Creative thinking is an integral part of design and all art-related professions. Hyper-creative people appear to conceive of brilliant ideas as easily as magicians pull rabbits from hats, but the truth is that we all meet with creative blocks.

Usually, lack of creativity or originality isn’t the problem — if it was, we wouldn’t have chosen these professions — but we must learn to be creative regularly and according to a work schedule rather than with unpredictable bursts of inspiration.

Plenty of tools and techniques have been invented to address this issue. Brainstorming is a popular one, for good reason. As the name indicates, brainstorming is not limited to any particular scope of creativity; it can be successfully employed whether you’re planning your garden or your website.

Brainstorming is a creativity technique by which people try to find solutions for specific problems by gathering ideas, proposed by different members of a team or a single individual, and exploring them. It can involve making lists, drawing diagrams, or simply discussion.

The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in his books about creative thinking (in particular,Your Creative Power and Applied Imagination). He mainly advocated it as a group process, but recently heated discussions arose around this point that cast doubt on the effectiveness of group brainstorming. Some research suggests that individual minds can brainstorm better, owing to the absence of social and communication barriers. On the other hand, many creative groups and web-design agencies report the successful adoption of the practice.


Brainstorm image via Shutterstock

Core principles

For brainstorming to be effective, it should be based on several core principles:

  1. Focus on quantity.
    Generate as many ideas as possible. Start from obvious ones, and then stretch your imagination further to access interesting and unexpected ideas. Try this simple exercise: force yourself to think of 77 solutions for some problem you have, without allowing yourself to stop until this number is reached. You’ll be impressed with the outcome.
  2. Separate idea generation from idea evaluation.
    Don’t be concerned with quality or viability while brainstorming. Evaluation should happen later (on another day, for best results). Criticism should be left out of the process. People have to be comfortable talking together as a group, so avoid blocking statements like “no, but…” and “are you sure?”.
  3. Welcome unusual ideas.
    Unusual ideas can lead to exciting solutions, so use whatever tricks you have up your sleeve to find them. The most common approach is to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes; approach the problem as if you were from a different country, time period, or simply had different tastes or interests. From unexpected points of view, unusual ideas become visible.
  4. Combine ideas, or build them upon one another.
    The great benefit of group brainstorming is an ability to use ideas presented by various participants in collaboration. Encourage one another by using stimulating constructions like “yes, and…”. If you’re working alone, you can achieve the same effect by arranging ideas in different ways to see different relationships among them.

When it comes to implementing these core principles, plenty of help is available. Regardless of the tools you choose, there are common approaches and common pitfalls to avoid.

Make time, make space

Brainstorming is a mental process, but don’t separate it from the physical world. Of course some ideas could come to us spontaneously, when we least expect them, but to brainstorm is to force creative thinking. So: make time for it, designate a well organized place and provide yourself with basic, ready tools. In the case of a group, these aspects are more important: be sure that, at minimum, all participants are able to attend, have enough time for the session, and have a space in which to work. It sounds obvious, but when obvious things are handled badly, it leads to frustration.

Stay on topic, and work within limits

It’s a myth that to be original you must let your imagination go wild. Brainstorming is a free process, but not one without constraint. It always begins with a topic, chosen beforehand, and during the session everyone should stay focused on that topic. Sessions without structure are rarely fruitful (more on that subject here). In fact, established limits often increase productivity. When our minds work within limits, and attempt to push them, creative ideas come.

Choosing some ideas and leaving others behind is necessary

There is a very simple but unavoidable rule: ideas have to be fixed during the brainstorming session. There are two reasons for that: first, to produce a number of ideas for later evaluation (remember principle #2?), and secondly, to build a foundation from which to go further (principle #4). Organize the process carefully, but use tools you are comfortable with — tools that don’t upset the flow.


Ideas image via Shutterstock

Don’t alienate brainstorming from workflow

Even the most creative ideas are useless if they are not implemented with practical actions. Evaluate the brainstormed ideas, and put promising ones into action. Some good ideas may not be realized immediately; consider adopting the concept of a “wish list” as a place to store those with potential for future review. Some ideas prove their hopelessness quickly; for them, too, keep a list — somewhere to accumulate discarded ideas. Taking practical steps after each brainstorming session is absolutely a must. Don’t blame the brainstorming if you fail to realize the ideas.

A practical approach to mental discipline

Since brainstorming is the process of forcing yourself (or your group) into idea generation, we should learn to understand the mental aspects of such a process in order to foster mental discipline, the result of which is increased productivity.

Interesting steps in this direction were taken by Edward de Bono by advocating the concept of parallel thinking. In his books, de Bono explains that during the ordinal thinking process people perform several operations simultaneously: we analyze information, look for arguments, express emotions, create ideas etc. de Bono questions the effectiveness of that process and proposes that such metal actions should be separated and occur in parallel, without contradiction.

The practical approach to this is known as the Six Thinking Hats method. It identifies six distinct directions of thinking and assigns a coloured hat to each:

  1. white hat represents information (considering the available information and what can be learnt from it);
  2. red hat represents emotions (considering one’s feelings and intuition);
  3. black hat represents discernment (evaluating how things relate to real life);
  4. yellow hat represents positive responses (evaluating benefits);
  5. green hat represents creativity (developing innovative propositions); and
  6. blue hat represents meta-thinking (thinking about thinking, or controlling the thinking process).

When individuals brainstorm, they should wear just one hat at a time, considering the matter from one point of view and moving consecutively from point to point. In a group, the roles associated with each hat could be distributed among members in accordance with their working roles or temperaments. Both methods prevent contradictions of opinion, and each “hat” contributes desirable considerations to the final outcome.

Observable benefits of the Six Thinking Hats method include:

  1. for individuals, more complete thinking (each hat allows the individual to explore certain types of ideas or arguments, and one thus obtains a more complex and balanced result than could be achieved traditionally — that is, by mixing all these perspectives without any system); and
  2. during group brainstorming, more collaborative meetings (when the hats’ roles are distributed beforehand, participants can play their parts instead of defending personal opinions. Such abstraction of ego diminishes communication barriers and helps people to concentrate on the topic of discussion instead of their self-image. Assigning hat roles that relate well to the personal strengths of participants allows each of them to contribute in most effectively).

Idea image via Shutterstock

The most important benefits of brainstorming come with practice. Like any technique or method, it has an adoption path. Start somewhere, and practice, practice, and practice again — especially when first results don’t seem impressive. One day you’ll have reached the point that generating new ideas is a natural thing for you and your team. If you feel unsure about tools and methods, rest easy knowing that they don’t matter much; you can learn by doing.

Does brainstorming work for you or your team? What are common challenges? What are the benefits? Let us know in the comments.

Leave a Reply