Creative thought and 3 old blokes

Socrates by David Lee

Socrates by David Lee

Hi I’m Katherine, and I’m obsessed with creativity.

My preoccupation started about four years ago, but I’ve always been fascinated I think by default since I’ve been labeled as ‘creative’ all my life. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I chose to be a designer - feeling content and happiest when I have permission to use my imagination.

My thirst for understanding creativity started when so many people would say to me ‘how did you get that idea?’ or ‘I wish I had a cool job’.  On the flip side though I also received comments like ‘you just colour in all day’ – if only that were true!

Comments like that piqued my interest and I started to seek out anything that could help me uncover what it was to be creative and why I felt it was so important to society. This article explores my first light bulb moment.

The gang of three

To understand how creative thought works it's important to understand the fundamentals of how we think and to do this we need to go back in time to Greece, around 350BC and look at three philosophers who, it is believed, shaped Western thinking as it is today. These three philosopher blokes were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Socrates: in a nutshell he was an amazing philosopher. He believed that you attack what is wrong – then you will eventually find the truth. This left us with an obsession with criticism.

Plato: He was THE mathematician and a student of Socrates. Plato was influenced by Pythagoras. He believed there were ultimate truths everywhere, if only we looked hard enough. Plato brought us an obsession with truth.

Aristotle: he was a pupil of Plato’s. He believed everything fits into a box. Something was either in this box or that box. Everything fits into a box! He gave us an obsession with judgement.

But what does all that mean?

So we can thank them for their way of thinking, they gave us the fundamentals of modern Western philosophy and we wouldn’t be where we are today without them! The search for truth is part of our way of life, unveiling new discoveries and technologies through the help of judgment and criticism. 

Unfortunately though for many new ideas, artistic projects, products and innovations those default qualities of how we think can cause havoc with the early stages of the creative process. And here's how:


New ideas are new. Alternative, different, unfamiliar, maybe strange, unknown, you get the gist, they don't exist yet. Consequently there is no 'truth' to know if it's going to be as you imagined it to be when it's out there in the wide world.


Judging a new idea too early when it's only a little nugget of an idea is very unhelpful. Most people are very quick to judge from a negative perspective or want to label it so it feels familiar and safe. And yet again since it doesn't exist yet, sometimes it's best to just prototype and see what happens. I mean, really, who knew that writing 140 character updates into the ether was going to be such a phenomenal social network theme. I didn't, but it's brilliant.

And thirdly

Criticism. Like judgment it's very easy to criticize ideas, other people's ideas and (probably most importantly) your thoughts about your ideas. Many people don't pursue their creative dream because the internal critical monologue inside the mind is talking too loudly 'That won't work', 'we've done that before' or 'I'm not talented enough'. The mind should come with a warning: don't always listen to me I have a contract with the ego and he really doesn't like to look stupid!

So, knowing the fundamentals of western thinking when you're in 'the zone' can be extremely helpful. Noticing that you're accessing those three qualities; judging, criticizing or seeking the truth means you're half way there. All you need to do is just park that critical thinking process until you’ve finished generating ideas and use them to evaluate all the ideas you have.

And for that we're going to need a forth bloke, who isn't quite so old...

Team Edward

One of the first books I read on Creative thinking was called ‘Teach yourself to think’ by Edward De Bono. Most people know him as the guy who invented the ‘6 thinking hats’ an effective tool to think from all perspectives of a situation or idea. Edward de Bono talks about the important lessons we can learn from our three old geezers but more importantly he talks about new ways of thinking and exploring ideas.

No doubt I'll be writing again about Edward De Bono but if you just can't wait to hear more about this fascinating man I highly recommend reading this book or if you’re short on time watch this.

PS – Just wanted to thank illustrator and designer David Lee for the perfect pen portraits of the three old blokes.