
In addition to the tests the subjects performed, MacKinnon gathered background information through interviews with the subjects (although he noted that self-reports can be inaccurate). These revealed common threads among their childhoods and family histories.
  • Their parents expected them to act independently, and trusted them to do it responsibly and reasonably.
  • They had no overly-strong positive or negative relationships with their parents.
  • Their mothers often had strong interests apart from their families and sometimes even a career of their own.
  • Their parents were consistent with discipline.
  • Religion had little or no influence; their parents emphasized the development of their own ethical code. During school, most of the architects were unwilling to accept a fact simply because an instructor said it was so. They felt compelled to prove it to themselves before accepting it.
  • Their families moved often.
  • They were artistic as children, as were one or both of their parents. However, their parents allowed them to develop their skills at their own pace.  
  • Their parents did not push them toward any particular career.
  • These combination of these forces developed a strong sense of independence in the architects, a quality necessary for a person who may be presenting  ideas that go up against conventional wisdom.

            Other similarities between creative people (Guilford, 1962) whether in art or science, include:
  • self-confidence: a creative person’s originality of thought produces ideas that solve problems, therefore building a willingness to try where others tend to give up;
  • self-assurance: The creative person is confident in his own judgement of his work, discounting the opinions of those who disagree with him (whether they criticize or compliment him, I feel compelled to add);
Conditions that nurture creativity   
In 1959, G. Stoddard said that conformity reigns not because people crave it but because they fear deviation and the rejection that often follows (Holleran, 1976). Torrance (1962) found five conditions that were necessary for nurturing creativity:
  • the absence of serious threat to the self and the willingness to risk failure;
  • a sense of self-awareness, with the ability to keep in touch with one’s own feelings and emotions, and to feel free to express those feelings;
  • the acceptance of self-differentiation—the ability to see oneself as different from others;
  • an openess to the ideas of others and a confidence in one’s own ideas, and
  • good communication and good interpersonal relations with others.
            If these conditions can be met and maintained, anyone can stimulate the creative potential that’s already inside. A high level of creativity may not be realistic expectation for everyone, but increased creativity is certainly possible.

The value of interdisciplinary knowledge
            Gary Weber, former Chief Technology Officer of PPG Industries, spoke at a Pittsburgh Technology Council meeting I attended in 1997. He said some unexpected advantages of PPG’s restructuring in the 1980s were engineering solutions that came about when departments were downsized and consolidated. Engineers from different disciplines were put together—electrical engineers with chemical, for example—and the fresh exchange of ideas helped them look at old problems in new ways. A wide breadth of knowledge promotes creative thinking and innovative solutions.
            Creative people often have wide ranging interests. As a youth, Alexander Graham Bell was a talented pianist who dreamed of a career in the concert halls; Wilbur and Orville Wright were “inveterate readers” (Those Inventive Americans, 1971); Winston E. Kock was a skilled chess player, pianist, NASA scientist and inventor. He said, “A constant sense of curiosity, a continual recognition of problems and a search for solutions, and their refusal to accept stock answers” (Kock, 1978) are signature characteristics of inventors, who are by definition creative people.
            Not only is a wide range of knowledge valuable for promoting creativity, a good memory helps too. The way memories are stored, and then retrieved and applied where appropriate is the difference between useful and useless creativity (Guilford, 1962). An example of this from my own life occurred in 1985.
            I was given a work assignment to create an illustration for an information packet for a new, combined Math and Science degree being offered at Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University). Each year in Junior High we watched “Donald Duck in Math-A-Magic Land” for a math class treat. There was a segment in the film that talked about how the Nautilus shell is a perfect example of the mathematically precise proportions of beauty found in nature and adopted by man in art and architecture, known as “The Golden Mean.” I painted a Nautilus shell against a backdrop of the sea and sky. My boss didn’t agree that this was a good symbolic representation of the math/science concept, so I also had to create a few designs using numbers, equations, double helixes, etc. I convinced my boss to present the Nautilus shell to the clients despite her lack of conviction and they chose it without even considering the others.
Characteristics of Creativity
            Though he was commenting on mathematical creation, mathematician Poincaré’s (1908/1924) definition is appropriate for creativity in any field:
       “To create consists precisely in not making useless combinations and in making those which are useful and which are only a small minority. Invention is discernment, choice.
       ... Among chosen combinations, the most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart. Not that I mean as sufficing for invention the bringing together of objects as disparate as possible; most combinations so formed would be entirely sterile. But certain among them, very rare, are the most fruitful of all.”
            The act of creativity is in itself a process that may or may not yield a creative product (Holleran, 1976). The creative person has an idea and is willing to try it, without expecting perfection the first or even the hundreth time. A creative person realizes that creativity is a process that involves work. My friend will see a piece of  art or a clever advertisement and say, “Oh, I never would have thought of that.” I tell her, “I guarantee you, that fabulous looking piece was not the creator’s first idea. It probably came about after a lot of fiddling with the original idea.”  Revision and revision of the previous revisions almost always makes for a better end result.
            This is very obvious in the Andy Warhol Museum. He is famous for his silkscreens, yet a visit to the museum shows that he just kept trying different color combinations until one looked good. Many of the ones on display look pretty bad. But if one criterion for creativity includes a willingness to consider creation a process, a lot of not-so-good creations are likely to be the result.
            Another characteristic of creativity is breaking with tradition, not adhering to “that’s how it’s always been done.” Warhol did that too, even in his less eccentric art. In the early days of his career in New York he was a fashion illustrator for a shoe company. One illustration that broke from tradition was a close-up of a shoe. Not the whole shoe so you could really see what it looked like, but just a part of it. This is common in advertising today, but was a novel concept in the 1950s.
Art vs. Science
            Are artistic creative types and scientific creative types more the same than different? A number of studies suggest the answer is yes. Drevdahl (1956), Cattell and Drevdahl (1955, 1958), Roe (1952), Jones (1964, 1966), and Chambers (1964, 1966) studied personalilty traits of different creative groups, in artistic and non-artistic fields (Cattell & Butcher, 1968). Summing up their own research and that of the others listed here, Cattell and Butcher say,
“Although such differences of personality and motivation between artistic, scientific and other areas of creativity can be found and will doubtless continue to be found in more refined studies, the really remarkable feature of these research findings, especially for our present concentrated survey, is the high degree of similarity and consistency of the personality picture across all areas. It would almost seem as if the differences between science, art and literature are differences of particular skills and interests only, and that the fundamental characteristic of the creative, original person is a type of personality.”

Creativity in Action
            While discoveries are sometimes prompted by an unrelated thought that turns on a lightbulb in the head of the thinker, most are gradual realizations brought about through a well-versed knowledge of a field combined with personality traits, such as the ability to recognize problems, not get stuck on already-tried solutions, and a willingness to work to completion.
            A famous story claims Archimedes discovered how to determine if a certain crown was made of pure gold or had cheaper metals mixed in, when he lowered himself into a full bathtub and some of the water spilled over. He realized that a piece of gold and a piece of silver of the same size would weigh different amounts yet displace the same amount of water. By relating the amount of water displaced with the weight of the crown, Archimedes could determine whether or not it was solid gold. (His excitement at figuring out the solution to his problem added the word “Eureka” to our vocabulary.) He tested his conclusion and discovered the crown was too light, therefore not pure gold (Word Mysteries & Histories, 1986).
            In 1997, a researcher at the University of Chicago, already well-versed in granular physics, happened to really look at a ring-shaped coffee stain. He wondered why it appeared darker at the edges than in the center. The existing mechanisms of solute transport didn’t explain why the stain should dry in that manner. His curiosity led to new research on a previously unexplored form of capillary flow. The department is now researching practical applications of the phenomenon for printing, washing and coating processes ( No doubt there have been hundreds of people throughout history who were mesmerized by the shape and shading of a particular coffee stain. However, without the researcher’s specialized knowledge, they were unable to recognize the stain as anything more than a pretty design.
            Being able to recognize, transfer and apply new ideas is useful in business too, in order to stay ahead of the competition.
            Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper, is nearly more famous for the marketing and selling techniques he developed, most of which are still in use today. It is very likely he wasn’t the first to think of them, but he borrowed and built on ideas invented by P.T. Barnum and his organization of circuses called the Zoological Institute.
            In 1835, Barnum and four other “menagerie men” pooled their 12 traveling circuses into one organization that split territories to reduce duplicate efforts while ensuring adequate income. The Zoological Institute had advance men who posted advertisements, and local contacts in each city who would help get the town interested in hosting the circus. Cyrus McCormick’s financial benefactor, William Massie, was one such advance man for Barnum. The circus troupe made a grand entrance into each town and even offered a money-back guarantee. In his book, Madness in the Making,David Lindsay discusses his theory that McCormick had ample opportunity to absorb the business promotion lessons provided by Barnum.
            In the early 1800s, harvest time required a lot of workers and sickles. A practical reaper was desperately needed. Cyrus and his father Robert built their own version but it was a failure as well. When his father gave up on the invention in 1831, there were at least 47 versions on the market but none were satisfactory.
            Cyrus continued working alone and eventually designed a working reaper. His reaper was ready by the time of the 1831 harvest, but Cyrus never made a public demonstration of his machine until 1833. He set the project aside and worked on developing a new kind of iron-smelting furnace with Robert. The family had financial troubles in 1837 requiring William Massie to donate funds to keep them afloat. It was around this time that Barnum’s troupe came to town.
            Shortly thereafter, in 1839, McCormick began a flurry of activity promoting his reaper. Posters advertising the reaper sprung up everywhere. He offered a money-back guarantee, and staged competitive exhibitions with trained drivers and horses to make sure the McCormick reaper came out on top. He employed advance men (sales/service agents) with assigned territories; franchised his business; licensed his name to other reaper manufacturers; and painted the parts of his reaper different colors so the purchaser could assemble it himself (saving McCormick the time and cost).
            He had not been content to simply demonstrate his device and hope someone would buy, as did other farmers of his day. His ability to recognize and apply new techniques to promotion and selling, plus the additional techniques he contributed, were creativity in action. McCormick was a rich man in 1848 when he moved his operation to Chicago and named it International Harvester.

            In writing this paper I hoped to find examples of great flashes of insight that led to new discoveries. While I am sure there are other Archimedes “Eureka” stories (there is no proof that the falling apple/Sir Isaac Newton story is true), they are not easy to find and would require a lot more digging through history books and memoirs. Even Archimedes’ discovery was not one of total serendipity. 
            Mathematician Poincaré (1908/1924) described his own experience with insights that seem to come from nowhere:
            “Then I turned my attention to the study of some arithmetical questions apparently without much success and without a suspicion of any connection with my preceding researches. Disgusted with my failure, I went to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought of something else. One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty, that the arithmetic transformations of indeterminate ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry.”
            “Most striking at first is this appearance of sudden illumination, a manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work...
            “These sudden inspirations...never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared absolutely fruitless and whence nothing good seems to have come, where the way taken seems totally astray. These efforts then have not been as sterile as one thinks; they have set agoing the unconscious machine and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing.”
            Ultimately, flashes of insight require a thorough understanding of a particular field of knowledge, combined with an open mind. When the thoughts are allowed to wander through this fertile field, creative, flexible thinkers are able to make -- and recognize -- the connections that lead to new ideas and discoveries.


             Editors of The American Heritage Dictionaries (1986). Word Mysteries & Histories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
            (1976). The Journal of Creative Behavior, 10, 130-137. Excerpts from Those Invetive Americans. National Geographic Society, 1971.
            Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in Context. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, Inc.
            Cattell, R. B. and Butcher, H.J. (1968). Creativity and Personality. In P.E. Vernon (ed.), Creativity (pp. 312-326), 1970. Harmondsworth, Middlesex England: Penguin Books, Ltd.
            Guilford, J.P. (1959). Traits of Creativity. In P.E. Vernon (ed.), Creativity (pp. 167-188), 1970. Harmondsworth, Middlesex England: Penguin Books, Ltd.
            Guilford, J.P. (1962). Factors that aid and hinder creativity. In J.C. Gowan, J. Khatena, E.P. Torrance (eds.), Creativity: Its Educational Implications (pp. 59-71), 1981. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.
            Hudson, L. (1966). The Question of Creativity. In P.E. Vernon (ed.), Creativity (pp. 217-234), 1970. Harmondsworth, Middlesex England: Penguin Books, Ltd.
            Holleran, B.P. and Holleran, P.R. (1976). Creativity Revisited: A New Role of Group Dynamics. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 10, 130-137.
            Kock, W. E. (1978). The Creative Engineer, The Art of Inventing. New York: Plenum Press.
            Lindsay, D. (1997). Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise and Untimely Fall of America’s Show Inventors. New York: Kodansha America, Inc.
            MacKinnon, D.W. (1962). The Nature and Nurture of Creative Talent. The American Psychologist, 1962, 484-495.
            Poincaré, H. (1924). Mathematical Creation. Excerpt from The Foundations of Science. (G.B. Halstead, trans.) Science Press. (Original work published 1908)
            University of Chicago Granular Physics Lab. (2/25/99).

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