Get to know your “Conceptual” personality

“I seek in painting.” Paul Cézanne.
“I don’t seek, I find.” Pablo Picasso.


These two quotes manifest the fundamental diference between the two types of innovators – Experimental and Conceptual.

The Conceptual Innovator

This innovator often always has a clear idea for the final product. Their goal for a specific work is clear; they know where they want to go and what they want to achieve before starting their work. Therefore, they will tend to make detailed preparatory sketches or plans for their work. Their approach to their work is often systematic and often simply a process of realizing the preliminary plans.

Conceptual innovation often appears suddenly, as a new idea immediately produces a result quite different from others in the market and from the innovator’s own previous work. While experimental can be tied to one problem for their whole life, a conceptual innovator can consider a problem solved and move to the next and, often, a different problem that needs to be solved. Their career can be characterized by a series of innovations, each very different from the others.

We can call them the young geniuses.

How do they think?

I was interested in ideas – not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.

Marcel Duchamp

A work of art is a vehicle for the transmission of information concerning the mental, or physical activity of an artist.

Richard Hamilton, 1971

The painting never changes once I’ve started to work on it. I work things out beforehand in the sketches.

Frank Stela

I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.

Pablo Picasso

What should you know?

While more work remains to be done, the researched examples suggest that it may be useful to consider experimental-conceptual distinction as not simple as a binary categorization. In this view, there is a continuum, with extreme practitioners of either type at the far ends and moderate practitioners of the two categories arrayed along the scale’s intermediate position. Subtle differences in practices can be associated with major differences in professional goals. This is that whereas it may be possible for a conceptual innovator to evolve gradually into experimental ones, it is not likely that an experimental innovator can change into a conceptual one.

While we tend to associate youth with innovation frequently, what appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought the inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.

To really understand the basic differentiation between the experimental and conceptual innovators, we can use the words of the historian Pierre Cabanne. Cabanne made this point by comparing Picasso with Cezanne: “there was not one Picasso, by ten, twenty, always different, unpredictably changing, and in this he was the opposite of a Cezanne, whose work…followed that logical, reasonable course to fruition”


Conceptual Innovators

The two types are distinguished mainly by the methods by which they arrive at their major contribution.

If you are closer to the conceptual type of innovators:

  • Avoid the danger of repetition by selecting or posing new problems that differ from your earlier work.
  • Embrace your advantage in being able to change styles, or problems, quickly.
  • Your advantage is in finding a simple solution to old problems – your ability to do this depends on being able to see a fresh approach to the problem, different from those that have been used in the past.
  • It might be valuable for you to avoid becoming too thoroughly immersed in detailed empirical evidence or complex analysis methods.

Remember: you are a sprinter.

Conceptual Innovation and youth

Conceptual Innovation is often associated with youth; however, it is essential to realize that the same principles for conceptual innovators applied at any age. If your youth years are behind you, it is unlikely that you will make a Nobel-worthy discovery in the future. Still, if you want to understand your career and maximize your future creativity, the same advice applies. In fact, if you really want to make a significant discovery, you should change paths completely, even at an advanced age. The point is that what really matters for conceptual breakthroughs is not chronological age but experience, and you can get rid of much of your experience by doing something completely different, within your discipline or outside it.

One last thought:

What shapes the age-creativity profiles is not the time required to produce a particular work, but rather the time needed to develop their skill.

Great experimental innovators may add substantive content to a previously abstract discipline, while great conceptual innovators may discover ways to simplify previously complex domains.

The research shows that advanced age doesn’t have to reduce creativity. Cézanne was at his greatest after the age of 65, Henry James wrote one of his best novels at 61, Frans Hals produced his most important painting at 80, Elizabeth Bishop wrote one of her greatest poems at 65, and Alfred Hitchcock was at his best in his later 50’s and 60’s. The list goes on and on.

We really need to acknowledge that innovators can come in different types. The two types are distinguished mainly by the methods by which they arrive at their major contribution. Our notion that only the young can produce innovation might be, as the research show ‒ wrong. It is time to rethink how we approach our innovation efforts and who we choose to bring on board in this long journey.

“The only principle in art is to copy what you see” Auguste Rodin, 1906
“An object to me is the product of a thought” Robert Smithson, 1969

Conceptual figures

Pablo Picasso

Sylvia Plath

Steve Jobs

Painters: Edvard Munch, Andre Derain, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Giorgio De Chirico, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella. Sol LeWitt, Cy Twombly, James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Frank Stella, David Hockney, Robert Mangold

Poets: Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot

Novelist: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Melville

Film Directors: Eiesenstein, Fellini, Godard, Welles

Entrepreneurs: Steve Jobs, Mark Zukerberg, Joy Mangano, Bill Gates