I think it’s accurate to say that synonymous with the design process is post-it notes followed closely by brainstorming – and usually both together. The aim of brainstorming is to leverage the collective thinking of a group by collecting ideas without judgment. It initially requires divergent thinking, enabling each member to freely contribute without becoming hung up on an idea or train of thought. Ideas are organised and displayed and can later be revisited, evaluated, combined, filtered and discussed.
During a professional development for teachers at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, our director of education, Ruki Ravuikumar shared a number of brainstorming strategies. Ruki began by demonstrating how NOT to brainstorm, giving participants a broad topic with the instructions, “just brainstorm.” Interestingly, each group chaotically collected ideas, certain people dominated and some groups looked a little disgruntled.
In order for brainstorming to be useful, it needs to be purposeful and structured.”Frame your problem one way and you could end up with a team chasing every problem with the same old hammer while your problem could have been solved with a screwdriver.” This was Ruki’s advice before leading teachers through a series of structured brainstorming exercises towards meaningful connections and evaluation of ideas.
Here are some of the techniques Ruki shared with a few of my own favourites thrown in;
- Forced Association: Two lists of words (or pictures) are given, the first lists nouns while the second lists value laden words such as bullying or poverty. Each group choses one word from each list then proceed to separately brainstorm words and ideas on a big piece of paper. As the activity progresses, groups begin to discuss and critically look at each collection of ideas and explore connections between them. I can see this being an effective tool to understand characters in novels, ethical dilemmas and develop empathy.
- Matrix Brainstorming: This can be done with or without post-it notes but the aim is to try and come up with ideas based around a structure that you can work within and then evaluate and prioritise ideas.
- Post It Brainstorming and filtering: After team ideas have been written down the group collects them into themes and look for patterns, similarities and outliers. Outliers can often be ideas worth exploring!
- Dead Fish: I’m not sure if this is what its called but that’s how I remember the activity. Participants evaluate ideas by listing the pro and cons (or factors controlled by you vs factors controlled by others). If there are a similar number of pros and cons or more cons than pros then you have a dead fish (an idea that probably needs to be thrown in the trash).
- Reverse Brainstorm: This is a fun activity that can energise the brainstorming process. Teams come up with as many terrible ideas as they can and then try to work out an inverse idea. I have done this activity when designing a solar oven. Students had to draw and label the worst possible solar oven and label all the elements (or lack of elements). They then used post-it notes to cover the reverse idea with an inverse (good) idea.