Creativity is special. It’s something uniquely human, something that no amount of computing power will ever replace. The ability to see things that don’t exist yet.

But it’s also often misunderstood. Ask someone to imagine a piece of creative work and they’ll tell you about a beautiful design or a perfect final manuscript. They’ll tell you about something finished.

But creative people know that behind every great piece of work is a long process of uncertainty, missteps and dead-ends. And while it can be messy and unstructured, this part is also magical — the time where nothing turns into something.

Over the past two years creating Milanote we’ve conducted research with hundreds of creative professionals: designers, writers, children’s book authors, video game designers, filmmakers and more. And while all of these people produce different outputs, the process they use to get there is strikingly similar.

Here are the four key ingredients of every creative process.

1. Creative thinking is visual and non-linear

Go into any creative studio and you’ll see a wall that looks something like this. When you put your ideas, notes, inspiration and research side by side you start to see things differently — and that’s the essence of creativity.

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Lauren Beukes planning a murder mystery novel. “It’s full of crazy pictures, three different timelines, murder dates. It’s been completely insane trying to keep track of all of this.”

2. Creative thinking is all about creating connections

Creative people turn a bunch of unrelated *stuff* into a meaningful whole.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”—Steve Jobs

3. Creative thinking is flexible and evolving

Nobody who embarks on a creative project knows exactly where they’re going to end up. But they trust the process to get them somewhere great, one tiny decision at a time.

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Joan Miró's studio in Palma de Mallorca.

“I think of my studio as a vegetable garden, where things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. You have to graft. You have to water.”—Joan Miró

4. Creative thinking depends on collaboration

Even the most reclusive artists and thinkers depend on feedback from their peers.

“The thing is to allow those hunches to connect with other people’s hunches; that’s what often happens. You have half of an idea, somebody else has the other half, and if you’re in the right environment, they turn into something larger than the sum of their parts.”—Steven Johnson's TED talk Where Good Ideas Come From

These are the principles we used to design Milanote—give it a try to find out if we succeeded.