The Creative Process: Exploring the Incubation Phase

How can taking a step back from projects in the form of an incubation phase aid the creative process? Our visual designer, Olivia explores the answer to this question by breaking down the creative process, exploring the role of the subconscious and affirming that creativity is for everyone.

“Incubation involves pondering potential solutions, possibly over a long period of time.”

Bateson & Martin, 2013

Incubation can look like going for a walk in nature or taking a coffee break, stretching out a design project so that we go back to reassess ideas a few days later. As creatives we can’t necessarily sit at a desk and churn out new ideas on cue. Often ideas need time to percolate, and as we take rest, stop striving for results, the wonder of our subconscious mind can take over.

You might instinctively practice the incubation phase without realising, when you go out for a run and suddenly solve that problem that you’d been sweating over previously. Being intentional about planning the incubation phase into your creative projects can be a game-changer. I’ve been experimenting with this, which I’ll share more about below. First I want to introduce you to the origins of the methodology. 

“Whether we are an artist or a problem solver, we must make peace with the invisible and prodigious force of our subconscious. We must find a way of tapping this most capable and potent ally.”

Geoff Petty, 1997

The methodology

The ICEDIP method is a creative model formalised by Geoffrey Petty in his 1997 book ‘How to get better at creativity’. It was later adopted by product design teams and design educators as a simple way to break down the creative process. It consists of a series of phases that require different dispositions.

  • Inspiration – free thinking and exploration
  • Clarification – focus on your goals
  • Distillation – determine which ideas to work on
  • Incubation – take time out & let the subconscious do its process
  • Evaluation – analytical, look back at work in progress
  • Perspiration – work sprint

Designed to be applied to any idea-generation process, the model can be used by anyone from artists to engineers. I was introduced to it as a designer, particularly for web design projects where it’s important to step back and reassess my ideas from different perspectives. The ICEDIP model invites people to move past their first idea, to explore beyond the default and think critically about their work.

Incubation phase and the subconscious

We’ve heard this described as a ‘lightbulb moment’, when the subconscious mind brings forth an idea for the project we’d been previously so focused on, at the most unexpected of times. ‘Sleep on it’ is universal advice when somebody is working on difficult thinking, and some artists are so taken aback by the power of their subconscious that they attribute their new ideas to god or a higher power. The ancient Greeks believed that creative inspiration came from the muses, or goddesses, whilst the bible describes poetry and musical inspiration as a gift from the Holy Spirit.

These esoteric beliefs may contribute to the popular belief that creativity is a gift beholden to the special few. However I see creativity as a human quality that we all have the potential to access, that we all experience differently. Since it’s a quality that is often attributed to ‘the arts’, many people misunderstand or opt-out of it, because they don’t consider themselves ‘artistic’.

“Creativity is a complex combination of attributes, including but not restricted to knowledge, personality type, and environment, and that it manifests differently depending on one’s motivation.”

Leslie Hirst, 2013

Hirst suggests that anyone can be creative, that various factors determine how creativity may manifest in individuals. The manifestation of this creativity is subjective to the individual’s interpretation and inspiration.

Team Ardea planning their creative process

What does adding incubation into a project look like

First and foremost it’s about viewing this phase as ‘part of the process’ and feeling into when your ideas start to surface. You might be tight for time on a project, so your incubation will come over the weekend. You might be incubating for project 1 whilst you’re working on project 2. 

Here are some examples from my own process of what incubation can look like. They might spark new additions to your schedule or could show you where you’ve already been incubating, perhaps without realising!

  • Working on a moodboard on Friday afternoon and coming back to finish it Monday morning
  • Starting Monday morning with a blank piece of paper and 20 mins of free-writing
  • Taking a 20 min walk mid afternoon when I feel stuck with ideas
  • Spacing out segments of a project over the week. E.g. wireframes phase 1 on Tuesday morning, phase 2 on Thursday morning
  • A yin yoga session after work, with a notebook open afterwards to jot down any ideas 
  • Keeping a notebook in my bag, ideas may come when I’m on the bus

Trusting & Relaxing

Making the most of the incubation phase simply means switching off from the task at hand, relaxing and trusting that we will come to a solution. It has an element of strategy – the timing of the incubation phase should come after research, idea generation and inspiration, ideas should be recorded so that you can come back to them. However the main intention during incubation is to be distracted, to almost forget what we’re working on, to let the subconscious mind wander.

“Many psychologists believe that during incubation your unconscious is actively searching for useful material, in particular for analogies of the present problem.”

– Geoff Petty, 1997

We may not always be presented with a lightbulb, or a spark of genius, yet as we let go of striving for a result, our subconscious brings lessons from the past to the forefront of our minds. Often when we distance ourselves from our work and allow ourselves to notice different perspectives, we will go back and evaluate our ideas more honestly and clearly.

Harnessing the power of the subconscious to generate creative ideas may sound simple, but it isn’t easy, nor is it guaranteed that your subconscious will sling wonderful ideas to your conscious mind as you sleep. Incubation needs space, a deliberate pause between creating. Making that space takes a willingness to soften the edges of any desire to keep pushing ahead, instead relaxing into trusting creativity unfurls in it’s own way.

How do you explore the incubation phase? Share your own examples in the comments.

Photo of the ardea team in studio by Saya Rose Media.


PETTY, Geoff. 1997. How To Be Better At Creativity. Lulu Enterprises Inc. Available through Google books.

BATESON, Patrick, and MARTIN, Paul. 2013. Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation. Cambridge University Press. Available at: ProQuest Ebook Central.

HIRST, Leslie. 2013. The Art of Critical Making : Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice, edited by Rosanne Somerson, and Mara Hermano, John Wiley & Sons.



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