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How to Bolster Your Experience of Creative Flow

A surprising role for sketching our ideas

m-louis via Wikimedia Commons

Getting there with feeling.

Source: m-louis via Wikimedia Commons

Ideas in your head.

Ideas on paper.

Asked which one is better for carrying your creativity forward — conjuring and imagining ideas in your mind's eye, or physically sketching them on paper — it's a fair bet that we'll say sketching. Put your ideas on paper. Capture them. Put those representations out there –– physically –– in the world. Grab a pen, a pencil, it doesn't too much matter, but get those ideas on paper, out there, in the world, not just in your head.

We've read this, heard this, been told (and maybe even told ourselves) this many times. But why?

So that you can move forward with your ideas, by looking at them out there, on the page or screen in front of you, getting feedback on your idea by seeing it, starting a dialog with it.

So that you start to concretely test the feasibility of what you're imagining, spelling out the details of how it'd really look, or actually play out.

So that it frees up space in your short-term working memory for other ideas, for alternative possibilities. So that you can make room in your mind and mental working space for fresh takes and perspectives.

So that you don't lose thoughts that emerge "on the fly" –– so that you don't lose one idea as a new idea becomes prominent in your mind and the prior thought recedes from your awareness.

So that, so that...

There's no shortage of sources and experts who will tell you to get your ideas on paper, and no shortage of plausible-sounding reasons we can give for why sketching might propel our forward explorations. But is there anything more than "ready plausibility" and intuitive correctness to these reasons? Have they been empirically tested? Or are some of these proposed reasons (ironically) little more than mental conjuring themselves?

A Paradox

A team of researchers from Scotland and England recently turned to this question and discovered to their surprise that the assumption that sketching will enhance the creative performance of artists and designers is "supported by only patchy and contradictory evidence."

But why, then, do artists and designers feel so strongly that sketching is essential to their performance? Could it be that sketching is not (always, uniformly) important to the outcome of the creative endeavor, that is, the product that is achieved, but is vital to the process –– the way that the idea-making/idea-generating experience subjectively feels to the creator? To the subjective cognitive-emotional experience of making?

Might sketching help the artist feel that there is a good match between the daunting challenges of making, and their skills and competencies in meeting those challenges? Does sketching help the artist remain "in the zone" or to better enter into, and remain within, the experience of "flow"?

Setting out to test these questions, the researchers asked 88 undergraduate participants to perform what is known as the creative mental synthesis task.

Participants were given small sets of simple geometric shapes and alphabetical or numerical shapes ­­–– for example, a triangle, the letter J, and the number 8 ­­–– and were asked to create a new picture of a recognizable object or scene that included these shapes while also following specific rules (constraints). For instance, the rules allowed them to change the size of the shapes, to flip, rotate, or embed the shapes, but not to repeat or distort them. Each participant was given a workbook with 40 such shape-sets, with no pressure to finish the workbook. They were told that they could skip sets or return to sets as they wished and were encouraged to be creative and to enjoy the task.

A key twist to the experimental procedure was how participants were asked to arrive at their final pictures for each shape-set.

Some participants –– those in the mental imagery group –– were required to perform all of their thinking and mental syntheses of the shapes in their mind's eye. For each shape-set they were instructed not to sketch anything until they had first written down a verbal description of their idea. After verbally describing their idea they were allowed to draw the image they had imagined only once, and could not change it afterwards.

In contrast, participants in the sketching group were given extra workbook space and were allowed to sketch freely and continually as they generated ideas. However, once they had written a description, they also had to commit to one idea or drawing.

The drawings from both groups were scored for the number of complete valid drawings that were produced (a measure of their creative fluency). A second score was calculated based on the number of changes that were made to the shapes in each set. This was a count of the number of rotations, size changes, and the number of overlaps or embeddings of the shapes in each drawing, and provided a measure of "transformational complexity."

The findings showed that the mental imagery versus sketching groups did not differ in the level of transformational complexity of their images. However, the mental imagery group produced more (not fewer!) valid images than the sketching condition. This difference was especially pronounced in a subset of participants who were given only three (rather than five) shapes in each shape-set.

But this isn't the whole story...

Asked at the end of the session to rate how difficult they had found the creative synthesis task, the mental imagery group retrospectively rated the task as significantly more difficult than did the sketching group.

Participants asked to rely on their mental imagery also retrospectively reported a significantly lower degree of "flow" during the task. On a brief questionnaire given at the end of the session assessing nine different aspects of the flow experience –– such as total attentional focus on the task, a sense of control, of skill-challenge balance, intrinsic motivation, and a merging of action and awareness –– those in the sketching group reported significantly higher flow-related experiences than did those in the mental imagery group.

Further analyses showed that these group differences in flow-related experience were largely accounted for by the differences in how subjectively difficult the two groups found the task. That is, sketching during the creative process appeared to increase the feeling of flow by decreasing how effortful the task seemed to be.

Sketching enhanced the flow experience (mostly by making the task seem easier to the creator), but neither the quality nor the quantity of the generated ideas was better when sketching was permitted than when it was forbidden.

What to make of this?

This study used a task that required little expertise, and indeed, the participants were undergraduate students with no particular experience related to the creativity task. Yet these findings are in many ways similar to those reported in an earlier "think-aloud" study by an Australian research group that asked three highly experienced architects to respond to architectural design briefs while imagining the design (blindfolded) and then producing a final sketch versus while being allowed to look and sketch freely throughout.

Paralleling the findings with undergraduates, the final designs produced by the architects were equally creative regardless of whether they were only imagining the design or being able to sketch throughout. As the researchers concluded, "For the participant architects, sketching was functional, conventional, and habitual but not the only way to efficiently design."

Despite the similarity of their design outcomes when sketching throughout versus first imagining, all three architects said they much preferred to sketch during their creative idea search. They proffered a diverse set of plausible-sounding reasons for wanting to sketch, such as the feedback it gave them and the space for concretely testing their ideas and partial thoughts. Yet none of the architects touched on the core notion of how sketching made them feel. They didn't recognize how sketching fuels and sustains an ongoing intrinsically engaging cycle of making and finding. They didn't see how sketching was central to the intimate meshing of how they were thinking with how they were feeling.

Three questions to explore

  • Besides sketching, what other actions or interactions with your environments could likewise propel your continued creative engagement?
  • What are the roles of sketching and imagining in your creative projects that span across larger time windows, and have a more extended scope?
  • Are you sufficiently recognizing the role of how you feel about your making –– in the making itself? Is it the road ahead, or how you feel about the road you're traveling on, that keeps your creative momentum pedaling onwards?