What is creativity? What theoretical frameworks exist to help us understand and assess it?

This first chapter in a literature review looking at the role of creative play in developing creativity in the digital age considers what creativity can mean in the 21st century. 

In the first chapter of the literature review we explore the nature and meaning of creativity and attempts to contextualise it in the 21st century. Creativity is often associated with artistic activity or - at its most extreme - with unique moments of genius changing how we understand and live our lives.  However, creativity as a skill can be expressed and leveraged by a variety of actors in a broad range of contexts. This concept of ‘everyday creativity’ was defined, assessed, and validated in the 1980s as expressions of originality and meaningfulness (Richards, 2019). 

Here, we will analyse creativity through the lens of one particular model, established by Mel Rhodes, called the 4 Ps of Creativity (Rhodes, 1961). The model has been regularly referenced since it was first published, with researchers continuing to draw on this framework today, and can also be applied to work that predates its publication. It positions creativity as an almost abstract outcome resulting from one or several of four constituent parts:

  1. Place, called Press in the original model, in reference to the environmental factors that ‘press’ on the individual. This references physical and social aspects of the environment that influence the capacity to be creative. This could be the layout of a room (Piscitelli & Penfold, 2015) or cultures within an organisation that affect personal autonomy, openness and access to resources and information sharing practices (Munro, 2017).
  2. Person includes individual traits including genetic dispositions (Runco, et al., 2011), types of intelligence (Gardner, 1993), emotional openness (Ivcevic & Hoffman, 2019) and knowledge or skill level (Amabile, 1996)
  3. Process relates to behavioural factors such as modes of divergent and convergent thinking (Guilford, 1957), and collaborative engagement (Sawyer K. , 2018).
  4. Product references the outcome of the creative process and involves notions of assessment (Hennessey, Amabile, & Mueller, 2018)

Table 1 - Rhodes' 4Ps of Creativity

Place Environmental factors, e.g. degree of autonomy, access to resources
Person Individual traits, e.g. genetic factors, knowledge, skills
Process Behavioural factors, e.g. modes of thinking, engagement & behaviour
Product Assessment of outcomes, e.g. productivity, level of innovation, value to society

Although these categories often overlap, they offer a useful way to think about how we can understand creativity.

In addition to the 4 Ps model we will use other models to illuminate the nature of creativity. We will consider how creativity is assessed, and how the nature and expression of creativity is challenged and changed by recent digital and technological innovations.  Alongside this, we will introduce other models and frameworks to explore the nature of creativity. 

A definition of creative products 

If creativity occurs across all disciplines and sectors, how can we define a creative output?

The easiest aspects of creativity to visualise are the products and solutions it generates. A creative solution can be a completely new invention, or the reuse of an existing practice  (Guilford, 1950). What matters is that the contribution is both novel and appropriate (Boden, 2004). Novelty emphasises the originality of construction in any given context. Appropriateness emphasises that the construction is considered fit for purpose and valued by a relevant community (Amabile, 2018). However, there are some concerns about using appropriateness to identify creative products.

Culture and communities have different notions of appropriateness (Amabile, 2018). This can lead to domain-specific criteria for evaluating potentially creative contributions (Baer, 2018). In artistic disciplines, a creative performance may require a dynamic expression of an idea that is so individual it cannot be replicated (Amabile, 2018). In contrast, creative developments in physical science will have replicability as a core criterion of appropriateness (Amabile, 2018). A creative development in social science may reveal new relationships between the environment and group behaviour, whereas in business, creativity may involve using these social science perspectives in new ways to create economic growth. 

Furthermore, appropriateness is culturally dependent, with Western societies placing higher value on horizontal creativity, and Asian societies placing greater value on vertical creativity (Gardner & Weinstein, 2018; Niu, 2019).  Horizontal creativity privileges individual interpretations and the novelty and divergence of creative expression and thinking.  In contrast, vertical creativity privileges innovation within an existing practice and the contextual relevance of new ideas (Niu 2019). Ultimately, although there is an essential commonality in definition, interpretations and evaluations of creativity are dependent on cultural, social and disciplinary contexts (Amabile, 2018).

Using systems models to help us understand creativity

What are systems models, and how can they help us understand creativity? 

Systems models illuminate the relationship between an individual or group with specific traits and expertise, the cultural resources these individuals draw on, and the group of individuals who consider the contributors and act as gatekeepers (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) (Gardner & Weinstein, 2018). 

Systems models of creativity are useful when we try to understand creative productivity within a specific domain of activity.  Systems models highlight the interdependent relationship between individual insights and domain-relevant knowledge  (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) (Gardner & Weinstein, 2018). This relationship can be understood as a conversation between an individual or group with specific traits and expertise, a domain of cultural resources and a field of knowledgeable individuals who evaluate the contributions and act as domain gatekeepers (Figure 1). Domain-relevant knowledge is a resource individuals can draw on to innovate. If members of the field judge the innovation novel and appropriate, it will be retained by the community, sometimes becoming an essential component of domain-relevant knowledge (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). If the innovation has a large impact in the field, it has the potential to transform the domain, or create a new domain. These models are particularly useful in contexts where a product is created for a specific audience, such as research and development settings or start-up businesses.

Figure 1 - Systems Model of Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, Implications of a systems perspective for the study of creativity, 1999)

The ‘Four Cs’ of creativity 

Within or outside of a systems model, creativity can clearly generate a broad range of products and solutions. These different types of products are best illustrated by the ‘4 Cs’ of creativity model, developed by Beghetto and Kaufman, which uses a four-tiered hierarchy to map a continuum of creative products from everyday learning and local problem solving, to field-defining artistry and invention (Beghetto & Kaufman, 2016). 

Mini-c creativity refers to the everyday little ‘Eureka’ moments of developmental learning. In this model, ‘Mini-c’ insights are based on Vygotsky’s (1976) conception of learning as a dynamic process of knowledge construction.  Hence, personal insights are creative acts in the mind of the learner as they construct, i.e. the “novel and personally meaningful interpretation of experiences” (Beghetto & Kaufman, 2016). If ‘Mini-c’ insights are explored and developed, they can lead to Little-c creativity. ‘Little-c’ creativity describes innovations in everyday life that solve localised problems and are considered new and valuable by a local community.

As ‘Mini-c’ and ‘Little-c’ are personally and locally meaningful creative acts, by contrast, Pro-c and Big-C creativity focus on the domain-specific knowledge generation and wider social impact of creative action (Beghetto & Kaufman, 2016). ‘Pro-c’ creativity are solutions that require professional-level knowledge and are valued by a community of experts. Although ‘Pro-c’ insights have an impact within a professional community, they do not dramatically transform the field of professional expertise. In contrast, ‘Big-C’ creativity is the work of pioneers and eminent thinkers, like Picasso or Einstein, who transform an existing field of study, or develop a completely new one. ‘Big-C’ creativity normally reflects a body of work, often over a lifetime (Gardner, 1993).

Table 2 - Beghetto & Kaufman's 4 Cs of Creativity

Creativity Type


Evaluation & Impact

Big-C work that transforms a field of expertise global, professional
Pro-c robust ideas that add to existing field professional community
Little-c everyday, localised problem solving local community
Mini-c novel and personally meaningful learning the individual

‘Mini-c’ and ‘Little-c’ are especially useful ways of thinking about creativity in educational and community contexts where the emphasis is often on developing personal expression, personal growth and localised solutions. ‘Pro-c’ and ‘Big-C’ are more suitable ways of thinking about creative impact in professional domains, such as the performing arts, business and research. Reflecting the previously mentioned overlap between the ‘Four Ps’, analysis of ‘Big-C’ creative products are likely to focus more on the unique aspects of the creator (Gardner & Weinstein, 2018), whereas analysis of everyday creative products may well focus on the creative process and more conventional aspects of the social and learning environment from which the creativity arose (Simonton, 2019). 

Creative processes

In order to facilitate creative production, it is necessary to consider the nature of the creative process. The creative process can be considered as a set of iterative behaviours that enable people to explore conceptual space, identify new opportunities and problems, and generate novel and appropriate solutions (Boden, 2004). 

In the creative process, imaginative and critical skills are complementary and follow patterns of divergent and convergent thinking (Guilford, 1957). Divergent thinking is the use of imagination and experimentation to open up conceptual space and generate new pathways and perspectives. Whereas convergent thinking is the application of contextualised observations, logical thought and systemised approaches to choose a suitable solution and make it fit for purpose. The iteration of divergent and convergent thinking in relation to a problem allows innovative and valued solutions to be generated. Furthermore, the goal-oriented and open-ended nature of creative processes combined with a strong sense of competence and control can facilitate ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)  (Sawyer K. , 2012) and other positive psychological states (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Hence, the creative process is not only desirable for the products and social competence it generates but also for its positive impact on psychological well-being.

Creative collaboration

One type of creative process that merits further examination is the nature of creative collaboration. In the analysis of Creative Products, the value of partnership was already suggested: systems models are essentially collaborative, as people work with the ideas of others, using tools and materials created by others, and address a specific audience. However, there is also a clear body of literature that specifically examines the value of collaboration for the creative process.

Research that compares postgraduate studies on creativity from the Wehner et al. 1991 study (Wehner, Csikszentmihalyi, & I.Magyari-Beck, 1991) with data from 2005-2007 studies reveals an increasing focus on product and group creativity (C.H. Kahl, 2009). These findings are consistent with the view that modern creativity research has moved from a focus on the personality traits of Big-C thinkers to creativity emerging from more everyday interactions (Gardner & Weinstein, 2018).

Collaboration in small groups is a well-known method used in organisations to create highly progressive innovation (Bennis & Biederman, 1998). Creative teams can disperse the cognitive load required to think creatively about complex problems and build on each other’s ideas to create something greater than they could achieve on their own (Sawyer K. , 2007). Creative collaboration takes the social and dialogic nature of creative action to a higher level. 

A key component of effective creative collaboration is the ability to be reflexive and take up the perspectives of others  (Kaufman & Glaveneau, 2019). Remaining open to new ideas and perspectives throughout the creative process is important to facilitate collaboration. Social-emotional imagination facilitates group creativity by expanding imaginative potential. Reflexive modes of thinking create conceptual space and mental flexibility that allows ideas to flow (Gotlieb, Hyde, Immordino-Yang, & Kaufman, 2019). For example, flexible identity construction is the ability to maintain a clear sense of self whilst moving between different aspects of identity. This flexibility enables people to find a shared aspect of identity and connect with a diverse range of people.  Constructive internal reflection is a form of imaginative sense-making in which an individual can think reflexively about their own values and sense of purpose, then apply this understanding to imagine the perspectives of others (Immordino-Yang, Christodoulou, & Singh, 2012).

These reflexive modes of thinking are supported by polycultural thinking, informed by different cultural frames of references. Polycultural thinking can improve problem solving, complex thinking and democratic outcomes of group engagement (Hurtado, 2005). The combination of these reflexive and cultural modes of thinking enables us to suspend judgement, imagine a broader spectrum of possibilities and collaborate flexibly in democratic and socio-culturally sensitive ways (Gotlieb, Hyde, Immordino-Yang, & Kaufman, 2019). 

When creativity is viewed as an emergent property of group interaction, it begins to share some similarities with the concept of improvisation and group play. The three key aspects of effective collaboration are an egalitarian ethos, a lack of specificity, and moment-to-moment contingency (Sawyer K. , 2018). An egalitarian ethos means all members can participate freely, which maximises the pool of ideas and inspiration. A lack of specificity is a strategic ambiguity that leaves space open to interpretation. Moment-to-moment contingency is utilising the lack of specificity to create divergent spaces. The combination of these elements enables the layering of ideas and the growth of complexity from which sense and innovative thinking emerge (Sawyer K. , 2018). Complex systems behaviour emerges from unpredictability and inter-subjectivity and cannot be explained by reference to reductive psychology that concentrates analysis solely at the level of the individual (Sawyer K. , 2018). This highlights the social and interpersonal nature of creativity, and points to the importance of interaction, flexibility of identity and creative play in the development of creative potential.

The role of place and person

As per Rhodes’ (1961) model, place and person sit alongside product and process. Place and person address how aspects of the environment and personality influence creativity. Creative environments are social spaces (analogue and digital) that enable the creative process and lead to the generation of novel and contextually valuable forms of learning, expression, or production.  How individuals engage with their environment during the creative process is not incidental to the nature of the products they create (Rhodes, 1961).

One key ‘place’ that could be considered here are education environments. Educational learning environments cover a wide variety of life course contexts from preschool to PhD research, and a wide variety of domains from sandpit play to astrophysics. The focus of creative behaviour within learning also changes a great deal (Hui, He, & Wong, 2019) shifting from original and personal insights in preschool as children make sense of the world around them, to higher quality insights during compulsory and undergraduate education, through to generating novel and useful insights that hold societal significance in post-graduate and PhD research work where theoretical creativity is required (Lovitts, 2005). 

Assessing the four Ps

There are a number of specific tools that have been used to measure creative output. Increases in creative productivity can be measured by assessing the quality and quantity of products or ideas generated. Tools that measure the creative process assess occurrences of divergent thinking, originality, flexibility and elaboration within individuals and groups. Personality traits and past behaviours have been measured to identify the creative characteristics of a person or group, often through self-assessment. Measuring creative environments is a less focused area of research, reflected in the limited number of specific tools identified.


One of the most widespread models used for measuring creative products is the Creative Assessment Technique (CAT) created by Amabile (1982). This is a domain-specific method of evaluation in which experts in the field are required to use their expert and informed opinion to rate the creativity of a new product or proposal.  One of the key benefits of analyses that measure the product is that they avoid the measurement problems of psychometric testing.  Furthermore, they are domain-specific and so combine both the novel aspect of creativity and the notion of appropriateness. CAT has been shown to be reliable across a wide range of applications and contexts (Plucker, Makel, & Qian, 2019), however there is still the question of who constitutes a suitable expert.  Research suggests that the level of expertise required for suitable evaluation and the inter-rater reliability will differ with the domain-specificity of the product in question.


To assess creative development, creative responses during the creative process, or the creativity of the final product generated, can be measured.  There are a variety of tools that aim to measure the creative process in terms of divergent thinking, i.e. the novelty and number of ideas generated. Divergent thinking as a domain general skill is measured by tests such as the Torrance’s (1974) Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) and Guilford’s (1967) Structure of the Intellect (SOI) test. These tests rely on using visual and verbal prompts and measure the fluency of ideas, i.e. the number of divergent responses individuals make. Guilford’s test uses sub-categories such as originality, how unique an idea is; flexibility, how many different categories of response an individual makes; and elaboration, the depth and detail of the explanation provided (Plucker, Makel, & Qian, 2019). The TTCT uses verbal and figural prompts and similar methods of scoring to the SOI. Test question categories include Product Improvement, Guessing Causes and Just Suppose. For example, “Suppose you were invisible for a day.  What problems would that cause and what benefits would it generate?”  Such tests are often used in pre- and post-test evaluation in research interventions designed to improve creative responses (Berrueco & Garaigordobil, 2011).  Although there is a general acceptance of the reliability of scoring and results, this is dependent on the level of training of the scorers (Plucker, Makel, & Qian, 2019). Furthermore, as these tests only measure the novelty of an idea, it is questionable whether they are suitable for modern domain specific conceptions of creativity (Baer, 2011) (Kim, 2011).


Personality scales measure aspects of personality or past behaviour and are often used to compare groups. These tests are generally based on self-assessment, though some models involve external assessment. Examples of the tests include the Creative Personality Scale (Kaufman & Baer, 2004), the Creativity Achievement Questionnaire (Carson, Peterson, & Higgins, 2005) and the Big Five Personality Traits (Karwowski & Lebuda, 2016). These tests show certain characteristics as common among creative people such as being open to experience, autonomous, introverted dominant and impulsive (Plucker, Makel, & Qian, 2019). Although these tests do not measure creative development, they can be used to assess creative tendencies in individuals across different times.  However, not all qualities that make a creative person are necessarily conducive to group creativity.  For example, being open-minded, curious and having a sense of humour would be conducive to group creativity (Davis, 1992). However, being driven, hostile, dominant and impulsive may be problematic when trying to negotiate conflict or generating psychologically safe environments in which people feel they can take risks (Feist G. , 1998) (Reiter-Palmon, Mitchell, & Royston, 2019). If collaborative creativity is to be measured, it will require a non-reductive method of analysis that takes into account socio-cultural and emergent aspects of the creative process. 


Although there are many models for assessing how working environments affect productivity, there are very few that focus solely on creativity (Plucker, Makel, & Qian, 2019). However, Amabile and colleagues (Amabile, 1996) developed the KEYS: Assessing the Climate for Creativity self-assessment instrument to review the relationship between working environment and creativity in teams. The tool assesses aspects of the environment that stimulate and inhibit creative responses. The KEYS scale involves detailed self-analysis and measures management practices, motivation and interaction among team members. Results have shown the scales can discriminate between team working environments that will generate high and low creativity rates.

Concluding how to define creativity in the digital age: part 1

The digital age, however, appears to challenge much of this existing work on the nature of creativity: it is clear that online creativity and audiences are affecting the meaning, expression and impact of creativity (Literat & Glaveneau, 2018), and distinct new ‘creator’ groups are emerging, such as of produsers (Bruns, 2008), people who simultaneously produce and consume a product.  

New digital media (NDM) and Web 2.0 technologies have changed how communication takes place and provided new opportunities for artistic expression, co-creation and the dissemination of creative works online (Gardner & Weinstein, 2018) and the networked and participatory nature of online engagement brings into question the separation between creative act, performance, and communication with an audience (Literat & Glaveneau, 2018). For example, affinity groups enable ‘Mini-c’ creativity by allowing individuals with similar interests to mentor and support each other in the development of their creative skills. Sites such as Behance and Dribbble allow professional artists and designers to share their work, receive constructive feedback and inspiration (Hemsley & Tanupabrungsun, 2018). As comments are a common aspect of social networking services’ (SNS) interactions, the notion of evaluation and field are inherent aspects of SNS based creativity. On SNS sites such as Instagram, professionals, produsers and amateurs post creative performances, and outcomes are likely to range from ‘mini-c’ inspiration to ‘Pro-c’ influence. However, the notion of field and the relationship between producer and audience is difficult to define (Literat & Glaveneau, 2018). Therefore, in online contexts, where the nature of the audience is networked and highly distributed, there is likely to be a more fluid notion of field and a less well defined and regulated notion of domain (Literat & Glaveneau, 2018). This networked notion of creativity also brings out the dialogic and collaborative nature of online creativity and its close association with personal identity online (Literat & Glaveneau, 2018). 

However, sharing creativity and posting is not always regarded in a positive light. It has been argued NDM’s role in the attention economy has created higher levels of distraction (Turkle, 2015). For example, SNS users often create posts for short-term amusement, to cause alarm or elicit controversy. SNS memes become viral and are shared across huge networks. These memes and jokes are expressive, but they are forgotten as quickly as they are generated (Gardner & Weinstein, 2018). The remixing and rapid dissemination of these personal works in NDM have problematised traditional notions of appropriateness and authorship (Gardner & Weinstein, 2018).

More seriously, technology designers, executives and researchers have recently expressed concern about the implications of attention economy based business models for the design of digital tools. The goal of maximising users’ time online can result in intentional hijacking of the mind, via monetisation of thoughts, emotions, and actions, with potentially serious consequences for mental health, relationships and democracy (Lewis, 2017) (Center for Humane Technology, 2019). The suggestion that digital tools can and do exploit human vulnerability and reduce autonomy via addiction by design has significant implications for creativity. Hence, the digital realm offers new arenas for group engagement from which creativity can emerge, but also new dilemmas about the value and purpose of creative work and how to distribute it respectfully.  

In part 2 of the literature review, we will explore creative play in greater depth, and in part three analyse the relationship between creativity and creative play in the digital age. 


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