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Imagination vs Creativity—Close, but Not the Same

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And the difference is even more interesting.

Creativity and imagination are not the same thing. Everything I’ve learned about imagination over the last very many posts is based on this simple observation. Though they frequently call on each other, they are different. And in probing that difference lies a much clearer understanding of what imagination is all about.

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Here’s an explication of that difference from a book by Ann Pendleton-Julian and John Seely Brown called Pragmatic Imagination: Single from Design Unbound.

Creative activity aims to do something purposeful. The imagination is something that emerges. While creativity works towards products that exist in the real world and have real-world purpose, the product of the imagination is the “imagined object”; it is the image itself. That image comes with meaning, but any purpose it contains is that which one to rise from it as it intersects with other cognitive processes.

… It is precisely because the imagination is given permission to play without pragmatic intent that it finds connections between things that are not obvious or easy. It finds correspondences that the reasoning mind might never see, might find unlikely. It plays with boundaries. It lets thoughts and partial thoughts jump fences. While not purposeful by intent, or pragmatic by nature, it is precisely this kind of activity that has a pragmatic possibility in a world that is rapidly changing and radically contingent.

Later on in the book, the authors make a useful distinction between “experimental imagination” (like Einstein’s Gedanken experiments) and “free play imagination.”

The free play imagination does not subscribe to the boundaries of what one knows, or knows how to do. It is serendipitous, intuitive, and completely at home not knowing why it sees what it sees. This is the imagination that we most often associate with the realm of the unconscious mind, which “runs in the background” during waking hours and dominates our dreaming… What distinguishes the imagination of free play on the experimental imagination is its motivation. The experimental imagination starts with the question and/or an individual’s creative practice and history. These serve as its center of gravity. Whether to make music, experiment with gestures and color on canvas, wrestle with string theory, the experimental imagination honors this search it is focused play.

The imagination of free play may be capitalized by a question; it needn’t be. It needs no center of gravity; in fact, it avoids a center of gravity, preferring to be lost in the play.

This is my kind of imagination. My kind of play. A kind of play in which I can get totally and deliciously lost. The creativity of the purposeless kind. Imagination for the fun of it.

Bernard L. De Koven

Bernard L. De Koven

On Having Fun


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