The Creative Process: The Shower Effect


30 Rock: Jack Donaghy appears to Liz Lemon in her dreams as her Shower Effect

There are plenty of banal ads out there selling all sorts of things. They pander to the average person. But then most people aren’t average and they certainly don’t think of themselves that way. To get through to them creatives hear a litany of creative briefs asking for ‘outside the box thinking’ or for something ‘impactful’ that ‘cuts through the clutter’. Designers and copywriters are then wheeled in to come up with more creative concepts. The bigger the problem the more creatives are added as though it’s a battle of attrition–metaphorically like the troops trying to fight their way off the beaches on D-Day.

Usually the actual process involves doing research on a project, followed by a brainstorming session which produces a certain amount of results. Yet despite all that someone has a sudden vision of the solution in it’s totality the next morning while in the shower (or other non work place). This has become so well known that there was an episode of 30 Rock devoted to this process (The Shower Principle above). In this post I attempt to answer the two big questions around the Shower Effect: why can’t you plan for this moment and how can it become part of the creative process?


Edison famously said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

To give the Shower Effect’s it’s full context I’ve added it into the 5 common stages of the concepting process as defined by David Perkins in his book The Eureka Effect:

1. The Long Search: The deep thinking, experiments and gathering of information conducted when launching into the project. This is best illustrated by Edison’s methodical search for the right material for a light bulb filament which took years. Inspiration came when he thought of using the carbonized bamboo of fishing rods to create the filament (hence the visual cliché of a light bulb turning on to represent a flash of insight).

2. Period of Little Progress: Since, for most concepts, the low hanging fruit are already taken there is a period of stressing about getting beyond what is already out there e.g. the Wright brothers struggled for years with no success.

3. Precipitating Event: Something happens to bring about the moment of insight. For most people this is being in the shower. Similarly Archimedes saw water overflowing from his bath tub that gave him the vision of how to measure the volume of an object.

4. Cognitive Snap: The falling into place of solution: this is the crux of the Shower Effect.

5. Transformation: New means of seeing problem from that point on.


The dream of brainstorming: this only exists in the world of stock photos

The reality of brainstorming: note the reserved body language

If you’re reading this you’ve probably been in a brainstorming session at some point. You’ve seen how a group is gathered in a meeting room for one or two hours with the hope that with so many people battering away at the problem a definitive solution will be reached at the end of that time period. A profusion of ideas are generated to be honed down afterwards. However there are two big problems with this approach…

The first is that brainstorming produces consensus not uniqueness. Individuals feel that they personally are being evaluated as if in a test and tend to clam up (Evaluation apprehension). Individuals also tend to match the productivity of others in the group tending towards under contribution rather than over contribution (Social matching effect). In brainstorming sessions anyone can easily coast along during the session with minimal input to the group (Free riding) while all the time thinking they are making more of a contribution (Illusion of group productivity). Brainstormers also tend to listen more closely to the louder or more senior people over those who have neither of these qualities (Blocking).*

The second big problem with brainstorming is that while there may be many ideas at the end of session they mostly lack any depth. There is no one person sweating it out during a deep dive into the subject. Research indicates that the act of listening to others actually stifles creativity. The best concepts have something of their originator in them. That’s the part that resonates with us. After all ads/branding/designs have to connect with individuals in a deep way, something that committees can rarely achieve.

*All phrases in brackets are the psychological terms for these effects as defined by  Stroebe, Diehl & Abakoumkin in “The illusion of group effectivity”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 18 (5): 643–650.


Simple ideas with a lot of impact usually come in a flash and need little explanation.

The average day exposes us to an enormous amount of ads/messages which we mostly screen out. This means that it is harder to come up with something that connects with another human being in a meaningful way. Part of fertilizing the brain in order to reach these connecting creative breakthroughs involves a deep dive into the subject matter.

The inward soul searching is necessary to rethink a product/service: how it’s used, how it makes something more convenient, how it’s held, it’s intrinsic appeal etc. Applied to that is the pressure on the individual to come up with results for whatever reason: a job, peer jealousy, profits, a patent, ownership etc. Somehow in all this someone has to pour their soul into the project in order reach another person’s soul. Think of Van Gogh who told his brother that no painting ever sold for as much as it cost the artist to make it.

This doesn’t mean that the solution will automatically come after all that work. It’s more like your brain is facing the problem across a no man’s land of the mind. You keep probing, looking for a weak point in the line for a breakthrough. However, as Louis Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind so without this preparation the sudden moment of realization that is the shower effect would never happen.


I often have A-ha moments during meetings on other projects: this post-it note sketch is for HP Airprint

The period of frustration in the digging deep phase primes the subconscious perfectly for the A-ha moment. This hardship fertilizes the incubation period of the idea just before the transformative insight. Like a giant connecting of the dots the solution just seems to fall into place, just not when or where you want it to.

But why showers? Well it doesn’t have to be a shower but could be any activity not connected directly to the problem at hand. A night’s worth of the subconscious mulling over the problem also helps connect the dots since we have hundreds of dreams a night are bound to throw up more strange scenarios. One of them is bound to be right. But then it’s often lost again. By the time we are getting our head around the day you are probably in the shower already. The lack of concentration needed to perform this physical act means and the lack of outside stimuli leaves the mind is completely free to wander. Suddenly the solution emerges from the subconscious to the conscious: A-ha!

But how is the vision so complete and not partial? A study by Dr Mark Beeman of fMRI brain scans during these A-ha moments reveals a huge explosion of activity in the right hemisphere. It’s as if the seeds of scattered thoughts are sown across the brain during the deep dive phase, to be incubated by sleep followed by a sudden blossoming all at once in a single solution.


It’s not just taking a lot of showers

Routine is the Enemy
– Take a break and talk to someone you don’t normally talk to.
– Other people may provide unexpected insight into the problem.
– Switch off fully to the problem when not working on it.
– Mix up the usual routines you do as you’re working.
– Time pressure may help to edit out the bad ideas.

Intuition needs to flow
– Do not over think things as you will end up second guessing everything.
– I used to listen to audiobooks to occupy the second guessing part of brain when painting.
– Now I watch murder mysteries to keep my mind in puzzle solving mode.
– Outside projects help to get your mind out of its usual pattern of thinking.
– Ji Lee, CD of Facebook and Google Labs, got these two jobs due to projects outside of work.

Finishing up
– Work backwards from the final vision to fill in the main steps.
– Think about the approvers and how they’re likely to react too to the idea.
– If you can’t explain the idea in 30 seconds then it may be too complicated.
– Creativity appears in clusters so dive into the next project quickly.
– Don’t get caught in the rut of thinking the same lateral solution will work for everything


Jack Donaghy’s nightmare: listening to multiple Liz Lemons’ problems. It turns out to be his shower effect

No matter where the creative process takes you there’s still the need to dig deep in order to prime your subconscious. Although the Shower Effect is unpredictable, following this simple formula will help:

Deep dive + frustration x primed subconscious during sleep = A-ha solution

The main thing is being open to letting it happen. It doesn’t have to be a shower. Erich, a designer I used to work with, came up with all his breakthroughs while going to the bathroom. It happened with surprising certainty. In the episode of 30 Rock ‘the Shower Principle’, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) works out that listening to all of Liz Lemon’s (Tina Fey) problems gives him enough of a break from his own to allow flashes of insight to happen. Have fun and take a shower.

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