There’s a lot of mystique around the creative process. It’s seen as a bit of a black box, something only practiced by artists and designers, with potentially powerful but unpredictable results.
But design is simply “deciding how a thing should be”, which applies whether you’re picking the best route to the airport, planning a party, or any of the small and large tasks you perform every day.
Which isn’t to say that everyone is good at thinking creatively. Most people aren’t until they learn how. But the skills are surprisingly easy to learn, and the most powerful tool I’ve found in my career as a designer is learning how to run a creative brainstorm. It’s a great way to stir up a lot of ideas, but more importantly, these techniques will align people’s thinking much quicker than an average meeting.
One of the components of a truly creative team is their appreciation and understanding of play as a tool. Culturally, play has taken on a connotation of being lazy or immature, especially at work. But successful creative teams know that play is serious.
It’s how humans and many animals learn new skills. By framing situations informally, you trigger different parts of people’s brain than a traditional meeting. This means they worry less about being right or doing something perfectly, which leads to more breakthroughs and better thinking.
For your next project, send an invite to your key stakeholders. Say you’ve been learning about techniques used by creative companies like frog design, IDEO, and Pixar to see what makes them tick, and you’d like to facilitate a new kind of meeting with your team. Name it Design Play to set the tone.
5 steps to running a creative brainstorming session
1. Frame the session
To start your creative brainstorming meeting, simply bring a bunch of sticky notes and pens for everyone in the room. Politely asking that people put away their laptops is another clear signal that this isn’t a normal meeting.
But do everything with a spirit of fun and camaraderie. Don’t say “Sally, please put your laptop away,” say “We’re going to be doing a lot of sketching and moving around, and the sessions go better with sticky notes than computers.”
It’s a slight modification but it makes a big difference. Your phrasing matters at this stage. Remember, no one knows what you’re about to do, and they’re probably thinking of ways to get out of the meeting. So the quicker you can get them having genuine fun, the better. A successful Design Play session should feel more like recess and less like study hall.
2. Start with solo brainstorms
My first activity is typically “list things you can do with a brick”. It’s a well-known creativity exercise where you put one idea per sticky note and see how many you can come up with (e.g. throw it, prop open a door, make a wall, etc) But the key here is to make everyone do their own sticky notes. In silence. For 5 minutes.
Why? Because group brainstorms don’t work well for this kind of thinking. They encourage a dynamic that actually shuts down depth and breadth of creative output.
But it’s not just about dodging the groupthink that comes out of a brainstorm. It’s building camaraderie for the latter half of the meeting. The more effort each person puts into their own sticky notes, the more invested they’ll be in the group portion.
While they’re working on the brick exercise, remind everyone that they’re going for as many unique ideas as possible. If they’re struggling, tell them about “compounding prompts”, like “How would your favorite celebrity or athlete use a brick?” or “What would you do with a brick in your hometown?” Adding a secondary idea is a surefire way to shake loose more ideas than something overly broad.
3. Start to share as a group
Once time is up, share your first brick idea and one of your last ones. If the team doesn’t know each other, this is a great time for everyone to introduce themselves as well. Ask someone to write everyone’s responses on the board, so each line will look something like this:
- Jon Bell: throw the brick through a window, carve it into a toy for a child
Ask everyone in the group to share their first and last idea, and a pattern will emerge: the first sticky notes aren’t very original, but the later ones are. This is an important insight for successful creative brainstorming. Your first ideas aren’t very good, so get them out of the way early.
It’s fun hearing what others wrote, so the energy in the room is usually in a good place here. But everyone is probably still wondering where you’re going with the meeting. After all, your team isn’t in the brick idea business. So, on to the final step before the “real work” begins.
4. Get everyone out of their chairs
Next ask everyone put their sticky notes on the board. This maneuver is designed to get people standing and talking to each other while you pull back a bit. People will naturally start discussing what they see, whether laughing at a funny note, congratulating someone for coming up with a lot of ideas, or discussing which obvious ideas came up a lot.
When all the notes are up, ask the team to group them. Anything that seems sort of similar to something else should be put together. Our brains are tuned for pattern recognition, so some groups of ideas will emerge quickly.
But as the facilitator, try to pay special attention to ideas that defy categorization. Maybe it’s one sticky note off to the side, or maybe it’s a smattering in between two large groups. The ideas aren’t necessarily great, or fully baked, but at least they’re novel. And that’s worth a lot.
5. Bring it all home
Now that the team knows the drill (solo, then as a team, then look for themes), you can aim it at real-world problems. Send them back to their seats with a prompt that is applicable to your team. Here are a few ideas:
“List every problem with our current project”
“If we could do anything, with no limits, what features would we build?”
It all depends on your team and your project, but the idea is to use the energy from the brick activity and aim it towards a real world problem. Give the group five minutes solo, then have everyone group sticky notes and have a discussion at the board. You’ll notice a lot more enthusiasm about the real world team problems than debating the finer points of brick repurposing. But all the same concepts apply.
Bonus tip: What to do if things are slow
I’ve never had a group stall. If the mood is light and the ideas are on the board, something is bound to happen. But it’s nice to have some techniques in your back pocket just in case things get slow, so here are two prompts I often use to keep the discussion going. They both have to do with prioritizing, because creativity is sparked by limitations.
- Give everyone one vote for a feature or idea they like. Once all the votes are in, discuss the results. Sometimes everyone votes for the same two ideas. Other times it’s more spread out. Both are helpful for stirring up some debate. Discuss, then give everyone two more votes to see what happens.
- Tell everyone they have $100 to spend on the product and ask how they’d budget. Like the voting activity, it doesn’t matter where they put their money, just that it starts more discussion.
A note on the science
Remember earlier, when we talked about “What would your favorite celebrity do with a brick?” This borrows from the concept of Lateral Thinking, where throwing a mental curveball often jogs loose new ideas. It’s why sometimes the only way around a problem is to stop thinking about it. It’s why we say diversity is the spice of life, because our brains are tuned to novelty. Things that stick out.
So the very fact that you’re running a different kind of meeting, one that’s fun and collaborative, literally triggers a different part of your brain. And that part of the brain is better at thinking creatively. In this clip by the famed Don Norman he tells a story of an experiment (from 4:55 to 6:21) about creativity.
It turns out when the facilitator said “This is an IQ test that determines how well you do in life”, people failed it. But when she said “Before we start, I bought this box of candy. Want some?” they succeeded.
And that’s why creative brainstorms work. These techniques are simply a way of getting people talking together and having fun. And the science teaches us that those two things, if brought together, lead to better ideas, solutions, and relationships. That’s something anyone in the office can use, not just design teams.
To learn more brainstorming ticks and tricks
- Check out this short video called “Brainswarming: Because Brainstorming Doesn’t Work” from Harvard Business Review.
- Implement the toolkit for creative thinking called “Gamestorming.”
- Read about brainstorming for graphic and multimedia design in chapter 2 of the second edition of “White Space is Not Your Enemy.”
Jon Bell (@workjon) is a designer at Twitter and co-founded UX Launchpad, a series of fun design courses in Seattle. He recently launched a new educational series of design essays called Design Explosions.