design: creative brainstorming

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my sister and i are getting ready to start designing our new line of products. we’re hoping to get away for a few days and spend some serious time putting pen to paper and coming up with designs that encapsulate all the random bits and ideas that have been floating around for months (almost a year, in fact!). but, before we head off to a (hopefully warmer) locale, we need to spend some time making sure we are on the same page. while we have spent a lot of time thinking about the themes and inspiration for this line, most of it has been on our own, or in brief conversations in between working on here-and-now projects. so, before we invest time and money on the actual design process, i thought i would be helpful to have a creative brainstorming session, to flush out our different ideas, make sure that our inspiration theme has enough ‘legs’ to support a line of diverse products, and that we are still as inspired by that theme as we were when we first started.

now, we’ve had brainstorming sessions before, but i’ve never actually prepared for them- in any real sense, anyways. that’s probably the reason we’ve never left one with a unified vision, decision, or firm idea of ‘what comes next.’ before scheduling this next one, i decided to do a little research (ie, googling) to see how i could ensure that this session is both creative and focused, and inspires a great design session to follow.

i’ve narrowed my findings down to a few key points.* most of this seems straightforward, no-duh kind of information. but at the same time, it is helpful for me to think through these steps ahead of time, both from a mental and logistical standpoint- things like determining who’s in charge, or having the right materials (whiteboard, quiet space) are important to square away BEFORE you start the session, not during. and determining when we are breaking for coffee (and for how long) is especially important for people like us. you’ve no idea the afternoons we’ve frittered away attempting to get real work done in a busy coffee house- what sounds lovely in theory is not always the best in practice.

START WITH A FOCUSED OBJECTIVE- this [written] objective should be focused; making it clear to everyone what the goal of the session is. Never set-up a brainstorming session without one (or even attend one, for that matter- although don’t tell your boss or manager that I said that!). A session or meeting without a clear objective is bound to be a waste of everyone’s time. It might also be helpful for the objective writer to keep the acronym for SMART goals in mind (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) to ensure that the objective is something that the team will actually be able to accomplish by the end of the session. If it’s not, then maybe multiple sessions (which means multiple objective statements) are warranted.

DETERMINE THE TEAM- first, ensure that there is one leader in charge of organizing the session (including prep work like creating and disseminating the focus statement ahead of time!), as well as people familiar with (and invested in) the project. It is also a good idea to include a few people that don’t know anything about the project, but are part of the target audience. As long as they are also imaginative, they can also add new ideas to the session, and sometimes their distance from the project allows them to not get mired in the details. One article I read made this point especially clear for me: “Bringing someone in who actually thinks more like an end user than a designer will give you an inside track into a normal person’s brain. Designers often have a strong, unwavering tendency to design for other designers instead of every day people.” While it’s good to have a range of people, you also don’t want too many people in the room, or the session can easily spin out of control. You also don’t want ‘negative nellies’ in the room, either- don’t invite them or make sure they are clear on the intention of the session (open, creative brainstorming- no criticism!) in advance.

PREPARE FOR THE SESSION- while much of this will fall on the leader’s shoulders, it’s important that everyone invited is aware of the focus statement and any pertinent background information (especially if you are inviting any ‘outsiders’), and the date, location and time (including the length of the session- it should have a designated end time) of the meeting. It might also help to give participants some inspiring sites or resources to check out in advance- there’s no harm in jump-starting the creative brainstorming ahead of time!¬† See below for some resources that I often troll to get my creative juices flowing…

The leader will want to make sure that the location of the meeting is conducive to both the size and the focus of the group. There should be plenty of space to write or post ideas (plus tape or push pins to add new ideas or move them around in groupings)- plus paper, post-its and markers and pens for individuals to sketch or note ideas as they come. The space should also be quiet and free from distraction (it might be a good idea for people to turn off their cell phones during the session, too…if you can convince them, that is!)- maybe even someplace new that invites creativity purely by it’s location. You may also want to bring some idea starters to the session, in case the discussion every lags or lacks energy/creativity. There are plenty of sites and books with activities that are designed to get creativity flowing. A lot of them might seem a bit odd or forced with our small and intimate team, but I’m planning on bringing a lot of visual jump-starters, like magazines, design books, and a laptop with pre-bookmarked sites.

LEADING THE SESSION- start out the meeting with a brief restatement of the focus of the session, as well as some guidelines. The original author of the term and technique of ‘brainstorming,’ Alex Osborne, offered these four: 1) don’t allow criticism; 2) encourage wild ideas; 3) go for quantity; and 4) combine and/or improve on others’ ideas. You might also want to include rules like: ‘Don’t censor yourself,’ particularly if you have some shier or less-confident people in the group; or ‘Stay focused on the stated topic,’ if you have a slightly (or not-so-slightly) rambunctious group that often goes off the rails.

Once started, the team leader should help manage the conversation (according to the focus and guidelines you’ve chosen), without controlling it. Make sure to guide the conversation back to the focus when it strays (which it’s bound to, especially if the team is throwing out some truly wild ideas- that’s good! Just make sure to always bring it back to the original focus.), and encourage ideas from everyone in the group. Every idea, good or bad, wild or mundane, should be briefly discussed or sketched out. And, ensure that neither you (the leader and moderator) or any of the participants are criticizing or judging ideas as they are presented. If all the ideas seem especially tame, limited or similar, the leader may want to encourage wild ideas by taking away constraints (“What if money were no option?”; “What if we had no deadline”; “What if…?”). Also remind the group that (at least initially), the goal is diversity of thought- and lots of it! Go back to those guidelines of Osborne’s, if needed.

Make sure to take time-checks along the way, allowing for adequate breaks and keeping the end goal in site. It might be helpful at a pre-designated point to take stock of all the posted ideas and review them. You should be able to toss out and/or combine ideas before moving on. Encourage piggy-backing when ideas are similar or have overlapping elements to create even stronger ideas. Incorporating ‘stopping-points’ into the session also help participants to come back rejuvenated and ready to throw out new (and maybe even better!) ideas.

Before you wind down the session or start to trim down your ideas, have the group step back (physically and mentally) and survey all the ideas that you have posted around the room. Then discuss ways to either combine and extend ideas or to take elements of some ideas to make new, stronger ideas. This is where post-its, tape or tacks come in handy, so that you can physically move around ideas (or elements of ideas) as the conversation takes place. Some snippets or entire ideas might move around many times before finding the best fit (or dropping off the board completely).

AFTER THE SESSION- the leader should send out a follow-up to the team, summarizing the end result of the session, as well as specific action items for moving onto the next phase of the project, which should be to provide an outlet for the ideas the team has generated (developing design samples, in our case). Make sure there are deliverable dates and ‘owners’ attached to each item. There’s nothing worse than great ideas being stuck in a notebook and never being implemented. Actually, there is… seeing someone else implement them instead!

Now that I’ve outlined what a good brainstorming session means for me, it’s time to create my objective statement and schedule the meeting!


* Here are some of the pages that I drew from to come up with my key points for designing and leading a creative brainstorming session:


Other ideas for inspiration before, during and after a creative brainstorming session:

Checking out the TED website- a trove of inspirational talks… I could spend all day on this site!

Spend some time checking out the IDEO site… their labs section is particularly fun and inspiring!

Design*Sponge is always a great place to see what is hot in the design and home products industry.

Get outside and take a walk… fresh air is a great way to break a creative block!

Go somewhere new. Although I have made changes in my office space to make it more open, and conducive to sessions like this, I’ve also found that new spaces often foster more creativity. Looking at new surroundings, away from your normal distractions, you are more apt to think outside of the box. This can apply to both the brainstorming session, but also to preparatory work as well as follow-up meetings. Mix it up and you might end up with new [surrounding-inspired] ideas!



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One Comment

  1. This is great, thanks for sharing! And I can’t wait to see what comes out of your brainstorming session!

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