Unlock the potential of your creative mind – both as part of a team of designers or as an individual – with our guide to harnessing the power of brainstorming.
The term brainstorming has come to mean everything and nothing. At its most frivolous, it’s an excuse to escape the rigours of a working day for some lighthearted business banter over cakes and coffee, yet at its most effective it can mean the difference between a false start and a flying start – something especially true of creative disciplines.
The concept of the brainstorm was developed in the 1930s by Alex Osborn who co-founded the US ad agency BBDO in 1919. His book Your Creative Power was the springboard for the widespread adoption of his notion that, when it comes to ideas, quantity breeds quality. But is it really all just about quantity?
For Tom Hopkins, senior consultant at Conchango (www.conchango.com), brainstorming is about “firing off neurons. Different people connect ideas in different ways,” he adds, “so a room of people can take old ideas in new directions.”
It’s about chemistry, too, says James Wilson, creative director of Salter Baxter (www.salterbaxter.com). “One individual may have a set way of doing something, so being put together with someone who can almost turn that on its head is useful.”
“All creative people need the judgment of others to refine and improve their work, whatever the discipline,” says Andy Cole, managing director of LMC Design (www.lmcdesign.co.uk).
Who attends is another consideration. Including non-creatives, for example, can help strike a balance between creativity and practicality. “Non-creatives in brainstorming sessions might typically be a project manager or admin assistant,” says Nigel Davies, managing director of 300 million (www.300million.com).
“They’ll be thinking about the end user, rather than just a creative solution, and it makes things bit more rounded.”
At retail design specialist JHP Design (www.jhp-design.com), the net is cast even wider in the search for balanced input. “We open them to everyone in the studio,” reveals marketing manager Austin McGinley, “because we believe everyone is a consumer. Anyone who buys a product or visits a store is welcome to contribute.”
Most agencies, though, prefer to keep things intimate. Wilson believes that on project brainstorming “two can work as well as eight” but feels the optimum number is four or five.
“If you have too many it becomes difficult to manage, but there are those that maybe wouldn’t talk so much if it were a smaller group.”
The question of whether third parties – clients, end users or professional brainstorm facilitators – can help the process elicits a largely negative reaction. Involving end users of the product or service under discussion “is not usually a good idea” believes Andy Cole.
He adds, though, that it’s important that target audience information is available to the group. “It’s valuable to begin brainstorming sessions with sketches of the target audience and summaries of research identifying the attitudes and behaviour of the target audience.”
Salter Baxter’s James Wilson, agrees, believing end users are best left to the next stage, when “it’s all about testing the ideas that you have come up with”.
It seems clients rarely feature, either. “We don’t involve clients [in brainstorming] because it can muddle the process, particularly if they are not creative,” declares Wilson.
“I’m not aware that we’ve ever invited a client to join a brainstorming session,” says Austin McGinley, observing that client input is something “that happens organically during the briefing session”.
And while in the US out-of-house brainstorm facilitators are becoming increasingly popular, in the UK their use is infrequent. “We place great emphasis on client confidentiality so we couldn’t really bring in a third party to the table,” says McGinley.
Outside help for brainstorming
“We wouldn’t consider a facilitator, not for what we do,” Wilson says. “I’d expect the designers here to be able to think of ideas.” He concedes, though, that for an agency involved in huge branding or packaging projects a facilitator “might be useful”.
Although 300 million has never used a facilitator, Nigel Davies, does not rule out the possibility. “I think it would enable more creatives to be part of the brainstorming in a more active way, and add a bit of impartiality, maybe.”
Andy Cole can vouch for this, because he has acted as a facilitator for clients. “It can be helpful if the facilitator is little known to the group members. He or she is beyond any politics or hierarchy issues.”
With UK agencies, in-house facilitators are either senior creatives or management, as the role demands experience of managing processes and people.
“You need a facilitator to relay the brief, capture the notes, and keep things moving,” says Davies. “In terms of keeping things going you might break down a brainstorm into different areas that you want to explore.”
“You have to recognize interesting thoughts and be able to isolate those and put them to one side,” says Wilson. “But even bad ideas are good, because it’s almost that you have to get through those before you can get to the interesting stuff.”
At JHP, sessions are often led by one of two joint MDs, who McGinley says first outline the issues the brand or retailer faces, and detail what it is people have been tasked with.
“They make clear that everyone’s ideas are welcome, no matter how insignificant they think they are. And there’s no hierarchy; in the session everyone is on the same level.”
Cole’s aim as a chair is to maintain momentum while keeping an eye on the objectives. “The key thing is to not allow the session to ground to a halt through tiredness or tedium. If necessary, stop the session and return in half an hour after a walk or a game.”
Andy Cole says managing different personalities is another core skill. “The facilitator needs to control the over-confident and verbose members and to draw in the meeker ones. [You need to] take half ideas or timidly advanced thoughts and amplify them and build upon them.”
One thing on which there’s consensus is that brainstorms should never be over long. “[The limit should be] anything from half an hour to an hour,” says Nigel Davies. “You can’t do much more than that because people start to lose interest and switch off.”
There’s agreement, too, about how freedom to express ideas is critical if brainstorming is to work. For Wilson, this is a cultural thing: if freedom of expression exists in the studio then it will pervade all areas of an agency’s work, including brainstorming.
“I think we’ve got a really strong culture here where people are recognized at any level,” says Wilson. “There is a hierarchy but it is not visible. Everyone knows they are valued and welcome. If people feel intimidated it’s going to cause all sorts of problems. The quality of ideas will be low if people are afraid to speak.”
When creativity is given free rein good ideas can happen anywhere, not just in office meeting rooms. “We might chat in the pub on a Friday, and some good working ideas can come out of this,” says McGinley.
“We might take these back in on a Monday with a view to working something up. Brainstorming can also happen on a plane, when you’re sitting together for a couple of hours.”
Andy Cole agrees that good ideas can happen anywhere. “Some of the most productive sessions happen without planning – chats in the pub, around the coffee machine or on the train can generate great ideas. Equally, some of the most carefully structured and planned sessions can be arid.”
Email, too, is something McGinley says has a role to play. “Sometimes we send out an email to everyone inviting their thoughts on something. We call it an e-storm. You get a different response by email. It’s not a debate, so people’s responses are more uni-directional. They’ll say ‘My opinion is…’.
“We’d have a round-the-table session when we needed a more lively debate about a project, particularly if it’s something where we know there will be a fundamental change in the way consumers interact with brands.”
Brainstorms for pitches as opposed to live projects also call for a different approach, says James Wilson. “Because of the nature of a pitch you have to be aware that the journey you take the client on is succinct and to the point. You cannot lose sight of the problem you’re trying to answer.
“You almost have to over-design. You treat the details slightly differently than if you were to win the project. It requires a lot more meetings and constantly seeing how the pitch is evolving, and then tracking it against the brief. You need to be more questioning.”
Whether brainstorming is about quality being extracted from quantity is a moot point for creatives – because ultimately it’s all about understanding clients’ needs, however that happens. “Understanding and questioning the brief is the key to producing an effective creative solution,” says Andy Cole.
“[Brainstorming] helps concentrate the mind on the brief. It helps you understand the audience better, and the environment in which the message will be seen or heard.”
Watch the quiet ones
Even if an agency’s culture is to place equal value on all creative contributions regardless of seniority, there will naturally be some who are more comfortable contributing to brainstorms than others.
Sometimes gentle encouragement is needed to coax contributions from everyone around the table – and session facilitators often fall back on simple exercises to achieve this.
Andy Cole makes sure that before any brainstorm session starts everyone is as relaxed as possible. “To make people feel confident and relaxed it’s important to ensure everyone speaks early in the session, so a little presentation from each member to kick off is a good idea.
“This can be to relate a story or personal experience or merely to introduce themselves and what they did last evening.
“Scene setting can also be valuable – perhaps a short presentation on consumer trends and attitudes.”
Generating ideas alone
For many freelance designers and illustrators who work alone, sparking ideas off colleagues is not an option – yet good ideas are still the main currency of their work.
Multi-persona digital illustrator Jason Cook (www.jasoncook.co.uk) has been a freelancer all his career, but the creative well has never run dry, even though he produces different styles under his different professional guises.
“I read through the brief, and maybe speak to the client, and everything is kind of whirring away inside my head. I invariably have music on, which I find helps the creative process. It’s really a case of doodling and continuously thinking. I need a very secluded environment.”
Sometimes solo designers or illustrators are required to brainstorm with clients. “If it’s an ad job, a book cover or a corporate brochure, it’s a case of meeting with an account handler, art director and a designer, and very occasionally a creative director.
"It usually takes around an hour. We’ll bash out some ideas and I’ll go away and start to execute it.”
Cook says in these situations there are two things that are of vital importance if the session is to be productive. “You’ve got to want to do the job, and go in with a very positive mental attitude.
"And with the bigger jobs you’ve got to be prepared to be told what to do, and follow other people’s ideas. You can’t go in and expect that you’ll be given free rein.”
Less waffle. more storming
One thing that will doom any brainstorming session to failure is lack of structure and preparation. Austin McGinley, marketing manager at JHP Design, says anyone invited to a brainstorm is given a few days’ notice to gather their thoughts before they come in.
“We can’t afford to let people waffle on. We have to turn projects around with great speed so we need to get to the core of the issue very quickly,” says McGinley.
And, says, McGinley, someone has to own the session, “else it becomes a waste of time or resources. “The chair will make notes of the key points during the session and then summarize for five minutes or so at the end, so that we will have four or five pretty strong ideas that everyone’s agreed on for the direction of the project. We’ll then work these up in the studio and then take these to the client,” McGinley adds.
Aim for a session of 30 minutes. Much longer and people will begin to lose interest.
Make sure people are clear on the brief and what they’re trying to tackle.
Give people time to prepare ideas prior to the brainstorm.
Communicate the brief without getting bogged down in detail.
Set numerical targets. They create goals. For example, ‘Give me five reasons why...
Write down all ideas but have a ‘cul-de-sac’ sheet to park important, time-consuming sub-issues that are irrelevant to the session.
Keep the ideas going: half-formed thoughts are better than stony silence.
Make plenty of food and drink available. It helps energize proceedings. Don’t hold brainstorms after lunch, when people are at their most sluggish.
Invite people who have experience of some part of the problem.
Remember the brainstorm is not the solution, but part of the process of finding the right execution.
If facilitating, type the notes yourself after the session, as you’re the best person to weed out the good from the bad at this crucial point - not your PA.
Avoid involving more than eight people - it can become a presentation rather than a creative session.
No mobile phones.
Ideas shouldn’t be questioned or validated in the brainstorm.
If you’re note making for the group don’t be worried about spelling or legibility it slows down input.
Don’t get agitated by people who fail to contribute.
Don’t insist everyone speaks, and don’t dismiss anyone’s ideas.
Don’t keep ideas to yourself.
Don’t be vague.
No pre-conceived ideas.
No agenda pushing.
Don’t knock ideas.
Don’t hog the biscuits.
Scottish-based Designer David Airey is a prolific and popular blogger on design. In this blog on solo brainstorming on paper, he discusses and illustrates the evolution of a logo.
US author and business consultant Scott Berkun offers an incisive look at how to run a brainstorming session in this essay.
Creativity for Graphic Designers by Mark Oldach includes plenty of advice on how to generate more good ideas. It has two chapters on brainstorming, with tips and advice on how to brainstorm in groups and alone.
Designers’ use of paper and informal tools in the creative process, including brainstorming, is examined in a paper by academics from the University of Illinois.
The Visual Thesaurus by Chris Goveia is a brainstorming tool aimed at designers. It’s a book of brainstorming cluster diagrams that claim to mimic the action of the designer’s mind in its pictographic organization.
Staff at leading brand agency 300 million trade ideas during a recent brainstorming session. Suggestions were captured on a flipchart by the chair of the meeting.
Conchango uses a room with a whiteboard wall for its brainstorm sessions. Senior consultant Tom Hopkins says: “User experience teams, creative teams and business teams collaborate on developing innovation for target customer groups. Here, team members can be seen brainstorming around the idea of personas. The use of popular graphics helps us to bring the characters to life and explore their motivations, explains Hopkins.
Staying on brief while sketching ideas is imperative for freelance illustrators, as seen here with Jason Cook’s work for William Hill’s Online Super Casino. (Commissioning and art direction by Michael Barley at Prego).
“This sketch came out of a brainstorming session for a well-known spirits brand,” says Austin McGinley, marketing manager of JHP Design.
Illustration Tado, www.debutart.com