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Social Media and the Creative Process

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What is your creative process? When you need to write a new blog post, design a new image or kick off your next big campaign, what does your routine look like? Where do you start and how do you reach that ‘aha’ moment?

We all have our own version of the creative routine, but according to cognitive psychologist and author Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, the creative process can also be broken down into four cognitive stages:

  • Preparation: When you’re learning about things, when you’re focused on gathering information
  • Incubation: When you leave the current task, let your mind off it, and then come back to it fresh
  • Illumination/Insight: When the connections are made subconsciously and come together as an idea
  • Verification: When you use critical thinking skills, think about your audience, and craft the message so it’s consumable)


While the stages Dr. Kaufman identifies are cognitive, they manifest themselves in our creative routines. Today, more than ever before, social media is working its way into each of these stages, becoming core to the work we do as creatives.

Below I break down where social media fits into each of the four stages of the creative process.

Social Media and Creative Preparation

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When Kaufman talks about preparation, he refers specifically to learning. Before we start creating, we need to expose ourselves to what has already been created, and the concepts, themes and ideas that come along with that. Creatives are therefore consumers of media, and social media has a clear role to play in this stage of the process.

According to Pew, a remarkable 70 percent of Facebook users log on every day. Another 59 percent of Instagram users, 38 percent of Twitter users and 27 percent of Pinterest do the same. Every time the sign into these social networks, users are exposed to large amounts of content. Facebook users watch over 3 billion videos every single day. Another 70 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every 24 hours. Though content is curated to your interests, the sheer amount of content ensures you’re exposed a variety of things. Eighty-six percent of millennials, for example, say they usually see diverse opinions on social media.

In this way, social media is fueling the preparation stage of our creative process. By exposing us to more content than ever before, we’re always unconsciously absorbing bits and pieces that can ultimately come together in our minds to form our next big idea.

Social media can also help us prepare in more direct ways. Creating streams to track content relevant to your industry or focus, following Instagram influencers within your space, or building Pinterest boards to gather ideas, can all help us prepare for creative projects to come. Notebooks and scrapbooks have been replaced by social networks, which saves us time, effort, and creates a certain permanent creative storage space. Are you taking advantage?

Social Media and Creative Incubation

Video thumbnail for youtube video Why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Isn’t a Waste of Time (or Water)

The incubation stage highlighted by Kaufman refers specifically to leaving the task at hand behind, and coming back to it later on. We’ve all done this. We start writing and get stuck, so we go do something else and when we come back it all clicks. This is a classic creative routine, and it’s really interesting to see that this is actually something being studied by psychologists.

Social media is a natural place to take that “break” in the midst of your creative process. Throughout the day you can hop onto Facebook or Twitter, engage your followers on the community you’re a part of, curate content that they’ll enjoy, or just watch a video of a dog sliding down stairs. Whether you’re trying to be productive during these breaks, or you can afford to totally zone out and let your mind go blank for a little while, social networks have become go-to outlets on which to escape the grind.

The next time you’re having trouble designing that logo, take half an hour to browse Pinterest. The next time you can’t think of a good introduction to your blog post, scan Twitter headlines and find some news that interests you. When you’ve scrolled through the new stuff, go back to your task. Looking at it with fresh eyes will likely help you progress. Heck, you might have even drawn inspiration from what you saw on social media.

Social Media and Creative Insight

 Image by Joey Gannon  via flickr
Image by Joey Gannon via flickr

The third stage that Kaufman identifies is the most difficult to integrate social media into, largely because it’s very much a mental or cognitive stage. What he dubs the “insight or innovation” stage really just refers to the lightbulb going off. All creatives are pushing for that one moment where the idea takes shape in their mind, and they know they’ve landed on something special. In this, social media has no part to play.

However, social media is increasingly the place we turn right after that idea comes to us. Why? Well, it’s because everything lives on social networks, and we need to check and see whether our ideas have been done before.

Unfortunately almost every idea has already been done in some capacity, and one of the most frustrating experiences for a creative is finding someone who has already executed your ‘brand new idea.’ (It’s even worse if they’ve executed it well) So, when you finally form a great idea in your mind, take to Twitter and search key terms to see if it has been done before, and how. Look to Instagram or Pinterest for similar concepts, and see how different your idea is from similar concepts that already exist. If you can’t find something similar on social media, you may have just landed on a big idea, the rare unique concept that can take you or your business viral. Relish that moment.

Social Media and Creative Verification

Image by NEXT Berlin via Flickr
Image by NEXT Berlin via Flickr

The final stage of the creative process, according to Kaufman, is the verification stage. This is when you use critical thinking in order to craft the message so that it’s consumable and right for your audience. In this, social media has a massive role to play, perhaps more than any other medium right now.

Social networks have become incredible information sources, especially when it comes to gathering intel about your audience. Think like a business for a second, and put together a profile of your audience. Look at the types of content they share, and find the key traits that unite them. Listen to your audience on social media, and learn about them. Then, you can craft your content so it’s ripe for their consumption, and is more likely to get shared.

While you shouldn’t let your audience profile get in the way of a good idea, creating content to be shareable is more important in the social media age than ever before. People are in control of what they see, read and share, and what they scroll by without a second thought. You need your content to cause a reaction within your audience. Kaufman has a particularly powerful quote, where he says “some of the greatest, creative ideas of all time can be easily lost because they’re not packaged in the right way, or are not consumable.” Don’t let your hard work go to waste.

Want a little creative inspiration? Check out some of the best brand campaigns from the last decade.