10 Tips for Effective Creative Brainstorming

by on 28th February 2010 with 32 Comments

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Brainstorming can either be a creative gold mine or a time wasting disaster.

Brainstorming is often discussed in relation to a business environment. In college, nearly every one of my business school textbooks had an entire chapter dedicated to the concept. Though creative brainstorming is in many ways a different beast due to its visual nature, many of the same concepts apply.

Today we’ll take a look at ten tips to consider before you pull your creative team into a brainstorming session. When applied properly, they can drastically increase productivity and quality of results.

#1 Assign a Moderator

Assigning someone to guide the brainstorming session into a productive direction is an absolute must. Though the entire point involves the free flow of ideas, this can quickly get completely off track and out of control if not kept in check.

Who Should Be the Moderator?

Choose someone who knows the project scope intricately and is seen as an authoritative figure. This person should not dominate conversation or even present many ideas but instead drive the conversation away from unproductive or hostile conversation and towards original thought and successful teamwork.

How Should the Meeting Be Managed?

Whoever you choose to be the moderator (be it yourself or someone else) should be an outgoing, social person familiar with providing direction in a non-authoritarian manner. The conversation should be eased in different directions, not forced. Remember that you want people to feel comfortable throwing out ideas and not afraid to change the topic or say something unconventional.

#2 Identify Goals

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It’s best to begin a brainstorming session by briefly stating an overview of the project. Even if everyone present is familiar with it, the refresher is a good way to get their brains in the right place. After stating what the project entails, clearly state the goal of the brainstorming session. Never go into a brainstorming session without a clear idea of what you want out of it, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for a phenomenal waste of time.

Good Goals vs. Bad

As you consider what you want to get out of the meeting, make sure the goals you set are very specific. You should be able to tell immediately after the session ends whether or not the goals you set out were met. Be wary of vague overarching intentions such as “Create the best website ever.” Instead focus on achievable and measurable results such as “Identify 10 possible ways to improve the homepage user interface.”

SMART Goals

For more information on creating productive goals, check out Setting Smart Management Goals from dummies.com. As a brief overview, SMART is an acronym for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

#3 Set a Time Limit

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Obviously, you’ll have to end the brainstorming at some point. However, it may not always be the best idea to ideate until people simply stop talking. Try setting and announcing a firm time limit at the beginning of the session. The significance of the announcement is that it ensures everyone knows that the agreed upon goals must be met by a certain time. If you’ve got a strong team, this will encourage them to stay on track and really crank out as many ideas as possible within the allotted timeframe.

How Long?

It sounds like a copout, but it really does depend on the scope of the project. Just keep in mind that it’s easy to get burnt out. If you’re tackling a fairly large project, split each phase or category up into its own session with breaks in between so everyone involved can give their mind a rest.

Also, if time permits, consider spreading the sessions out over several days and/or dividing your team into different groups to cover more ground in a shorter time.

#4 Write Down and/or Sketch Everything

Be prepared at the start of the meeting with sketchpads, stickies, or a large amount of whiteboard space for everyone involved. Remember that every idea, good or bad should be briefly written or sketched out. Never imagine that you’ll simply remember the important things that were said. Otherwise, three days later you’ll be scratching your head trying to figure out how you could forget all those great ideas.

Visual Brainstorming

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Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that brainstorming is purely for the boring informational stuff, it can also be a valuable tool for hammering out visual themes, making interface improvements, and experimenting with different layouts.

If you’re tackling a visual project, be sure to bring lots of scratch paper. As someone throws out an idea, encourage everyone to quickly sketch out what it might look like. Misinterpretations can strangely enough work in your favor at this stage. If someone throws out an idea to four people who all interpret it very differently, it quickly becomes five ideas! Never assume that just because you were the originator of an idea that you’ll be the best person to bring it to life. Instead, eagerly await seeing how others can improve or rethink the concept.

#5 Don’t Judge

This concept might be a bit overstated but it is absolutely essential to effective brainstorming. At the beginning of the process you want to shoot for quantity over quality. Rather than taking five minutes to discuss reasons why a particular idea is bad or good, just take every idea and move along.

Time isn’t the only factor in play here either, more importantly is the mood of the room. An ideal brainstorming environment maximizes the number of ideas put forth by removing any peer pressure regarding the quality of the suggestions. If someone in the group is too afraid to speak up for fear of rebuttal or rebuke, the entire session is compromised and productivity will suffer greatly.

Eliminate the Weak Link

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If there is a particular person in your group that is intent on making snide comments or harsh castigations against the ideas of others, your only two choices are to let them continue to undermine your entire purpose or to simply ask them to sit this one out. The “no judging” concept is pretty simple so if anyone just can’t contain themselves then there’s no reason to keep them around as they are obviously just looking to build themselves up or support their own agenda. Perhaps they can return when it comes time to sort through the ideas and decide which ones actually have merit.

#6 Embrace the Ridiculous

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If you really want to see the value of brainstorming, don’t simply avoid judging unrealistic ideas, actually encourage them. As strange as it sounds, the very best ideas are often born from the very worst. Ask questions like, “what if money were no option?” or “what if our time table were three times as long?”

Look for Inspiration in the Outlandish

After you’ve arrived at a satisfactory number of initial ideas, start to encourage discussion of those that seem really over the top. Examine what makes these ideas appealing and how you can strip away the unrealistic aspects until you arrive at something that retains some of the attractiveness of the original idea but is actually achievable. For instance, let’s say you’re designing a news site and someone suggests an interactive 3D experience where users control a character that swims through a virtual underwater world of headlines and pictures to navigate the content on the site. After some realistic discussion regarding the lack of a flash developer, this crazy idea could simply turn into a two-dimensional nautical theme for a site titled “NewsShark.” Granted, the end product is no where near as exciting as the original, but it definitely has merit on its own and would have never been thought up without discussing the unrealistic water world concept.

#7 Start General, End Specific

If you’re the moderator of the brainstorming session, your job is to gently steer the conversation towards a productive output. Here’s what you should keep in mind as the meeting progresses.

Shotgun Blast

Similar to the spray of ammunition from a shotgun, the initial ideas should be numerous and widespread. If you hear too many similar ideas, encourage participants to stray from that topic by suggesting something completely unrelated. Remind them that there will be a time later to flesh out specific ideas. The point initially is diversity of thought, not unity.

Laser Beam

This is where the quality of ideas suddenly becomes important. As the meeting progresses, hone in on and refine the best ideas while eliminating those that don’t effectively address your goals. It’s best to pair down your selection to only three or four good ideas that you can focus on shaping and improving as a group. After you’ve determined the specific nature of the ideas, break off the session and assign each idea to a small team and plan a time to come back as a group to evaluate the progress of each team.

#8 Look for Synergy Potential

As you begin to trim your selection of ideas in the step above, beware of viewing the possibilities in black and white terms. It’s not always the case that the furthering of one idea must mean the death of another. There is often potential for creating synergy among originally separate suggestions.

Get the Big Picture

Hang all the suggestions up around the room where everyone can stand back and have a look at them as a set. Then discuss ways to combine entire ideas or to selectively mix elements of two or more weaker ideas to form a stronger whole. Try using stickies or thumb tacks to move certain ideas from place to place to see where they fit the best.

Be Democratic

If you come across an idea that most people like but are split as to what to partner it with, put it to a simple vote. Just be aware of the fact that open voting among immature adults can cause unwanted division and an inability to cooperate effectively. If you’re worried about this with your team, simply keep the voting anonymous to avoid the headache.

#9 Avoid Group Think

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There’s a fine line between a team that productively cooperates and one that suffers from too much cooperation. The moderator should watch intently for signs of group think and steer the conversation accordingly.

What is Group Think?

Group think is a phenomenon that occurs in decision making groups that seek to eliminate conflict entirely. In an attempt to escape the frustrations of lengthy arguments or the embarrassment of being the squeaky wheel, individual members avoid promoting ideas that are beyond the realm of the generally accepted norm. Groups with one particularly respected or vocal member are very susceptible to this behavior as members inevitably begin to agree with this influential leader.

It’s great to have positive reinforcement and agreements within the group, but not at the expense of critical thinking, creativity and ultimately, quality. As group think increases, the quality and diversity of the ideas being presented sharply decreases.

Play the Devil’s Advocate

If your group is suffering from excessive uniformity, try taking of the role of the devil’s advocate by asking tough questions and presenting multiple alternatives to ideas that are raised. As the moderator, make it a point to audibly praise those who even begin to question the will of the majority. This positive reinforcement for creative thinking will not go unnoticed by other members of the team who will hopefully follow suit in presenting their own arguments and original thoughts.

#10 Include an Outsider

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My final suggestion for effective brainstorming is to include at least one person in the group who doesn’t belong. For instance, if you’re working with a team of designers, try throwing in a developer to add some diversity to the mix. Or better yet, grab someone who knows absolutely nothing about creating websites or developing attractive user interfaces.

Why it Won’t Mess Things Up

You might be thinking that including a non-designer in design-related decisions is just asking for trouble. After all, this outsider will be on a completely different page than everyone else in the room and their suggestions will no doubt be off the wall and way off target. To this argument I say: exactly. 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. Including one or two people to shake up your otherwise uniform group will further enable you to avoid the group think scenarios in the previous tip.

Who To Include

As you’re selecting candidates to include in your session, there’s a few things to keep in mind. The first thing to think about is the personality of the candidate. If they’re brilliant but shy, odds are they won’t add a single thing to the group. Similarly, if they’re loud and obnoxious, they could do more harm than good.

You also want to consider the content being discussed and whether or not the candidate will even be able to achieve moderate comprehension of the topic. Throwing your copywriter in with a bunch of seasoned PHP developers is akin to making them watch a foreign film with no subtitles. Again, not very productive.

Finally, you’ll want to consider going beyond including a single outsider by inviting multiple people from different areas of the company to join the session. If your topic is something that most people can grasp, such as basic visual design or website contest ideas, you might find that the input of a developer, a writer and a layman is collectively invaluable when compared to the input of just one of these on his/her own.

The IDEO Way

For more inspiration on creative brainstorming, I’ll refer you to the experts: IDEO. This company lives and breathes innovation and is among the most productively creative corporations on the planet. They’re a lot like a modern day Edison Invention Factory, continually churning out game changing ideas, designs and inventions.

To see them in action, check out this inspirational (though a bit outdated) video of IDEO redesigning the shopping cart from the ground up.
Video: Inside IDEO

Conclusion

The above ideas represent just a few ways to get your design brainstorming session off to a good start. Use the comments below to let us know how you handle brainstorming sessions and whether or not you think they are ultimately a good method of generating quality design ideas.

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