The Creative Loop: Stages

July 7, 2011

A year ago, I scratched out a drawing in Penultimate. It was an idea I dubbed The Creative Loop as an attempt to visualize how my creative process works itself out. (At the time, I think it was mostly an excuse to try out Penultimate. An app I love, even though The Creative Loop scrawl is the only thing worth keeping that I’ve captured.)

The sketch stuck with me, and I revisited it from time to time to look at it and refined it here and there. But that was it. It turns out that my idea of The Creative Loop was stuck in the early stages of the creative loop. I hope that will make more sense as you keep reading. The creative loop is the process through which creative work happens, from the pre-conception of an idea all the way through to the act of shipping. Anything that is made in a space where it didn’t exist before goes through the creative loop, whether it be a painting, a song, a blueprint, or a new company.

Creative Loop

The loop is pictured above. Movement through the loop initiates at the bottom left, and moves counter-clockwise up and ofter the top. It is a bottom-weighted circle, because it takes effort, it take work to get enough momentum to roll the loop to the top. Each degree of the loop is important, but it’s at the top where resistance is overcome and something is made.


The first stage, at the bottom left, is the work of engaging. This is marked by awareness of what is around us and taking it in. Engagement is the act of allowing ourselves to be present with whatever content is before us, whether it be a towering oak, a tasty slice of pizza, a good movie, or even a hunch from within.

A few years ago, I felt this strange sense of guilt anytime I was consuming, whether a book or otherwise. I feel a strong pull to be a creative person, and I reasoned that anytime I was consuming someone else’s work, I wasn’t doing work of my own. Somewhere along the way, I realized that often I felt my most creative while engaged with the creative works of others, or shortly after experiencing the work of others. Reading a thoughtful writer stirred a forming of my own ideas. Listening to a thoughtful lecture sent me off in all kinds of new directions.

All of this came to a head when the iPad arrived. My early critique, and a common critique, was that the iPad was a device for consuming content, not creating it. And behind this critique is the false assumption that needs to be recognized. Consumption has been laid out as a direct competitor to creation. If you are doing one, then you aren’t doing the other. There is just enough truth in that for us to hold tight to it, and all the guilt that comes with it. But it’s not true.

This act of consumption is often where creative work begins. But it would be better here to reframe the discussion from consumption to engagement. Because consumption as an activity can be unhelpful. Engagement, however, isn’t so much an activity as it is a posture. It is the posture of paying attention to what you are experiencing and what it is stirring in you. Within any activity, from the most mundane to the most spectacular, we can be present to what is happening and listen to how we are responding. This is the first stage in the creative loop.


Next in the loop, to the bottom right, is the act of capture. As we are engaged and connected to what we are experiencing ideas begin to form. Sometimes they are direct, and sometimes that are vague notions coming out of the stirrings within that require more exploration. Capture is the art of grabbing hold of these fleeting ideas and notions, no matter how vague they may be.

Capture is the most romantic of the stages of the creative loop. There is an entire industry directed to this particular portion of the creative work. Task management apps, finely bound empty notebooks with blank pages, capture everything apps, and even entire conferences generate great profits because we all feel like this is the critical step of creative work. It’s glamorous, because this is where the ideas are birthed.

I’ve been fascinated with the birth of ideas back to my earliest memories. As an elementary student, our teacher assigned us to read a book by the author of our choice, and follow up with a letter to the author, with hopes of getting a response. I have no idea what grade I was in. I have no idea what book I read (though I remember it was part of a series of books about the same character). I have no idea what author I wrote to. I have no idea if anyone else received a response. But I did. And I remember two things. First, in my letter, I asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas for the books from?” And in the response, the author said, “I just think real hard.”

Looking back now, that answer seems a little patronizing, but it also feels as true today as it does then. In creative work, we are always pursuing the ideas that come from inspiration. And we build it up so much with our empty notebooks and apps and conferences, that we often don’t recognize the simple ideas that slide through our mind everyday. I remember this letter exchange as if it happened yesterday. It might has well have, because I’m still asking that same question.


Now, let’s take another look at the loop, particularly that thicker mass between Engagement and Capture. As I said above the loop is bottom weighted. Many of us, most of us, find it easiest to rock back and forth between Engaging and Caputring two acts. We have notebooks, physical and digital, full of unpursued ideas. We have chord progressions that have never been developed into full song, and lines of poetry that have never been uttered allowed.

Rocking back and forth between these two is not bad, but it is if we never push beyond capture. We must gain enough momentum to roll the loop over to the Creation stage. This is where actual artifacts come into existence. This is where ideas become something. These might be artifacts that we share with others, or sometimes we keep them to ourselves. But the important thing, for now, is that they exist. We have to make something. That is, by definition creative work.

But Wait, There Will Be More.

In part two of this post, I will write about the in-between. While recognizing the stages is helpful, it is the movement between them that is the most important. There are actions and postures that help us generate movement between that stages of the loop, tipping it over, and ultimately, rolling it over again and again.

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