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The Creative Spiral: Imagine.

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Congratulations. Once you’ve developed a creative habit, you can now start thinking about the more nuanced parts of your craft, and learn to work within your own creative rhythm.

The Creative Spiral.

I like Mitchel Resnick’s theory of the creative process. It loosely applies to my own work, and may describe yours as well. He dubs it The Creative Spiral. It’s interesting that he labeled it a “spiral,” rather than “cycle.”

I agree with Mitchel’s word choice. In a cycle, you end where you started. In a spiral, you also end where you started, but you’re a little higher (This is an upwards spiral, not a downwards spiral– we don’t want any downwards spirals). Your work has improved because you’ve stretched your abilities beyond your familiar past projects.

In our world, the problem of imagining has been mitigated. If you open your fridge to sparsely inhabited shelves, just order takeout or look in the freezer (there’s probably a microwaveable meal somewhere in there). If your dining table is old and wobbly, just throw it away and buy a ready-to-assemble replacement. If you want new clothes, there are dozens of fast fashion brands to choose from.

Imagine what would happen if we decided to take the harder route: Maybe you'd open your fridge and challenge yourself to make a cohesive meal using only the ingredients you see. Or you’d replace the wobbly dining table legs with ones you proudly made yourself. Or you’d learn to alter clothing. Imagine.


The difference between these two scenarios lies in constraints. Constraints are a limit set on your work (in the examples above, the limit was “I will handle this myself”). Though sometimes annoying, constraints are absolutely vital for creative projects.

When confronted with constraints, your brain goes to work on creative ways to problem-solve. “I will paint the view from my window using just three colors,” is a lot more creatively stimulating than “I will paint a landscape.” With the constraints set, you’ve opened the channel to creative thinking.

Every project has inherit constraints, whether it’s a deadline, a budget, or access to tools. And thank goodness for that. American actor/director/writer Orson Welles, once said “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” (Welles et al., 1998)

I made some of my worst art after being told “Make anything you want.” No book was ever written without a deadline. No business was ever built without a budget. When you incorporate limits, your project goes from “I need to draw a portrait,” to “I need to draw a portrait in one hour. What can I focus on, and what can I simplify?” Bam. Creativity.


Jake Parker– one of my favorite creative mentors– explains your imagination like a “creative bank account.” We can’t take anything out if we don’t put anything in. Regular deposits in your creative bank account make withdrawals possible; this means having a regular diet of things that inspire you and paying attention to what you like in the world. (Parker, 2018) Purposely consume things that delight you.

My imagination is happiest when I’m regularly interacting with other people . A few years ago my family and I were laughing about the fear of going bald. This conversation led me to create a children’s book about a sheep who’s terrified of going bald. I love reflecting on the process of If I Go Bald because it was one of the few times an idea seemed to fall into my lap and come out in one seamless stream of work. Ideas never develop that cleanly for me, so the experience was truly exceptional.

Set constraints, and intentionally engage with inspiration. Your work will thank you for it.


Welles, O., Bogdanovich, P. and Rosenbaum, J. (1998) This is Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press.

Parker, J. (2018) Episode 08: Your creative bank account, School of Visual Storytelling. Available at: (Accessed: 01 June 2023).

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