Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top


Overview of Metaphoric Models for Creativity

Overview of Metaphoric Models for Creativity

| On 11, Nov 1999

Martin Hyatt
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA USA

Over the last few years I have done my doctoral research at Stanford in creativity. This is a short review of the research. The research adds new insight on the subject of creativity together with providing a framework for a systematic practice of creativity. The research builds on the current methods of creativity. There have been steady advances in the practice of creativity (such as TRIZ), but little towards a fundamental understanding. A critical shortfall in the field of creativity is the lack of models.

The thesis of my research is that metaphor can serve as a model for creativity, that is metaphors can provide a basis of representation, explanation, and prediction. The selection of the specific models is supported by surveying of the writings of creative thinkers, people who write about creativity, people who attempt to simulate creative thinkers, and work in cognitive science and linguistics. The common pattern among all of these writings is that there are three primary metaphors used to describe creativity. These metaphors serve as models of thinking including creativity as one form of thinking. The metaphors are:

  • Thinking is perceiving. This metaphor gives rise to a representation model that deals with issues of what and how information is considered, illusion, and the representation of information in insightful ways. Linguistic evidence includes expressions such as ‘I see what you mean’ or ‘what you said is fuzzy at first, but now I am clearer’.
  • Thinking is moving. This metaphor gives rise to a search model that deals with issues of sequencing of actions, end state, obstacles and alternatives. Linguistic evidence includes expressions such as ‘if we can get around this obstacle we will reach our solution’ or ‘I am following what you are saying until you lost me at that point’.
  • Thinking is object manipulation. This metaphor gives rise to a restructuring model that deals with issues of the combination and interaction of ideas. Linguistic evidence includes expressions such as ‘these two ideas are incompatible’ or ‘if we can just find this last piece we will have a complete product’.

Each of the metaphors pertain to different facets of creativity. By putting the metaphoric correspondences into a formal system the three metaphors together form a powerful collection of models for creativity.

The metaphors fulfill the three functions of models. First, the metaphors provide a basis of representation. This is demonstrated using three surveys in each case showing a correspondence with the metaphors of thinking. As mentioned, for a collection of descriptions of creativity the quotes correspond to the three metaphors. In another survey of creative problems the solutions to the problems correspond to the three metaphors as well. Most importantly, in a survey of creative methods, each method can be described in terms of one of the three metaphors.

The three metaphors also fulfill the explanation function of models. The three metaphors exist within a larger web of metaphors. In the context of the three metaphors is a metaphorical system describing causality, action, and state and another system that describes conceptions of the mind. The three metaphors of thinking are a natural product of these more fundamental metaphors. This relation explains why we have the metaphors we do to describe creativity which in turn explains why we conceive of creativity and approach creativity in the way we do. Since there are three distinct metaphors it also explains why creativity may mean different things to different people and why approaches to creativity are seemingly so disparate.

The last function of models, prediction, is also fulfilled by the three metaphors of thinking. In this case, the metaphors have suggested new techniques for creativity. The interrelations between the metaphors also suggest how the methods that correspond to the metaphors might be used in concert. There are other interesting implications that come from the predictive quality of the metaphors. One is to identify indicators of when a creative approach is warranted. Some of these indicators tend to exist within analytic frameworks. For example, highly complex decision problems can be represented in an analytic framework. Decision analytic tools can be employed to indicate which components of the decision could benefit from a creative focus.

The model-based approach to creativity promises to be an important step forward. The key idea is that metaphoric models can bring structure to creative processes. The main result is a comprehensive process that unifies and coordinates the creative techniques. In addition, the metaphors set the new process on a solid foundation. This new model-based approach provides a structured way to direct creativity.

In an informal survey of problems the techniques that were strongly motivated by metaphor solved a high percentage of the problems than those that were not. Interestingly, a large percentage of current methods are not highly motivated by any metaphor (e.g. brainstorming), and these are very unproductive as a systematic process. Furthermore, the comprehensive and systematic nature of the metaphors means resolving the haphazard approach that is so commonly associated with many creative methodologies. Perhaps the most persuasive argument of the value of the model-based approach is that it has produced solutions to problems resistant to the best of the current creative practices.

Interestingly, for those individuals that have developed a creative method, the person tended to work within one metaphor. (For instance Altshuller seems to be oriented towards the object manipulation metaphor and DeBono towards the moving metaphor). In essence, each metaphor serves as a different paradigm of creativity. By making the paradigms explicit we can both better exploit the cognitive structure that they contain and also work outside the paradigm when appropriate.