Designing the cognitive future, part VIII: Creativity

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Wed, April 08, 2015 - 10:44:36

In the past decade there has been an increasing amount of interest in the HCI community on the topic of creativity. While it is not a process at the same basic level as perception or attention, creativity is often listed as a topic in cognition, and it is the focus of this post. 

Creativity is not easy to define. Reading through several definitions, I liked the one by Zeng et al. who defined it as “the goal-oriented individual/team cognitive process that results in a product (idea, solution, service, etc.) that, being judged as novel and appropriate, evokes people's intention to purchase, adopt, use, and appreciate it” [1].

If we want to enhance creativity, it is worth learning a bit about the factors that appear to affect creativity. The research literature points at two factors: diversifying experiences [2] and fluid intelligence mediated by task switching [3].

In terms of diversifying experiences, there is anecdotal evidence that many highly creative people grew up with diverse experiences, for example, speaking many languages, living in many countries, or having to cross cultures [2]. It makes sense that the ability to have multiple perspectives on a topic or experience would help with creativity. There is also evidence that people can be more creative in the short term right after experiencing a situation that defies expectations [2]. Perhaps throwing our neuronal systems off-balance makes it more likely that a new path be traveled in our brains.

The other factor that seems to make creativity more likely is fluid intelligence, the ability to solve problems in novel situations. More specifically, one factor related to fluid intelligence that appears to make a difference is task switching, the ability to switch attention between tasks (or approaches) as needed [3]. 

So how are technologies affecting creativity, and how might technologies affect creativity in the future?

When it comes to diversifying experiences, interactive technologies can certainly help provide more of those. We can already experience media from all sorts of sources in all sorts of styles. These can provide us with much broader backgrounds full of different perspectives. They can also give us convenient access to inspirational examples. In addition, it is easier than ever to find perspectives and points of view that may challenge ours, modifying our neuronal ensembles. 

Other ways through which technologies may provide us with even richer perspectives is by enabling us to interact remotely with a wide variety of people. Just like online multiplayer games enable gamers from around the world to form ad-hoc teams, these could be formed for other purposes. Having truly interdisciplinary, multicultural teams come together after a few clicks and keystrokes could potentially make it much easier to gain new perspectives on problems. Similar technologies could also make it easier to reach groups of diverse people who could quickly provide feedback on ideas to see which ones are worth pursuing.

Interactive technologies could also help with the task switching necessary to consider several alternative solutions to problems. Technologies could, for example, enable the quick generation of alternatives, or may enable quicker shifting by easily keeping track of ideas. Tools can also make it easier to express ideas that are in our heads. High-quality design tools are an example. They simply give us a much bigger palette and toolbox. These design tools can be complemented by other tools that can make these ideas concrete, such as 3D printers. Holographic displays could also be very helpful in this respect. 

Could interactive technologies get in the way of creativity? It’s possible. If the sources of experiences become standardized, it could affect the ability to gain different perspectives. If we have technologies deliver experiences that keep us in our comfort zones, this is also likely to reduce our ability to be creative. If most people use the exact same tools to pursue creative endeavors, then we are more likely to come up with similar ideas.

So what could the future of creativity hold? The ideal would include readily available diverse experiences, especially those that challenge our views and help us think differently. It could also include powerful, personalized tools that help us make our ideas concrete, discover alternatives, and obtain quick feedback, perhaps doing so with diverse groups of people. 

What would you like the future of creativity to look like?


1. Zeng, L., Proctor, R. W., & Salvendy, G. (2011). Can Traditional Divergent Thinking Tests Be Trusted in Measuring and Predicting Real-World Creativity? Creativity Research Journal, 23(1), 24–37.

2. Ritter, S. M., Damian, R. I., Simonton, D. K., van Baaren, R. B., Strick, M., Derks, J., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2012). Diversifying experiences enhance cognitive flexibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 961–964.

3. Nusbaum, E. C., & Silvia, P. J. (2011). Are intelligence and creativity really so different?: Fluid intelligence, executive processes, and strategy use in divergent thinking. Intelligence, 39(1), 36–45.

Posted in: on Wed, April 08, 2015 - 10:44:36

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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