Every now and then, a creative act comes out of nowhere, a giant leap, a new way of thinking apparently woven out of a brand new material.
Most of the the time, though, creativity is the act of reassembling many elements that are already known. That’s why domain knowledge is so critical.
The screenwriter who understands how to take the build that went into the classic Greg Morris episode of the Dick Van Dyke show and integrate it with the Maurce Chevalier riff from the Marx Bros… Or the way Moby took his encyclopedic knowledge of music and turned into a record that sold millions… if you don’t have awareness and an analytical understanding of what worked before, you can’t build on it.
That’s one of the reasons that the recent incarnation of the Palm failed. The fact that the president of the company had never used an iPhone left them only one out: to make a magical leap.
It’s not enough to be aware of the domain you’re working in, you need to understand it. Noticing things and being curious about how they work is the single most common trait I see in creative people. Once you can break the components down, you can put them back together into something brand new.