Brainstorm like a Pro

Most people love jumping ahead to the brainstorming phase. It’s fun, liberating, and can take minimal effort, especially if you’re doing it on your own. But if you’re doing it right, it shouldn’t be the first step… it’s the middle step in the design thinking process, called “Ideation.” It takes what you’ve learned from investigating the problem you’re addressing and uses that information to come up with potential solutions.

Brainstorming works best if you’re not just doing it by yourself in a vacuum. Diverse perspectives can help you take brainstorming to a whole new level. Deferring judgment and criticism of ideas is essential for building on one another’s ideas and coming up with solutions that you likely would not have generated on your own.

Here are best practices for brainstorming like a professional from IDEO:

“We’ve all been in brainstorm sessions that went nowhere. At, the goal isn’t a perfect idea, it’s lots of ideas, collaboration, and openness to wild solutions. The last thing you want in a brainstorm is someone who, instead of coming up with ideas, only talks about why the ones already mentioned won’t work. Not only does that kill creativity, but it shifts the group’s mindset from a generative one to a critical one. The only way to get to good ideas is to have lots to choose from.”

Rules on brainstorming from IDEO:

  • Defer judgement. You never know where a good idea is going to come from. The key is make everyone feel like they can say the idea on their mind and allow others to build on it.
  • Encourage wild ideas. Wild ideas can often give rise to creative leaps. In thinking about ideas that are wacky or out there we tend to think about what we really want without the constraints of technology or materials.
  • Build on the ideas of others. Being positive and building on the ideas of others take some skill. In conversation, we try to use “and” instead of “but.”
  • Stay focused on the topic. Try to keep the discussion on target, otherwise you can diverge beyond the scope of what you’re trying to design for.
  • One conversation at a time. Your team is far more likely to build on an idea and make a creative leap if everyone is paying full attention to whoever is sharing a new idea.
  • Be visual. In live brainstorms we write down on Post-its and then put them on a wall. Nothing gets an idea across faster than drawing it. Doesn’t matter if you’re not Rembrandt!
  • Go for quantity. Aim for as many new ideas as possible. In a good session, up to 100 ideas are generated in 60 minutes. Crank the ideas out quickly and build on the best ones.

Once you have a bunch of wild ideas posted to a wall, a great next step is categorizing them. What are some themes and patterns that emerged from the brainstorm? Move the post-its around into groups. You could also sort them by time frame, cost, and/or feasibility.

To help synthesize and prioritize the ideas, ask the brainstorming team what Top Five ideas or themes are sticking out to them right now. Not only can answering this question as a team help you strategize, but it can also help uncover themes, isolate key ideas, and reveal opportunities for design. Here are IDEO‘s suggested steps for this process:

  • Gather your team and have everyone write down the top five ideas jumping out at them.
  • Share your top fives and cluster similar ideas. This is a great way to reveal what’s most interesting or important at a given time.
  • Consider doing this exercise often. And vary the time frame. What’s your team’s top five for the day? How about for the week? You can also use this tool to pull out the top five biggest challenges you face, or the top five crazy ideas you want to try.
  • Keeping and displaying the Post-its with your top fives is also a great way to watch your project evolve and to remind yourself of your priorities.

For more tips and resources for brainstorming like a pro, visit these websites: