Introduction to Divergent Convergent Thinking

Matthew Hynam

Architectural creativity is concerned with the processes and creative leaps that lead to the creation of design excellence in architecture. The relationship between creativity and design excellence is an accepted model that underpins the work of academics such as Bryan Lawson, Nigel Cross and Kees Dorst (Lawson, B. 2006) (Cross, N. 2006; Dorst, K. & Cross, N. 2001). As a result it is considered reasonable to assume that successful architectural practices must have creative design processes.

A model for the creative process was first established by Graham Wallas in his 1926 work ‘The art of thought’. His four stage model identified the phenomenon of the creative leap within the illumination stage as a moment of sudden illumination. (Wallas, G. 1926) A creative leap is often characterised by a dislocation of a solution space and a radical shift in how a problem may be solved. Bryan Lawson provides an updated model where he adds an additional stage to the start of the model called ‘First insight’. (Lawson, B. 2006 p.148) Lawson suggests that whilst these stages are sequential in practicality they can appear more iterative as design concepts are tested and either adopted or discarded. The diagram below illustrates both Wallas’ and Lawson’s models.

So whilst both creative leaps and Wallas model are still regarded as valid, recent research has expanded and attempted to demystify the phenomenon of the creative leap further. Nigel Cross proposes that it is no longer appropriate to define the key features of a creative design process in terms of intuition or creative leaps. He instead proposes that better descriptions for the creative processes that occur within the design process should include: ‘…Problem Framing, co-evolution, and conceptual bridging between problem space and solution space’(Cross, N. 2006 p.115) One of the key factors uncovered in a designer’s ability to be creative is the ability to balance divergent thinking and convergent thinking (Lawson, B. 2006, p.153) Both divergent thinking and convergent thinking were coined by the psychologist J.P. Guilford in his book ‘The Nature of Human Intelligence’. A divergent thought process sees a designer start with a question and then use multiple approaches to explore multiple answers. Divergent thinking is closely related to the terms ‘lateral thinking’ coined by Edward de Bono in his book Six Thinking Hats. (De Bono, E. 1985) Both divergent thinking and lateral thinking see designers use ‘…reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.’ (De Bono, E. 1985)

On the other hand a convergent thought process will see a designer take the initial question and then use logical steps to come to an answer. Edward de Bono calls this type of step-by-step thinking ‘vertical thinking’. He also says that the primary difference between the two ways of thinking is ‘…that with vertical thinking logic is in control of the mind, whereas with lateral thinking it is at the service of the mind.’ (De Bono, E. 1990)

In a similar vein to Nigel Cross, who suggest that architects require equal measures of convergent and divergent thinking, Edward de Bono suggest that lateral thinking and vertical thinking are actually complementary and that the ‘…the limitations of vertical thinking cannot be set aside for they are its very advantage. ‘Vertical thinking provides a functional organisational role allowing the mind to interpret a situation in the most probable way. Probability being determined by the experience of the user and by the need of the moment.’ (De Bono, E. 1990)


Cross, N. (2006) Designerly ways of knowing. London: Springer.

De Bono, E. (1985) Six thinking hats, Rev. & updat edn, Penguin, London.

De Bono, E. (1990) Lateral thinking: a textbook of creativity, Penguin, London.

Dorst, K. & Cross, N. (2001) Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of problem–solution, Design Studies, vol. 22, no. 5, pp. 425-437.

Lawson, B. (2006) How designers think: the design process demystified. Oxford: Architectural Press.

Wallas, G. (1926) ‘Art of Thought’. London: Solis Press.

BBC Documentary – Horizon_ The Creative Brain… by videoupload2014-4