The Creative Process and Critical Thinking

As I walked through the exhibits of our graduating Art and Design students at the end of the spring semester, I was reminded of a wonderful story about the composer Johannes Brahms that people like to tell when talking about creativity–or the creative process. One evening in Vienna, so the story goes, Brahms was with a group of friends in a local café. He was asked how he spent the day. “I was working on my symphony,” he said. “In the morning, I added an eighth note. In the afternoon, I took it out.”

As much as anything, this story–probably apocryphal–illustrates a salient point about creativity. It is hard, painstaking work. It is often a struggle. It requires deep and serious thinking. Critical thinking.

I think we often harbor romantic notions about the creative process. We may envision a Jackson Pollack exuberantly dripping paint on a canvas…a designer intuitively draping fabric around a dress form… a rap artist spontaneously rhyming. But it doesn’t happen like that. And I think our students know that very well. They work long hard hours to produce their amazingly inventive objects, products and art works. And like their peers in any traditional liberal arts college, they need well-developed critical thinking skills to succeed.

In fact, because creativity is one of the highest forms of critical thinking, I could even argue that our students are held to a higher standard than students at traditional colleges and universities. In their senior design projects, our Art and Design students face complex problem-solving challenges and produce brilliant toys and jewelry, packages and paintings, garments and accessories, textiles, jewelry, interiors, photographs. The creation of these works reflects all of those cognitive processes that make up the full complement of critical thinking skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and judgment.

Imagine the knowledge required to determine the impact of pigments and dyes on silks or linens, to understand the relationship between light and color or to design a restaurant lounge to code; imagine the analysis required to resolve basic design issues of size and composition, the judgment that goes into the selection of a fabric, the placement of a dart or a button or a product in a photo shoot. These are just a few examples of the kind of critical thinking skills these students must master and apply as they go about their creative tasks.

As Brahms said of that eighth note: “In the afternoon, I took it out.”

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