Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mel Rhodes: The Man Behind the Four P's of Creativity

Written by Jon Michael Fox

The Value of Classifying Things

Classifying the fundamental elements in any discipline is the precursor to growth for that discipline. “In the history of the sciences, every branch floundered until facts were organized and classified. After a classification system was devised, the branch advanced rapidly” (Rhodes, 1961, p 309). Classifications allow us to sort the same from the other.

Person, Process, Product and Press

The 4Ps represent the nature of creative Persons, the Processes they use, the Products or outcome of their efforts, and the Press, or environment that supports or hinders creativity. For those interested in where words come from, Press comes from the Latin word pressus, meaning a box or container to put things in – the environment being the place where the other 3Ps live. Perhaps more up-to-date is the notion of Press being the elements that press in on us, helping or hindering our creative expression.


Over the years I have been saying to my undergraduate students, “Mel Rhodes gave us a classification scheme for understanding creativity. Then he died. Creativity will kill you.” Tongue-in-cheek as that may be, I decided to find out what I could about the man who was so important to those of us studying the field of creativity. He deserves more than my odd-ball humor.

Here is what I have found about James Melvin Rhodes. (As a parenthetical note, if anyone knows additional information, or can correct erroneous data, please let me know. I would like to eventually get his story on Wikipedia.)

Mel Rhodes was born on June 14, 1916 to Waldo and Rhoda Rhodes. As far as I can determine, he grew up in central Pennsylvania.

He received his baccalaureate degree in 1938 from Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. (Juniata College is in the central part of Pennsylvania – about 20 miles southwest of State College, PA). He served in the military from 1941 until 1946. After World War II, Rhodes went on to Penn State where he earned his masters degree in education in August 1950 (State College, Pennsylvania). His major was in psychology. He went on to Arizona State University and was awarded a PhD in Education at ASU in Tempe. (Tempe is part of the greater Phoenix area.) His dissertation was signed on May 16, 1956.

Rhodes accepted a position as an assistant professor of education at the College of Education, University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona in 1957 at the completion of his doctorate. He was on faculty there from 1957 to 1971.

Rhodes died in Highlands, Florida (Sebring area) on April 29, 1976 at the age of 60.

Alpha Zeta Connection

As an additional piece of information, Rhodes was a member of Alpha Zeta. -- Alpha Zeta is a professional agricultural fraternity. The only reason it is meaningful to me is that I too am a member of Alpha Zeta – although I have not been involved with the organization since 1967 when I was in college training to be a landscape architect. I don't know what his connection was; I never met the man.


In the mid-1950’s Mel Rhodes was working on his doctoral dissertation -- The Dynamics of Creativity: An Interpretation of the Literature on Creativity with a Proposed Procedure for Objective Research, at Arizona State University. Rhodes wrote, “The primary purpose of this dissertation is to propose a new procedure for use in studying children who show high potential ability for creativity” (p.1). During the development of his dissertation, Rhodes collected 56 definitions for the words creativity and imagination.

His interest, among others, was to find a core definition of creativity. His research included looking at the creativity literature of the time to see what might be learned – data mining the old fashioned way. In fact he did not find a universal definition of creativity, but rather a way of thinking about it. He identified four strands of creativity. To this day we use his schema - the 4P's - as an appropriate and robust way to examine the myriad issues around this highest form of thinking. In 1961 Rhodes wrote his seminal article An Analysis of Creativity and published it in Phi Beta Kappen. A thorough explanation of his 4Ps can be found there.

In his article, Rhodes wrote, “About five years ago I set out to find a definition of the word creativity. I was interested in imagination, originality, and ingenuity. In time I had collected forty definitions of creativity and sixteen of imagination” (p. 306).

“But as I inspected my collection I observed that the definitions are not mutually exclusive. They overlap and intertwine. When analyzed, as through a prism, the content of the definitions form four strands. Each strand has unique identity academically, but only in unity do the four strands operate functionally” (p. 307).

Rhodes went on to define Person, Process, Press and Product:

“The term person, as used here, covers information about personality, intellect, temperament, physique, traits, habits, attitudes, self-concept, value systems, defense mechanisms, and behavior” (p. 307).

The term process applies to motivation, perception, learning, thinking, and communication” (p. 308).

The term press refers to the relationship between human beings and their environment” (p. 308).

“The word idea refers to a thought which has been communicated to other people in the form of words, paint, clay, metal, stone, fabric, or other material. When an idea becomes embodied into tangible form it is called a product.

Current Value of the 4Ps

Rhodes gave us a viable way to look at creativity. Because creativity is absolutely transdisciplinary – meaning it spans all disciplines – a schematic approach is most useful in understanding the nature and nurture of creativity from both a research and application point of view. It is easy to separate creativity into Person, Process, Product and Press in the attempt to understand the parts, but one must recognize that the 4P's work together -- when taking an applied approach to creativity one must consider the "ecology" of creativity.

Although classification systems can be limiting, they can be freeing at the same time. We have to start somewhere. Rhodes and his 4Ps has helped us move from the myths of creativity to a productive understanding of creativity – and how to apply it. Thank you, Mel Rhodes, for your gift.


Rhodes, M. (1961). An analysis of creativity, Phi Beta Kappen, 42, 305-310.

Rhodes, M. (1956). The dynamics of creativity: An interpretation of the literature on creativity with a proposed procedure for objective research. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Arizona State University, Tempe.


  1. What fun! I'd written down his (Mel Rhodes')answer to his own question (What is creativity?) in Rhodes, M. (1961) and your post had me revisit it.

    As expected he made mention of the P's in his definition. I remember being intrigued by his comment immediately following his definition; "The definition begs the questions as to how new the concept must be and to whom it must be new".

    Level and Style and what way(s) might "to whom it must be new" matter?

  2. Thanks for sharing this useful info. Keep updating same way.
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  3. Mike, I finally got to that paper Dr. Murdock couldn't quite get me to working on a doctorate in higher education leadership at Florida Atlantic University with a focus on policy (policy entrepreneurs to be exact), Mel Rhodes' (1961) 4Ps model is the foundation of my conceptual framework. Finally making it happen! Your writing still entertains and educates. Best to you! - Rivka Felsher (nee Robin Lehrberger)

  4. Very interesting! I do wonder whether Rhodes can take credit for the 4 Ps in name only, or at least for a variation on an earlier theory. Ross Mooney, a professor of education at the Ohio State University, presented the concept of person, process, product and environment as a framework for understanding creativity to the Research Conference of Creative Scientific Talent held by the University of Utah in 1957. Given the conference location, it is not hard to imagine that Rhodes might have been in attendance.

  5. I DID READ THIS AND I ALSO UNDERSTAND SOME OF IT. See this also Leadership Development Training India