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Ambiguous Feedback, Control & Creative Flow: A Qualitative Investigation of Flow with Fine Artists and Graphic Designers



Observations of artists engaged in the creative process were the original inspiration for Csikszentmihalyi’s development of flow (the experience of being ’in the zone’) theory, and led to a componential model of flow antecedents and experiential outcomes. However, some of the components purported to facilitate flow - particularly unambiguous feedback and a sense of control - are arguably at odds with some theories of creativity, where tolerance of ambiguity and a surrendering of control are often emphasised. This interview-based study with professional artists and graphic designers explored themes around specifically creative flow experience and triggers, the role of externalising creative ideas (through actions like sketching), the effect of ambiguity of self-evaluation, expectation-outcome discrepancies, the importance of a sense of control over the creative process, the role of constraints vs. autonomy, the links between creativity and affect, between flow and creative performance. The different and common experiences of creative flow were compared and contrasted between fine artists and designers via thematic analysis. Results showed tolerance of ambiguity was a prerequisite for both creativity and flow, but that externalisation (e.g. through sketching) was nonetheless used to produce clearer self-feedback and to disambiguate creative ideas. Adaptability and perseverance despite disappointments were considered essential to creativity and flow. A surrendering of control was considered helpful. However, this differed between professional groups, with graphic designers feeling a greater need for control and clear goals. Fine artists preferred autonomy while graphic designers viewed constraints favourably as challenges to overcome. Flow and creativity were generally related to an improvement in mood, but flow was not considered to have a link to superior objective creative performance, contrary to theory. Results suggest that in creative flow, feedback ambiguity, clarity of goals, and sense of control may be less important than in other fields.
, & :
Goal Clarity
FAs: Specific goals are
often loose/vague and this is considered appealing.
I think that’s kind of part of the appeal, is not knowing
what you’re going to end up with. [FA02]
CDs: Clarity of goals is paramount - working for clients
to solve a particular prescribed problem, must work to
concretely define the brief before they begin work.
The client doesn’t always have [a clear goal], but we’ll
make sure that there is one before we start the process.
What are we trying to do, what are we trying to achieve?
A delicate balance between spontaneity/ surrender and
control is often acknowledged:
You’ve got to be in control! You can let it drift away and
see what happens and then bring it back into control again,
but you have to be in control all the time, you can’t really
just let it... [FA02]
There was a flowing that happened there, where you, you
know, your decisions were just mechanical in a positive way.
Ultimately, though, most
happily surrendered control
to the process and chance.
I’m always quite keen to be
led by the decisions to the
end result, rather than have
an end result in mind. [CD06]
Adaptability (to Serendipity & Disappointment)
Considered an essential prerequisite of the creative
profession, adaptability is what allows artists to not be
affected adversely by ambiguity/lack of control.
You have to take disappointment as well… I think that’s
what makes artists different, really, is that they’re
prepared to take disappointment. Whereas folks in a lot of
other walks of life face disappointment with dread or
negative thought…an artist can step over that
disappointment and move on to something else... I think a
creative person is someone who is open-minded to
everything. [FA02]
Buckinghamshire New University, High Wycombe
Unambiguous feedback, sense of control and clear goals do not appear to be necessary
components for flow in artistic creativity, though some differences were found between
fine artists and designers’ needs.
Future research should examine if these underexplored flow components are perhaps
only necessary in certain domains (e.g. athletics, education) and not others, or whether
their importance in flow development has been overstated more generally.
1. Bilda, Z., Gero, J. S., & Purcell, T. (2006). To sketch or not to sketch? That is the question. Design Studies, 27(5), 587613.
2. Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77101.
3. Cseh, G. M. (2014). Flow in visual creativity (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
4. Cseh, G. M., Phillips, L. H., & Pearson, D. G. (2016).Mental and perceptual feedback in the development of creative flow. Consciousness and Cognition, 42, 150-161.
5. Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
6. Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness (Rev. ed.). London, England: Rider.
7. Mace, M.-A. (1997). Toward an understanding of creativity through a qualitative appraisal of contemporary art making. Creativity Research Journal, 10(2-3), 265278.
8. Simonton, D. K. (2000). Creative development as acquired expertise: Theoretical issues and an empirical test. Developmental Review, 20(2), 283318.
6 Professional Fine Artists [FA] working in the Aberdeen
area (3 painters, 2 illustrators, 1 mixed media)
6 Commercial Graphic Designers [CD] from one graphic
design company in Aberdeen (ranging from intern to
Creative Director level)
Semi-structured individual interviews. (Mainly) deductive
(following themes from previous experimental research3,4)
& inductive thematic analysis (following Braun & Clarke’s
2006 strategy2).
Csikszentmihalyi’s classic 9 components6said to facilitate and characterise flow
(being ‘in the zone’) include the need for clear goals, sense of control, and
unambiguous feedback. Csikszentmihalyi suggested creators give themselves
unambiguous feedback by internalising social domain standards through
experience to form an early prediction system5. However, these assumptions are
at odds with some previous research on creativity:
Mace7: Goals are often purposely left unclear for fine artists
Creativity has since ancient times been characterised as an external, divine
force (e.g. attributed to the Muse, the gods) creators often do not feel
entirely in control
Simonton8: No matter how experienced, creators are often unable to
successfully internalise all the many criteria permutations necessary to predict
the success of a new work
On a perceptual level, there are also often discrepancies between the planned
work (using mental imagery) and the executed outcome (idea-execution
incongruence), suggesting artists/creators operate in a continual state of
ambiguity in terms of both socially and perceptually-based self-feedback
The role of externalisation: Bilda et al.1have suggested that architects use
externalisation (sketching) during the creative process to make the process
feel easier (no objective benefits to performance); may help disambiguate
perceptual self-feedback by turning limited mental imagery into perception
AIMS: To explore with fine artists and commercial graphic designers whether
ambiguity in feedback and lack of clarity and control over goals are the blocks to
creative flow experience that flow theory suggests, and to understand the
importance of externalisation (sketching) to these components within the artistic
creative process.
This study follows from previous experimental work that showed sketching
facilitates flow by decreasing sense of difficulty, possibly mainly through
perceptual disambiguation3,4.
Internalised Self-Feedback: Predicting Reception by Others
FAs did not have the internal compass to accurately predict social reception of work.
I would say I really don’t have a clue what is going to be someone else’s taste. I just had a big
show, and my least favourite piece was the first one that sold. That happens a lot… what I’m
really pleased with, my favourites are not necessarily the ones that other people choose. [FA01]
CDs suggest they get better with experience, but are never totally certain, and require
external feedback more than FAs throughout the process.
Perceptual Feedback: The Medium-Interaction Iterative Loop
FAs in particular mentioned that the creative process is a dialogue with their medium and
the physical nature of the externalisation process is a form of feedback and (usually)
welcome constraint that they work with in a form of partnership or conversation.
For restructuring, clarifying/disambiguating, idea triggering
As a memory aid
As communication with others during collaborative
planning (CDs especially)
Sketching/doodling as flow inducer, increases
attentional focus
This research was conducted as part of the author’s
PhD, supervised by Dr David G. Pearson (now at
Anglia Ruskin University) and Prof. Louise H. Phillips,
and was carried out at the University of Aberdeen.
... 274). In another interview study, Cseh (2017) concluded that clear goals, sense of control, and unambiguous feedback were not typically part of fine artists' flow experiences. Doyle (1998) noted another feature of creative flow: that what emerges is often surprising to the maker. ...
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Sketching is considered by artists and designers to be a vital tool in the creative process. However, research shows that externalisation during the creative process (i.e., sketching) is not necessary to create effectively. This study examines whether sketching may play a more important role in the subjective experience of creativity by facilitating the deeply focused, optimal state of consciousness termed 'flow' (being 'in the zone'). The study additionally explored whether sketching affects flow by easing cognitive load or by providing a clearer sense of self-feedback. Participants carried out the creative mental synthesis task (combining sets of simple shapes into creative drawings), experimentally simulating the visual creative process. Ideas were generated either mentally before committing to a final drawing, or with external perceptual support through sketching, and cognitive load was varied by using either three- or five-shape sets. The sketching condition resulted in greater experience of flow and lower perceived task difficulty. However, cognitive load did not affect flow and there was no interaction between load and sketching conditions. These findings are the first to empirically demonstrate that sketching increases flow experience, and that this is not dependent on an associated reduction in overall working memory load.
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Although outstanding creativity has been viewed as an acquired expertise, creative development might operate differently than occurs in sports, games, and music performance. To test the creative-expertise hypothesis, the careers of 59 classical composers were examined according to the differential aesthetic success of their 911 operas. The potential predictors were seven measures of domain-relevant experience: cumulative years (since first operas, first compositions, and first lessons) and cumulative products (genre-specific operas, all operas, all vocal compositions, and all compositions). The nonmonotonic longitudinal trends and the relative explanatory power of the expertise-acquisition measures indicate that complex specialization (“overtraining”) and versatility (“cross-training”) effects may determine creative development across the life span. The broader implications of the findings are then discussed.
Flow in visual creativity (Unpublished doctoral dissertation)
  • G M Cseh
Cseh, G. M. (2014). Flow in visual creativity (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Aberdeen, Scotland.