Ideation: Trust in the Process

Ideation is the stage in the design process where you generate ideas – as many ideas as you possibly can – before reducing down to the most realistic solutions to begin prototyping. Ideation asks us to “combine both our conscious and unconscious minds,” pairing the rational with the imaginative. Ideation is, above all, an incredibly fun step in the design process. It gets the creative juices flowing.

There are a large number of techniques to help designers generate ideas in the ideation stage, but most stem around the central idea of brainstorming. According to Rikke Dam and Teo Siang, “the intention of brainstorming is to leverage the collective thinking of the group, by engaging with each other, listening, and building on other ideas.” There are many variations on brainstorming – some can be done alone while others require a group; some involve words while others rely on sketching. Whichever style of brainstorming you use, it is important to keep an open mind, generate ideas without judgment, and push yourself for quantity over quality. The elimination of bad solutions and refinement of the good ones will come later.

At first it’s easy to laugh off the strategies of brainstorming as overly simplistic. Or to believe that you can come up with great ideas on your own, without any silly techniques. But the truth is that ideation strategies really do work to generate some of your best ideas. You just have to trust in the process.

Past Brainstorming Experience, An Example

My department used the ideation strategy of brainstorming in a professional development workshop for faculty a few years back to solve a problem: Lack of communication across degree programs. At first the faculty scoffed at the idea of filling an entire pad of Post-its. It seemed trivial. But as facilitators, we pushed ahead and laid down the rules for brainstorming:

  • Remain open to all ideas
  • Pass no judgment
  • Be supportive of others
  • Push yourself to use an entire pad of Post-its

Some really struggled at first, and said “I’m out of ideas,” after just writing a few things down. These were mostly ideas that had been tried in the past – and lacked originality or creativity.

But other faculty kept going. Soon the room was full of a colorful array of notes, proposing creative solutions to our stated problem of communication within the department. People were engaged, and laughing, and coming up with some really outside of the box thinking. At the end of the day, when we sorted and evaluated the different ideas that had come up, we were impressed with the work the group had done. Down the line, some of those ideas were even implemented, leading to improved communication.

Testing a New Method: The Ideation Mash-Up

The Ideation Mash-Up activity asks you to begin with a problem phrased as “How might we…” The problem should be a challenge you face in your everyday life. I have two almost-teenaged children, so a problem we regularly face is the overwhelming volume of chores and the fact that I am the only one who does them. So the question I began with was, “How might we get the kids more involved with doing chores.”

The first phase of brainstorming was around the idea of the chores themselves – What activities do we associate with chores in our house. I began brainstorming a list, and then asked the kids to help me so I could come up with fifteen solid ideas.

The next step of the Mash-Up process is to identify a category that has nothing to do with your original category. For fun I picked Fortnite, a first-person shooter, massive-multiplayer game that my children love to play. Fortnite is something I can’t get my kids to stop doing – so I figured it was the complete opposite of something I can’t get my kids to start doing.

At first glance, I didn’t believe that this brainstorming strategy was going to work. It seemed overly simplistic – listing two columns of disparate ideas. But as I reviewed the two lists, I started to make funny connections. The ideas were largely impractical – but mixed in were some fun ideas that could help us start to address our problem. Through the process, good ideas started to emerge. My Ideation_MashUp really was successful in finding innovation solutions to a very ordinary problem.

Trust in the Process

Ideation is a process – and as such, it’s hard to understand unless you take yourself through it to the end. The brainstorming techniques of the design thinking approach really are effective in helping you reach new ideas. Trust in the process, and you will be amazed at where you end up.


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