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Structured Ideation Versus Brainstorming

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the benefits of brainstorming. Everyone has his own opinion regarding if and how it should be done. We use it frequently, but we’ve developed our own technique that is more structured than “stormed.”

Brainstorming sketches

There is a tendency in the design industry to begin brainstorming with very little preparation and before goals are well-defined. I’ve seen my share of ad-hoc sessions with unexceptional results. I personally don’t believe in jumping into brainstorming when goals are vague.

Formally trained moderators who can effectively manage a high-stakes ideation session are rare. People tend to fall into it as a matter of experience and habit, which diminishes the chances for positive outcomes. This is why we wanted to share our own process when we had the opportunity to mentor a group of University of Pennsylvania Integrated Product Design students who worked with the Yonso Project, a Ghanaian rural organization, to help them develop a line of bamboo bike accessories. (Read more about that collaboration in this post on Core77.)

Visual Impact, Manufacturing Complexity Grid

Structured Ideation

“Structured ideation” may not sound as sexy as brainstorming, but it is more descriptive of the focused work we do upfront. We’ve found that breaking it up into shorter, smaller sessions is more productive than holding expansive, all day sessions. It keeps the ideation fresher and the content more manageable. (We use this approach when we lead our clients through the ideation phase.)

How It Works: Prep

More often than not the problems we have to solve are complex and multifaceted. Ideally we organize them in order of significance. Before the first session our designers and engineers absorb a good amount of information, including documented research, to guide the ideation process around low-level problems that need to be solved before we can tackle the greater issues as a group.

User Research

The best ideas usually come after the issues have had a chance to sink in for a few days. A lot of creative people do their best thinking at night, in the shower, while biking home, etc. — outside of work. Allowing them to contemplate the issues and problems enables them to come up with better solutions.

For us, the prep work usually involves watching user research videos and reading through summaries of research findings so participants can begin to generate their own approach. Occasionally we assign different problems to different people to cultivate strands of expertise within a group. This is best when we are facing multiple problems touching multiple disciplines.

First Ideation Session: Material Property

With Yonso, we gave the students homework and a series of tasks to accomplish prior to the sessions. They were asked to start the ideation process and come up with ideas for solutions to identified problems. Starting off the first session with people sharing these ideas sets the tone for high-energy work. It also saves time because we plow through preconceptions very quickly to focus on the more challenging, less obvious concepts that lead to richer solutions overall.

Material Property

With Yonso, session one was about material property. It was a way to deconstruct the idea of a particular material. Instead of thinking about products made of bamboo, we approached the idea of exploring products that need to have high tensile strength. The outcome — ideas for products made out of bamboo — is the same, but the approach is likely to yield more unexpected results. We looked at interesting ideas that would come out of these particular material properties (i.e. which products would leverage the unique tensile strength of bamboo).

Second Ideation Session: Things Made Out of Bamboo

Our second ideation session for Yonso was a little more traditional in nature. We pinned up all the images and grouped and sorted them into categories to identify a few that made the most sense. Then we ideated from there.

Here is the assignment for that second session, revolving around “Things Made Out of Bamboo.” The students searched online for images and also took their own photos.

A – Find 10 images of products made out of bamboo.
B – Email me your 10 images.
C – Be ready to tell a story about what you found.
D – If you don’t send your images, you can’t participate to the ideation session.

We should have 100 images to look at during this session, and it will form the start of our exploration into “Things Made Out of Bamboo.”

1. Pay attention to your surroundings. Pictures of real products are worth more than images collected online. (I saw two bamboo products on my way to work this morning; snap a picture and save it for this exercise.)
2. If you are already familiar with what Yonso and Kwabena do, don’t include like products. Try to look for other product opportunities.
3. Look further than the obvious — we don’t want to all bring the same images, use your personal judgment.
4. Focus on products that solve a real problem/issue.

Bamboo Products

One of the most important rules is to force people to go outside of their work environment to do this exercise. It trains people to be more curious and aware of their surroundings. Collecting images online is fine and can lead to some inspirational thinking, but chances are if you actually see someone using a product that relates to the assignment, the conclusions will be much richer.

Another important rule is “if you don’t do your homework, you can’t participate.” Too many people see ideation sessions as a chance to doze off, but this is a no-pain no-gain scenario. There is no room for slackers.


With Yonso, the students’ initial inclination was to create a lineup of concepts to take with them to Ghana. These sessions slowed them down and helped them realize it’d be most efficient to turn the trip into an extension of the structured ideation process they began in Philadelphia — into a gathering of information, a true research trip unencumbered by designers’ preconceptions.

Paper Prototypes in Ghana

Bike Prototype in Ghana

Their trip was about keeping an open mind and designing solutions on the ground, within the context and environment, so their solution would be appropriate and relevant. I think this was a very valuable lesson: Don’t design with your personal bias. Take the time to learn and apply your expertise to a co-design activity within context.

Ideation often turns into a debate of ideas, but a structured approach always yields more thoughtful, considered solutions.

(This is a companion piece to ” A New Line of Bamboo Bike Accessories for Ghana’s Yonso Project” on Core77 about the Yonso Project. Read more about the process and see the students’ final concepts there.)

(Photos by Sarah Rottenberg, Yilin Lu, Yoshi Araki, and Anna Couturier.)