Making a Case for Divergent Thinking

image: Brian LaHaie
image: Brian LaHaie

Creative thinking is the foundation of our profession. Of all the skill sets that a landscape architect must possess, the ability to imagine, create and evaluate unique solutions to complex social and environmental challenges is our most valuable asset.

Creative thinkers possess the ability to identify multiple possibilities when confronted with challenging problems. This type of thinking is found among people with personality traits such as non-conformity, curiosity, risk taking, and persistence. It is also found naturally in children. This ability to generate multiple solutions and to think outside a set of linear constraints is called “divergent thinking” or “lateral thinking.”

The term divergent thinking was first introduced by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967 (nearly 50 years ago). Together with convergent thinking, these terms represent opposing thinking styles.

Convergent thinkers quickly seek a solution by reducing options and limiting choices to arrive at an appropriate answer. Convergent thinking is what you use to answer a multiple choice question or calculate a simple mathematical equation. You are seeking “the one right answer.” The process is systematic and linear.

Many would suggest that the current state of our educational system (standardized testing) is largely due to a predominance of convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is an essential cognitive tool particularly in math and science and the related applied fields of engineering and technology. But, I would argue, it is not particularly useful in the fields of applied design or creative expression. Choreographers and musicians don’t seek a single solution; they explore unlimited expressions. Artists rarely mix paint according to a formula and designers seek new and unique solutions previously unexplored.

Divergent thinkers, by contrast, seek multiple solutions and are always looking for more options as opposed to choosing among predetermined ones. Divergent thinking is a spontaneous, free-flowing and non-linear thought process. It generates many different ideas on a topic in a short amount of time. It seeks connections and relationships between seemingly unrelated ideas. Divergent thinking embraces the concept of “iteration” and sits more comfortably in a studio environment than in a scientific lab. It encourages free thinking, active association, brain-storming and “do-overs.”

image: Brian LaHaie
image: Brian LaHaie

An example of divergent thinking might be expressed in a question such as “list all the possible uses of a paper clip.” Children are inherently good at these types of questions. They have no biases and are creatively uninhibited. In one study documented in the book Breakpoint and Beyond by George Land and Beth Jarman, 1,600 children aged 3-5 were tested to measure their divergent thinking skills. Ninety-eight percent scored in the creative genius category.

In a similar study of people over the age of twenty-five, only 2% were able to think at the genius level. Is it possible that we simply grow out of, or are educated out of, divergent thinking skills? It seems that we don’t simply add convergent thinking to our youthful foundation of divergent thinking. In fact, it seems rare to possess both types at any given time. Divergent thinking seems to emerge from our creative right brain hemisphere, whereas convergent thinking abides in our linear, structured left brain.

image: Brian LaHaie
image: Brian LaHaie

What are schools doing to advance divergent thinking? What are you doing in your practice to reward and validate this valuable cognitive resource? Are you interviewing potential employees based on their diverse cognitive thinking skills or on their ability to operate CADD? Do we value creative thinking in this profession or has that become passé—no longer relevant in an environment of performance-based, ecologically-driven solutions? Has the creative and free-thinking designer been replaced with the analytical eco-engineer that can calculate our carbon footprint but cannot visualize the next great opportunity?

Legislators and Educators seem to think that STEM education in America is the answer to our current educational problems and our future economic solutions. STEM funding is at an all-time high, and scholarships in STEM disciplines are abundant and generous. The political rhetoric surrounding STEM education is that it will lead to global prominence, economic stability, better jobs and will save our planet. The President’s 2016 budget invests more than three billion dollars in programs across the federal government on STEM education with the goal of “preparing” 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade. That’s 100,000 teachers that will prepare millions of students to be convergent thinkers; to not think outside the lines, and to not explore multiple solutions.

The best and brightest will become linear thinkers destined for jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But what about design? Where will innovative, creative and resourceful ideas come from? Who will advocate for creative design thinking? What students will be left when the best and brightest have been siphoned off with lavish gifts and rewards to join the STEM club? Underfunded public institutions of higher education are jumping on the STEM bandwagon hoping to get a piece of the well-funded pie. Recently, my university named a new director of the Office of STEM Education. I can only hope that someday they might hire a Director of Creative Thinking.

image: Brian LaHaie
image: Brian LaHaie

For what it is worth, I don’t believe that landscape architecture, at its core, is a STEM discipline. It may want to be designated a STEM discipline for the benefits, and it may dabble in the sciences and engineering, but its very foundation rests solidly in a unique and creative cognitive thought process that we now know as divergent thinking—a thought process that we should embrace and preserve.

In a future defined by rapid change, divergent thinking is an absolute necessity. Change is inevitable. The future is unimaginable. Divergent, creative thinkers are better prepared to envision and engage in innovative solutions. Leaders in the corporate, political and design arenas will require the services of free thinkers and entrepreneurs to lead us into an uncertain future. While STEM disciplines may create more jobs, divergent thinking will create more solutions. The profession needs divergent thinkers and the world needs divergent thinkers, because the solutions to tomorrow’s challenges will not likely come with a multiple choice answer.


What Type of Thinker Are You?”, Toni Bernhard J.D, Psychology Today blog, posted February 28, 2013

Land, George and Jarmon, Beth; Breakpoint and Beyond, 1968

by Brian J. Lahaie, ASLA, Education and Practice PPN Co-Chair

5 thoughts on “Making a Case for Divergent Thinking

  1. Tobi Louise Kester October 4, 2016 / 10:11 am

    This is a fascinating topic and a well-written article that leaves me pondering how my children can be encouraged to be more like me (I think I’m more inclined to be a divergent thinker) while also excelling at school (where I definitely see their work being focused on convergent thought processes). I believe there’s a place for both types of thinking. The fact that this conversation has been initiated gives me hope that the convergent and divergent thinkers can come together to best utilize their respective skills and perspectives to better solve the challenges of today and the future!

  2. Lauren Marshall October 6, 2016 / 10:29 am

    I was totally on board with this article until it cast divergent thinking and ecologically based design as opposing views. I think the challenge we face as landscape architects today is to find solutions that both serve our needs as humans and users of a site while respecting, repairing and promoting the underlying ecological processes that provide us with environmental benefits and other organisms with food and shelter.

  3. David Contreras October 12, 2016 / 11:05 am

    I embrace the words in this article…I homeschool my children so that they will be among the future minority of divergent thinkers that will carry the torch of free thinking and respect the natural environment that is the root of our profession. The STEM disciplines will likely create jobs but will develop souls that won’t be connected to the core of our environmental problems…

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