Graham Wallas was a social phycologist and founder of the London School of Economics, and he was the first one to propose a first complete model of a creative process. He described this model in 1926 in the book named “The Art of Thought”.

There he includes the three stages identified by Hermann von Helmholtz (a German physician and physicist) in 1891 - preparation, incubation, and Illumination - and adds a fourth one - Verification.

In the daily stream of thought, these four different stages constantly overlap as we explore different problems

I will try to describe below a little bit about the original process, and then at the end, you will find some hints of how to support better each phase taken from a Ph.D. thesis written by Arendse, Sedick and named “Evaluating and implementing a deliberate creativity framework to enhance retail business performance” - read it all here if you want:

Let’s start.

Wallace Creative Problem Solving

Preparation #

Preparation focuses on learning and understanding to gather information and define the problem and its requirements.

Here are some key points from Wallace about this stage:

  • The problem should “be investigated in all directions.”
  • The process should be a “hard, conscious, systematic, and fruitless analysis of the problem”.
  • Acquire as many facts as possible and try to memorize them so that later you will be able to form associations quickly. & A possible way of handing this preparation is to follow up on multiple propositions.

A great quote from Wallas regarding this stage is:

Our mind is not likely to give us a clear answer to any particular problem unless we set it a clear question, and we are more likely to notice the significance of any new piece of evidence or new association of ideas if we have formed a definite conception of a case to be proved or disproved

Some great additions from Arendse thesis regarding the implementation of Wallace model, especially when working with groups are:

  • Shared space for participants to put and access information
  • Defining and clarifying group objectives
  • Allowing a mix of public and non-public areas for participants to work.

Incubation #

Incubation is where the participant will not focus on the problem, but do any other non-demanding tasks (like sleeping, walking, listening to music, etc.). In contrast, the subconscious will focus on solutions.

Critical points from Wallace about this:

  • This stage should include a large amount of mental relaxation.
  • The mental relaxation should include a certain amount of physical exercise (“walking in the woods”, “a stroll over hill and dale”)
  • Should be aware that sometimes substituting mental relaxation or physical exercise with reading books could negatively affect the creative process. Some other times reading books - especially literature - could help.

Key points from Arendse:

  • Do something different by switching to various tasks or unwinding.
  • Depending on their profile, some people might work individually and others in groups.
  • Perceptual indicators help this process: people should remain in the space where there is around the information about the subject.

Illumination #

Illumination is when the participant will become aware of one or many solutions to the problem. Wallace calls Intimation the moment that precedes and accompanies the flash of Illumination.

When talking about Intimation, one of the best descriptions was written by McMurry in the book “How to Study”:

“Many of the best thoughts, probably most of them, do not come, like a flash, fully into being but find their beginnings in dim feelings, faint intuitions that need to be encouraged and coaxed before they can be surely felt and defined.”

Key points from Wallace:

  • Try to take precautions so that you will not be interrupted when the train of associations starts.
  • Do not try to conclude and putting it into works too early in your train of associations.
  • Sometimes you can start the Illumination by rereading some work that you did in the preparation phase.

Wallace quotes here Henry Hazlitt who wrote in a book named “Thinking as a science” this beautiful passage:

“Thoughts of certain kinds are so elusive that to attempt to articulate them is to scare them away, as a fish is scared by the slightest ripple. When these thoughts are in embryo, even the infinitesimal attention required for talking cannot be spared.”

Verification #

Verification (or Elaboration and Evaluation) is when the participant will evaluate if the solution is viable and satisfy the problem’s requirements. Wallace says that verification is not too different that Preparation and defined Verification as a process where “the validity of the idea was tested, and the idea itself was reduced to exact form”.

About the creativy process #

I find this book inspirational and very forward-thinking, taking into consideration that Wallace wrote it in 1926.

Among some interesting ideas, I take from Art of Though it that the creative process has an important component that lives into the subconscious and cannot be easily controlled. Still, some things might help the mind to come to an Illumination.

Here is what he says about how we arrive at a new idea:

Both the successful trains of association, which might have led to the ‘flash’ of success, and the final and successful train are normally either unconscious or take place (with ‘risings’ and ‘fallings’ of consciousness as success seems to approach or retire), in that periphery or ‘fringe’ of consciousness which surrounds our ‘focal’ consciousness as the sun’s ‘corona’ surrounds the disk of full luminosity.

Another essential idea is that that a mental activity once carried on will also leave our organism more prone to repeat that activity in the future.

Habits or actions to stimulate mental processes #

Wallace also proposes some actions to stimulate going into mental activity:

  1. “Associative thought to a time-stimulus” - if you do a mental activity every day at the same hour after a while, you will be able to go directly to focus (you will be warmed up to do the action that you wanted)
  2. “Habit of responding to a particularly sensory stimulus” - it might be that some environment (the place you are, what it is in the room, etc.) are better at stimulating a type of mental activity
  3. “Daily repeated muscular action stimulates the memory of the thought-train” - it might work to start your process by rereading what you wrote before.
  4. “Stimulus of breaking habit” - he also warns that we should not become “slaves of our habits,” and he even suggests that in case you have used one of the habits described above for five days to change it with another one in the six-day.
  5. Start by working on “what could be put off and leave till later what could not be put off”. This allows you to focus on “some question which, without a special effort of volition, we should be inclined to put off, a problem with slightly uncomfortable associations, or an inchoate train of still vague and only partially conscious thought”
  6. “Habit of watching the unfocussed fringe of their consciousness for any significant mental events which may appear there”, should be accompanied by the habit of writing them down as they are without forcing yourself to give them a specific form or to elaborate them.
  7. “Habit of oral lecturing and seminar-teaching” - where Wallace suggests that the ideas grow to each other when you are focusing on presenting them to an audience. You should go ahead and present to an audience (without reading from a paper) and be sure to note any ideas that might come into your mind during the presentation or afterward.

More about writing down thoughts and ideas #

It seems essential for an excellent thinker to keep track of different thoughts and ideas. Wallace suggests in this book some ways to handle this:

  • Write down ideas as they come, at the moment they arrive and in the form they come. Do not delegate for later the writing because you might lose them or forget them. Do not try to shape them, for you might interrupt a train of associations and loose some important though at the end.
  • Once per week, reread these notes and try to connect them with your current work.
  • If there is no connection with current work, then file the idea into a separate folder that Wallace names “Redistribute”, where you will put all these thoughts that seem important but do not belong elsewhere.
  • From time to time, go through this folder and analyze what it is there.

Resources #

“The Art of Thought” can be read online for free on

Ph.D. thesis written by Arendse, Sedick and named “Evaluating and implementing a deliberate creativity framework to enhance retail business performance” - cane be found here:

Who is Hermann von Helmholtz - the one Wallace mentions regarding the 3 stages of creative process:

“How to study” - the book written by Frank Morton McMurry and mentioned by Wallace in the Illumination stage can be read for free at Gutenberg:

“Thinking as Science” - the book written by Henry Hazlitt and mentioned by Wallace also in the Illumination stage can be read for gree at Gutenberg Project:

A good article about Wallace original model is this: