4 Favorite Brainstorming Processes

This is part of my 4–5–6 series of Design Thinking Listicles.

4 Favorite Brainstorming Processes // 5 Favorite Design Thinking Charts // 6 Favorite Stoke Activities.


A core principle of design thinking is mindfullness of the process. This might conflict with past brainstorms where a leader says “let’s brainstorm on this” and the group stumbles through new thoughts and fluctuated between idea generation and evaluation. Maybe these ‘brainstorms’ yielded the results your team was looking for but my guess is that more often than not these brainstorms failed. In order to have a better brainstorm below are four common brainstorm processes you can try.

Side note: More important than any of these processes are the people. Do you have a diverse cross disciplinary group in the room that feels safe sharing ideas?

1) Structured Ideation [Design Thinking / IDEO]

Assumption: Add rules to produce wild ideas

Process: This method lays out seven main rules to brainstorming (see below). The brainstorm beings with the team standing (yes standing) around a “how might we” question on a butcher paper or white board. As ideas begin to flow each idea is headlined on a post-it and stuck on the board. Group members should build on the ideas of others, encouraging wild ideas, and saving evaluation for later. The team should use phrases like “Yes, and…” and “What if…”. Let go of feasibility and viability for the brainstorm.

  • “Defer judgment — Focus on idea generation, not idea selection. For now, suspend critique, knowing that you’ll have time to evaluate the ideas after the brainstorm.
  • Go for quantity — The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.
  • Encourage wild ideas — Breakout ideas can be found right next to the absurd ones.
  • Build on the ideas of others — Listen to and add to the flow of ideas. This will springboard you to places you can’t reach alone.
  • One conversation at a time — Maintain your momentum by saving side conversations for later.
  • Be visual — Display each idea with a quick, descriptive phrase or sketch.
  • Headline — Capture the essence quickly and move on. Don’t stall yourselves by explaining” -Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Example: Vimeo [Stanford d.school example]

Source: Stanford University [Full explainer on this process and each rule].

2) 6–3–5 Method

Assumption: Let individuals work alone first

Source: Katie Kizziar

Process: In teams of 6 each person individually writes or sketches 3 ideas. Each person passes their 3 ideas to the person next to them who builds on those ideas. This is repeated until each set of 3 ideas has gone full circle (5 repetitions). Ideas are evaluated after all passing is complete. Avoid alphanumeric characters, encourage sketching and drawing.

This process is also great for diverging and aligning on the problem statement. Before brainstorming use this same process to form a clear problem statement for the team. (You can write instead of draw for this one)

Example: YouTube

Source: Evaluation of Idea Generation Methods for Conceptual Design: Effectiveness Metrics and Design of Experiments & Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong Harvard Business Review [I recommend this whole article]

3) Four Step Sketch [Google Design Sprint]

Assumption: Remove fear of a blank page

Source: Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Process: See the above graphic. “You’ll start with twenty minutes to “boot up” by taking notes on the goals, opportunities, and inspiration you’ve collected around the room [or any research work]. Then you’ll have another twenty minutes to write down rough ideas. Next, it’s time to limber up and explore alternative ideas with a rapid sketching exercise called Crazy 8s. And finally you’ll take thirty minutes or more to draw your solution sketch — a single well formed concept with all the details worked out.”

Here is more on Crazy 8s: “Each person begins Crazy 8s with a single sheet of letter-size paper. Fold the paper in half three times, so you have eight panels. Set a timer to sixty seconds. Hit “start” and begin sketching — you have sixty seconds per section, for a total of eight minutes to create eight miniature sketches. Go fast and go messy: As with the notes and ideas, Crazy 8s will note be shared with the team” -Jake Knapp

Here are scanned pages on the Four Step Sketch from Sprint.

Source: Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days Page 109

4) Friction [Fahrenheit 212]

Assumption: Exploration by integration

Process: “The players on the team are sent off their separate ways to think independently about the problem on the table, and then regroup to fire ideas at one another and debate their merits. Ideas are treated not as precious pearls to be polished, but as sparks born of friction…it takes pressure to make diamonds”

Here are scanned pages on the reasoning behind friction.

Furthermore this process has an interesting team structure. Here’s more: “The Money & Magic players on the Fahrenheit 212 team each represent their own epicenter. Magic gets out of bed each morning to solve for the needs of the consumer. Money comes to work to solve the business questions […] This too is a break from prevailing orthodoxy in the world of innovation, which says thinking about how money can be made from an idea is toxic to creativity until a consumer solution has been defined”

Disclaimer: This process is directly at odds with Structured Brainstorming’s “judgement free zone”. This process requires type A personalities and willingness to debate.

Source: This process is championed by Fahrenheit 212 and is described in Mark Payne’s book How to Kill a Unicorn: How the World’s Hottest Innovation Factory Builds Bold Ideas That Make It to Market. Related Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth The New Yorker

More Brainstorming Variations

Lateral Thinking: How might your team view problems and solutions through a new lens? You can use method cards to break patterns.

IDEO Method Cards // IDEO Nature Cards // Alex Osborne Methods // 80 Other Decks

Add Constraints: “Constraints are liberating,” says Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO

Here are constraints I used in my last brainstorm: Financier (local coffee shop)// a puppy//the NYC subway// Kanye West// Chipotle// a million dollars//a significant other// elevator bank// Ken Chenault (our CEO)// VR headset)


What is your brainstorm process? Share it with me!

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