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Taxonomy of Creative Design

Strategies to improve creativity are many, but they are also diffuse.  Little ties them together in a way that offers a coherent vision for how creativity can be understood or developed incrementally.  The Taxonomy of Creative Design, a work in progress, offers a new theory for doing so.

Since creative work can be measured along spectrums of both and form and content, the Taxonomy of Creative Design offers a progression from imitation to original creation measured in terms of form and content.  In doing so, it organizes creative works into an inclusive, unifying landscape that serves not only as an analytical lens through which one might evaluate creative work, but also as a methodical approach to developing creative skills.

Here is a closer look:


Imitation is the replication of a previous work.  It is the painter with an easel at the museum, painting her own Mona Lisa; it is the jazz musician performing the solo of the great artist note for note, seeking to capture Miles Davis or Oscar Peterson's precise intonation; or it is the writer copying the words of the poet, absorbing his diction and style.


Variation takes us away from imitation, but only by a step.  It's the modification of a previously existing work in a way that retains the essential form or content of the work.  It's the musical performance that adds playful embellishments. It's the repeated iteration of a prototype: a tweak here, a tweak there.  It doesn't change the identity of the creative work, but it offers up changes in content or form.


If variation is a change that retains the essential form of an original work, then combination is the mixture of two or more works in a way that changes the essential form or content of both or all.  We can't say that an iPhone is uniquely a phone or uniquely a computer.  It is both.  It is a work of combination.  It mashes two things together to create something that is not completely identifiable as either alone.


Transformation, however, translates a work from one medium or mode into another.  It is the creation of a new work, in form and/or content, that retains the core essence of the original work.   Data visualization (graphs, charts, infographics) translate numbers into pictures.  A mime similarly dramatizes a written story, shifting verbal experience to a visual one.  Metaphor is an act of transformation.  Synesthetes do this naturally.  These retain the idea of the original work, but not the material stuff of it.  Transformation fundamentally reshapes how we engage a creative work.

Original Creation

Lastly, Original Creation is the creation of something previously unrecognizable.  Many people have argued that what we perceive as original creation is only the cumulative effects of other forms of creative work, but with a result so novel that the influence of previous works is unrecognizable.  This is likely so.  Still, whether definitively original or no, creative work in this category looks or sounds like nothing we have seen or heard before.  When Eiffel developed plans for his tower in Paris, he envisioned structures in an entirely new way.  More mundanely, toys like the Slinky or the Koosh Ball seem to have sprung out of nowhere, but all of these could be seen as products of other creative techniques.


There are many, many theories on how creativity works and how to examine the products of creativity.  When I conceived this, I conceived it as a tool for educators, one that distills a vast range of ideas about creative work to the core elements.  In the education space, this offers a framework for creativity, a reference, and not necessarily an instruction book.

In the context of critical thinking, most good teachers, I would venture to guess, know how to develop sound assignments for their subject matter.  They may refer to or remember Bloom's Taxonomy every now and then, and it may remind them of some steps they might take.  This is good work, I believe.  Among these teachers, some may choose to be more deliberate; they might arrange a series of classroom activities and homework assignments that proceed step-wise through the Taxonomy, from Knowledge up to Evaluation.  Their approach may be more methodical.

So it is for the Taxonomy of Creative Design.  For many teachers it may serve as reference, a reminder of what the possibilities are.  For others, it might serve as a guide.

Outside of education, the Taxonomy offers a tool for promoting creativity in any field.  Or, it offers a means of analyzing creative work in relation to other, existing works.  More on these in coming entries.


For proceedings from the conference in which I first presented this framework, click here (PDF).

For a presentation version of this (slides and audio), video this link at Vimeo.
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  1. Peter, I would love to read your paper about this theory. Is it published?

  2. Robert, Thanks--Aside from the proceedings of the conference where I first presented this as part of a larger talk (google: "the challenge of innovation Peter Nilsson"), I have not published this formally. I've been fleshing out the work, though, and hope to develop it in a printworthy format in the coming year. Any feedback is much appreciated.

  3. Hi Peter:
    the taxonomy is brilliant. I am writing a chapter on creativity for a new edition of a textbook of mine

    The new edition will have a new title: Soft Skills.

    I would like to reproduced the taxonomy in the Creativity chapter. How would I go about getting (c) rights for this?


    Baden Eunson

    1. Dear Baden,

      Many thanks for these kind words. I'm glad this is useful and would be honored by inclusion of this framework. Please consider this material licensed under a CC-BY license. You are free to use the material images and content with citation. The more formal paper is included at the PDF link near the bottom of the post, and the material be cited either as a website to this page, or using the following format for the PDF linked above:

      Nilsson, Peter (2011, April). "The Challenge of Innovation. In Critical Thinking and Creativity: Learning Outside the Box." Paper Presented at the Proceedings of the 9th International Conference of the Bilkent University Graduate School fo Education (Turkey), Ankara (pp. 54-62). Ankara, Turkey: Bilkent University

      Please send me a copy of the chapter in digital form, too. My email address is included on the "About" page.


    2. Thanks, Peter- will do.



  4. Very impressive, an amazing idea to be able to develop your own measurement of creativity in more detail.
    Has anyone developed an evaluation tool based on the taxonomy of design creativity?
    thank you Peter.N

    1. Thank you, Sukiswo. I have used the taxonomy somewhat informally to assess creative works, but I think there is room for someone to pioneer a more formal analysis fo creative work in this way. Best wishes in your research, and thank you for the good words. -- Peter

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I hope you write a textbook for evaluating design product creativity , can I waiting for yaur texbook ? 🙂👍


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