1. Define the end of a project
  2. Work towards that end
  3. Determine the tasks you need to complete each day from the start to the end

I wish I can tell you that doing creative work is that easy. But it’s not. Beginning with the end in mind doesn’t always work.

When working on an article, I cannot tell exactly how the article will turn out in the end. I don’t write (or work on other projects) with a rigid outline most of the times. Outlines work for some people really well. But being like a project manager who can tell you exactly what tasks to do on any single day is not for me.

Most of the time, I prefer an alternative method. Instead of outlining every single part of the writing (or any other project, really), I prefer to organise it as I work through the project.

7 stages of creative projects

#1 Gain awareness

Imagine going to a new city with no access to any maps or GPS. Assume that you don’t have a way to communicate with the locals too. How does that make you feel? Lost? However, if you start just by gaining awareness of the sights and sounds around you, you will eventually find your way around, slowly but surely.

Starting a new project is not that different. You will need to start by trying to learn more about the topic.

And to do that, you must first resist the temptation to jump to conclusions quickly. For example, this is part of the question for a current school assignment that I have: Identify a specific educational issue that you would like to explore as part of a case study of educational change. Not jumping to conclusions means that I don’t choose a specific issue immediately without further reading. I would come up with a few initial ideas. But I won’t reject any of them at this stage.

For your project, after you jot down some ideas that come immediately, go back to the scope or project brief once again. Have you understood the requirements of the project? Have you questioned your clients properly and understood their needs and wants?

Before you even come up with any solution, you would have to gain a better awareness of the problem you have at hand first.

#2 Increase your understanding

Read and research widely. Archive anything that you find interesting. Jot down any thoughts you have for each piece of information, if any.

Don’t bother to sort them at this stage. It’s ok if you won’t be using some of those ideas later. It’s a bit like packing your house. You first have to get everything out somewhere where you can see everything you own. Sometimes you will have to discard things in the process of packing later on.

Some useful online tools are1:

Credit: Jo Szczepanska

Otherwise, just go old school and work with physical tools. Pen and paper work well. Writing in a notebook is fine too. Or else, working with Post-it notes on a huge board like the picture above is a good idea too.

#3 Expand your possibilities

After you feel that you have done enough research, you can start brainstorming for ideas.

I like to think of ideas as part of the ongoing process of research in Step 2. It is much like having a conversation with someone else, where you build on each other’s replies to drive the conversation forward. After you come across an idea that interests you, you then think about the idea and generate something of your own to ‘reply’ that initial idea.

As you brainstorm for ideas, you must record them down. Write or sketch out your ideas. If it’s music, record them with your phone. It might be called brainstorming. But you can’t keep on generating ideas in your head if you don’t record what you think about.

Go for quantity. Generate as many ideas as you can without judging them. If you feel like you really don’t have any ideas, just jot down something. Even if you feel like it’s the lamest idea in the whole world.

As Ed Sheeran says, the initial ideas will not be good. But you have to force them out of you. So don’t filter anything at this point.

#4 Gain clarity

Now that you’ve generated as many ideas as you can, you need to go through a process of sifting them.

Try to find recurring themes among your ideas. See if you can find connections between different ideas as well. Original ideas usually come from the combination of different ideas, especially those from different fields.

As you analyse your ideas, which are the ones that stand out the most to you? Which do you think will be the central theme of your project? What’s the number one outcome you want to achieve?

#5 Develop your idea

Any creative project will need to be built. All the research in the world is not going to help you do that. At some point, you will need to start developing your idea and work on the project proper.

You need to start writing. Or painting and sketching things out. Or coding the app that you have in mind.

If you’re like me, starting a project is usually the hardest part of the entire project. But the good news is, you don’t have to work on the project from start to the end in a linear fashion. You can begin in the middle and work outwards from there. You can jump about here and there if that works for you, as it does for me sometimes.

Also, don’t expect to get it right the first time. You will have to refine your ideas to take your project to the next level. This step of refining is where you work on the ideas that you have chosen and continue to give them greater clarity.

#6 Present your idea

All creative work need feedback. Having someone with a different perspective will help you see things that you’ve never seen before.

To do that, you need to have a working prototype or model of your project. Or a first draft. Something that will communicate your ideas to someone else.

The prototype is something that you can do rapidly in the shortest amount of time possible using the cheapest resources that you can find. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But once you build it, you can then study it objectively to evaluate your project. You can also present your idea to someone else to get some feedback.

#7 Rest, then iterate

You probably didn’t expect that resting is an important stage of a project. But we can’t just be constantly working without any rest in between. That’s a life without margins, and it’s stressful.

We can all learn from designer Stefan Sagmeister, who actually closes his studio for an entire year every 7 years to take a sabbatical year off from his work. By pursuing other small experiments and interests during the sabbatical year, it helped him become more creative in his work over a period of time.

We don’t necessarily have to all rest for an entire year from our work. Some of us might not have that luxury to do so. But some rest is important. So put your project away for a while. Let your mind wander. The point is to take a break and come back to your project with a fresher pair of eyes.

After you take your break, then come back to the project again. It’s now time to refine it. Creative work takes time and many rounds of iteration. Having a spirit of craftsmanship is important. Don’t try to take shortcuts to cut the amount of time needed.

Creative work is iterative, nonlinear and messy

The 7 stages of creative projects are inherently messy, nonlinear and iterative.
Creative work is inherently iterative and nonlinear

Although I have presented what I think are 7 stages of creative projects, they are definitely not strict stages where you move through them from one step to the other. Creative work is inherently iterative, nonlinear and messy at times.

You have to go back and forth between the stages. The stages blend into one another and there’s no strict boundary that separates one stage from another. But ultimately if you work on it little by little, you might be able to achieve something that you would be proud of.

The Stages of Creative Projects is also available as a PDF here. Feel free to download and share!

Note: For a more detailed creative process, do check out Your Creative Life.

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