How I used a Thinkathon to define my brand

Gráinne Hamilton
May 28 · 4 min read

A few years ago I started making soap and following requests if I would consider selling it, I commenced the process of setting up a natural cosmetics company. This grew organically, I created (a few) logos, spent hours on packaging and developed new products.

I got to a stage where I realised I needed to take stock of the messages behind what I was selling and how to present these in a cohesive way across all my product ranges. It was clear that I needed to think about my story.

At the same time, I continued to keep my other professional interest up through my work with We Are Open. We Are Open champions the Thinkathon model of analysing a challenge and defining next steps, and it occured to me that this was just what my own brand needed to help me move it forward.

So what is a Thinkathon?

@bryanMMathers CC-BY-ND

A Thinkathon is a way of exploring ideas using a facilitated approach with experts outside your organisation. It can result in various outputs but these will always include:

  • A visual mission map
  • Actionable next steps

The Thinkathon model was defined by Bryan Mathers’ company Wapisasa and We Are Open has used the approach to support many companies, brands and projects identify actionable next steps. Clients we’ve worked with include Mozilla, Greenpeace, Telefonica, Creative Commons, NCS, City & Guilds, Jisc and London CLC.

Stand in their Shoes by @bryanMMathers CC-BY-ND

My colleague Laura Hilliger defines the starting point for a Thinkathon as:

“Stand in another person’s shoes and see how an idea looks from there. You’ll be surprised at the clarity that this can produce. The outcomes of a Thinkathon relate to the breadth of experience in the room — and the ability to think openly. We work towards finding solutions. We help you think sideways about what you are trying to do — or even why you need to do it.”

The Process

The process starts with a 30 minute call to discuss how a Thinkathon can jump start your project, program or product. Once you’ve decided that it’s for you, a personalized agenda is created. Meanwhile, you invite the thinkers from your organization who should be in the room. The group will define problems and areas of focus. We Are Open will ask hard questions, capturing the outputs both visually and in text form.

Thinkathons last about 5 hours. To keep energy levels up, nibbly snacks are recommended — treats easily eaten while thinking and talking are ideal.

In the end

We think out loud. What often happens is that we start off in one place, then move to another. We head off at tangents and down rabbit holes, and then back to where we started from.


We Are Open packages up what was captured during the day into actionable next steps.

Any visual thinkery is captured as it emerges throughout the session. This forms a mission map, which is often returned to throughout future developments. This output helps you to remember the thinking from the workshop and to make decisions about how to take your work forward.

Examples of visual thinking


A Thinkathon with Creative Commons helped them to define the ‘edges’ of a project and turn an emerging vision into actionable next steps.

The University of Edinburgh asked for a Thinkathon to help a variety of stakeholders explore how to integrate patient generated health data in a way that would be helpful to clinicians. The process enabled them to identify key issues that make gathering, processing and utilizing patient generated health data challenging and leave with a plan of action points to move forward.

We Are Open ran a Thinkathon with the Children’s University to help them investigate how they could improve the visibility of their awards framework and the learning it recognised. We also explored how digital credentials could tie these aspects of their vision together with their overarching mission of tackling inequity.

In terms of my own natural cosmetics brand development, I used a multi-stage version of the Thinkathon process to untangle the various aspects I was trying to draw together in the development of Grá. Putting myself in the shoes of my customers, helped me to identify the priority messages. Being asked questions about my brand, helped me to clarify how to balance seemingly competing aspects and distill these into a clear message, logo and action plan. This is an example of some of the thinking that was captured by Bryan Mathers.

@bryanMMathers CC-BY-ND

If a Thinkathon could help your company, brand or project, drop us a line at We Are Open to have a chat.

@bryanMMathers CC-BY-ND

Gráinne Hamilton

Written by

Education consultant, facilitator and connector. Specialising in open education, open badges and lifelong learning.

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