The Double-Decker Couch – Part Four, P-creativity & H-creativity

P-creativity & H-creativity

So, if choice is central to creativity, how do we go about making choices? That depends on our motivations. In her book entitled The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms, Margaret Boden divides creative motivation into two main categories: P-creativity and H-creativity. P-creativity (shorthand for psychological creativity) is motivated by a sense of psychological accomplishment or progress, while H-creativity (shorthand for historical creativity) is motivated by a goal to influence or impact others, often in a lasting way. H-creativity includes innovations like the lightbulb or toast or the Declaration of Independence, which go on to change the world.[1]

Those who make creative choices for “the feels” or who subscribe to “creativity for creativity’s sake” are motivated by P-creativity. Little kids thrive on P-creativity. My younger brother once made what he called a yogurt burrito. Strawberry yogurt and apple slices rolled up in a tortilla. Just the worst. Although his idea never gained traction in my family, his psychological satisfaction was evident in the way he paraded the yogurt burrito around the house to show each member of the family.

In extreme form, P-creativity completely ignores the societal feedback loop. While there is nothing wrong with pure P-creativity, those who believe that creative ideas and works ought to be shared tend to look down on such motivations. The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote over 1,800 poems and kept all but a few to herself for her own benefit. It wasn’t until after her death that others read her works and lauded her poetic creativity.[2] For people like Emily Dickinson and my little brother, the psychological effect of creativity is a reward unto itself.

It should be noted here that the line between P-creativity and H-creativity can get fuzzy. Sometimes P-creativity leads to H-creativity results, as with Emily Dickinson, and often those who are motivated by H-creativity goals also enjoy their work on a psychological level, as with my younger brother. In fact, I use P-creativity goals as a fallback for when my H-creativity goals don’t pan out. At least I got something out of trying, I tell myself.

The distinction between H-creativity and P-creativity explains why responses to the double-decker couch vary. For Emmet, the double-decker couch grew out of H-creativity motivations. In his words, he hoped that, “everyone could watch TV together and be buddies”.[3] But when Emmet’s buddies rejected his idea as “just the worst,” Emmet’s H-creativity hopes vanished and he was left with P-creativity results. The same thing happened to me when I tried to convince my roommates to order a double-decker couch. When people use the word creativity in the evaluation of an idea, they are often referring to H-creativity and how they were impacted personally. If they say an idea isn’t creative, it’s not that a project or idea isn’t creative on any level or ‘just the worst’—it’s just not creative on the level that they care about.

So, if H-creativity is our goal, how do we make others care? How does P-creativity cross into the realm of H-creativity? H-creativity can be split into two main ways of impacting others: economic impact and social impact. An economic impact aims to satisfy consumers. Film companies seek an economic impact by making movies based on books, remaking old movies, or tacking on sequels and prequels to existing movies. Film companies like to make these kinds of movies because they can present investors with an informed picture of potential profits.[4] For movies like The Lego Movie, there is a built-in fan base—all the thousands of Lego-loving movie-goers. Even if the movie is poorly made, movie companies know that fans will pay to see the movie.[5] However, even a committed fan can become disenchanted after a poorly made movie, so film companies have a strong motivation to maintain quality for their audiences.

I don’t think economic impact alone is enough to ensure H-creativity success. The other type of impact, social impact, has a greater bearing on the long-term success of a movie. Those who operate primarily on H-creativity goals of social impact either believe that the economics will sort themselves out in favor of products and ideas that people like, or they aren’t concerned with economic gains. Either way, their first priority is to create something somebody else can appreciate.

I like the example of Don Norman’s philosophy when it comes to social impact. Don Norman is a psychology and technology guru from San Diego. (He also happens to have a great beard.) In 1988, Don spent time in England and was so frustrated with the light switches, faucets, and other appliances that he wrote a book about nonintuitive design called The Psychology of Everyday Things.[6] In that book, and in other books he has written since, Don has made a career of pointing out that things people create need to be created with people in mind. He says that, for example, emergency doors ought to be designed to open outward because a person in a state of panic will instinctively push and keep pushing.[7] Poorly conceived Norman Doors (named for Don Norman) send the wrong message with their design, like a handle on a push door, and can pose a major safety hazard. Even in their most benign moments, Norman Doors cause frustration and embarrassment—not the sort of social impact most designers are after.

Don Norman’s people-focused design process has proven successful and his books are a staple in engineering design classes around the world. In his time working at Apple, Don was key in designing products that people loved—not because they were the cutting edge (often they weren’t), but because they just worked.[8] The products felt good to use, and Apple’s popularity rocketed.

Popularity doesn’t have to be tied to economics; some people aim for social impact only. Open source programmers put their code online for anyone who wants to use it, receiving little to no monetary compensation for their work.[9] Although some open source programmers have economic motivation for their work—they charge users for tech help—I see their work as socially motivated. I’ve never paid anyone for help using Musescore, the open source music engraving software I use to write sheet music. People like Don Norman or the open source programmers behind Musescore represent to me what it means to have H-creativity goals and social motives.

Don’t get the wrong notion about the two motivations of H-creativity. I don’t think that creators with economic H-creativity motivations are all greedy, lucre-lovers or that socially motivated creators are all selfless heroes. The reality of the situation is that most creative projects have multiple goals and impacts. No single impact is intrinsically better than another. But it is useful to understand that the motivations and goals behind a project will determine the benchmark for measuring creative success. Like when Emmet shifted his vision for the double-decker couch from a place to watch TV to a place to hide his friends, being able to refocus your approach to better fit you goals for a creative work can make all the difference. Maybe I should content myself with the P-creativity outcome of my plan to get a double-decker couch. Maybe someone wants to read the thousands of poems you’ve hidden away. Maybe yogurt burritos will be the next health food fad. One thing is sure—it’s going to take work and practice to figure it out.

This is part four of a seven-part essay series on the creative process. Click here for part five. To return to the beginning, click here.


[1] Boden, The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms, 2.

[2] “Emily Dickinson”, The Poetry Foundation.

[3] The Lego Movie, Warner Home Video.

[4] Larsen, “Monty Python and Other Movies.”

[5] Larsen, “Monty Python and Other Movies.”

[6] “It’s Not You. Bad Doors Are Everywhere,” Vox.

[7] Norman, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, 28.

[8] Bowden, “Good to Great.”

[9] “What Is Open Source?”


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