Brainstorming — techniques in idea discovery


Brainstorming is a way to energize the creative process of problem solving. I’ve participated in many sessions throughout my career, have also lead a handful and each experience has been wildly different. I would say most are time sucks and unsuccessful in collaboration, focus and clarity in deliverables. Some though, have been brilliant and completely entertaining with mini group workshops and role playing skits. However you go about it, the key to a successful brainstorm is to first define the real problem at hand, then approach it through completely unexpected techniques.


“A problem well-stated is half solved”

– John Dewey , philosopher, psychologist


idea path 

Solo vs Group

Whether your collaborating as a group or going solo, the first hurdle is to understand the issue. Ask a thousand questions, play devil’s advocate and think beyond the framework in which the issue was presented to you. Be objective about your subjectivity.


For individual brainstorming, I first enjoy chatting with another person, typically a writer, about seed ideas, key words and to get inspiration flowing. Groups though can be helpful with more complex projects though they have to be lead with clear expectations and an agenda.


In a group session, set rules around participation—everyone has to participate, eliminate intimidation and establish a safe environment where no idea is too crazy. We often tend to block our minds thinking our ideas are stupid which stagnates participation and originality. Criticism and over analysis should also be checked-in at the door because they are creative killers—you don’t want people’s minds to shut down.


Send out an agenda and maybe a quick word play exercises beforehand so people have time to think and come to the table with uninhibited ideas. Have a designated facilitator to white board, guide discussions and time any exercises. At the end, everyone must clearly understand the deliverables and next steps.


Creativity is Highly Unpredictable

I can’t say if group or individual brainstorming is more effective, they each have their purpose and it depends on the type of project. I do think that the real work though happens when you go off on your own even after a group session. Groups are good for inspiration cultivation and social feedback. Using structured techniques to free your mind in a group opens surprising discussions that can organically shape into solid concepts. The good thing about a group is if the discussion is juicy with a variety of thinking, something is bound to spark. Creativity is highly unexpected and the more you push with outrageous techniques, the freer the exploration process can be.

 you daredevil you


Creative Exercises

Be playful in the beginning of exploration. Take risks and be free. Declare opposite day and have your group describe in detail the opposite of what you want to happen. What is the worst web design possible? Before you know it, people will be sharing ideas, communicating and being clever. Now take your horrible design and explore ways to make it better.


Use action words to get to unique ideas. Attach verbs to objects to further manipulate your idea. Reinvent your concept by changing its physical or metaphorical shape. Alter the context with a new twist. Take your best idea and push further.


Escape to a new environment, grab some crayons and playdoh and transport yourself into the mindset of a 10 year old. Try to look through the eyes of someone completely different and explore all the different possibilities they would interact with your concept. How can you make what you are doing more fun and easily understandable?


Do the unexpected. Embrace the ridiculous. Create a paradox with ironic play. Mind Map, have fun with word games and list out words that define your project, the essence and personality. Group logically then rearrange them to force unique combinations. Explore textures and patterns and visual puns. Humor is a solid connector. I love metaphors! Then add them all into a moodboard with meaningful imagery and color palette explorations.


“Nine-Tenths of Wisdom is being wise on time”

— Theodore Roosevelt



Definitely Have Fun, but Set Time Limits

The point of using ridiculous exploration techniques in a brainstorming session is to open your mind, but understand you have to have purpose. Remember to always come back to your focal point and the questions you’ve asked in the beginning, “What is it that I’m trying to solve?”

Once you have a handful of ideas refine and organize, find common themes, begin to combine and eliminate until you have 3 of the strongest choices.


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