The brainstorm method

From WikID

What is the brainstorm method?


When people hear the word brainstorming they often think of people sitting together and thinking up ideas wildly and at random. This is partly true! Brainstorming as a method prescribes a specific approach with rules and procedures for generating ideas. It is one of many methods used in creative thinking to come up with lots of ideas to solve a problem. Various methods or approaches to creativity exist, such as: brainstorming, synectics, lateral thinking/random stimulus and biomimetics.

Brainstorming was invented by Osborn as early as the 1930s. Apart from producing large numbers of ideas, brainstorming is based on another very important principle: the avoidance of premature criticism. Of course ideas must be assessed critically, but an all too critical attitude often holds back the process of generating ideas.

We follow the brainstorm method of Osborn (1953) and Parnes (1992). This method consist roughly of the following steps:

  1. Diverging from the problem
    Beginning with a problem statement, this first stage is about a creative demarche: a creative path where lost of ideas are gener­ated using different techniques. Wild and unexpected ideas are welcomed.
  2. Inventorising, evaluating and grouping ideas
    The second step is about evaluating, reviewing and grouping ideas. Now an overview is created of the solution space (e.g. all pos­sible solutions) and whether more ideas are needed.
  3. Converging: choosing a solution
    The third step is about choosing ideas and selecting ideas for the next phase in the design process.

The process underlying this method is build upon the following assumptions:

  1. Criticism is postponed.
    The participants in a brainstorming session should try not to think of utility, importance, feasibility and the like, and certainly not make any critical remarks thereon. This rule should not only lead to many, but also to unexpected associations. Also, it is impor­tant to avoid participants feeling attacked.
  2. ‘Free wheeling’ is welcomed.
    The purpose is to have participants express any idea they think of; ‘the wilder the idea, the better’, it is said. In a brainstorming session an atmosphere must be created which gives the participants a feeling of safety and security.
  3. Combination and improvement of ideas are sought
    One should endeavour to achieve better ideas by adding to, and building upon, the ideas of others.
  4. Quantity is wanted.
    Try to think of as many associations as possible. The objective of this rule is to attain a high rate of association. The underlying idea is not only that ‘quantity breeds quality’ but also that through a rapid succession of associations the participants have little chance of being critical.

Brainstorm session

Figure 1: Brainstorming session (from Tassoul, 2007).

Brainstorming is done with a group consisting of 4-8 people. A facilitator leads the brainstorm session, and asks the group provocative questions. The group’s responses (the ideas) are written down on a flipover. The stages that the group goes through in a brainstorm session are methods on their own, and different alternative methods are possible within a brainstorm session (for example: how to's, who-what-why-when-how, forward and backward planning, and wishful thinking).

Brainwriting session

Brainwriting is done with a group consisting of 4-8 people. A facilitator leads the brainwritting session, and asks the group provocative questions. Each participant writes down his/ her idea on a piece of paper, and the papers are passed on to each other. In this way, an idea is elaborated when it passes through numerous participants, or an idea could serve as an inspira­tion for new ideas. Different versions of this method are possible. A well-known method is the 6-5-3 method.

Braindrawing session

Figure 2: Braindrawing session.

In a braindrawing session ideas are not written down, but are drawn or sketched. This distinguishes braindraw­ing from brainstorming, which only uses words. In a braindrawing session each participant draws his/ her ideas on paper. Also, it is possible to build on each other’s ideas by passing through the drawings common to a brainwriting session.

When can you use the brainstorm method?

A brainstorm is usually carried out in the beginning of the idea generation, with the goal of producing a large number of ideas with a group of participants.

How to use the brainstorm method?

Starting points

The starting point of a brainstorm session is a problem statement (one single concrete target).

Expected outcome

The outcome of a brainstorm session is a large number of ideas.

Possible procedure

Figure 3: A typical brainstorm session: facilitator and participants.
  1. Develop a statement of the problem (e.g. with How to's, one single concrete target) and select a group of 4-8 participants. Draw up a plan for the brainstormsession, including a detailled timeline, the steps written down, and the methods used in the brainstorm session (example of session plan).
  2. You could send a note containing the statement of the problem, background information, examples of solutions and the four brainstorming rules, to the participants some time before the session.
  3. Have a preparatory meeting together with the participants right before the actual brainstorming session, whereby the method and rules are explained, the problem, if necessary, is redefined, and a so-called warming-up is held. A warming-up is a short stimu­lating brainstorming exercise unrelated to the problem.
  4. Write, at the beginning of the actual brainstorming session, the statement of the problem clearly visible to everyone on a black­board or flip-over, as well as the four rules.
  5. The facilitator should ask provocative question to the group, and write down the responses on a flip-over.
  6. Once a large number of ideas are generated, the group should make a selection of the most promising and interesting ideas. Usually, some criteria are used in the selection process, which should be established with the group.

Tips and concerns

  • Brainstorming is suited for solving relatively simple problems with an ‘open’ formulation. For more complex problems, it would be possible to brainstorm about subproblems, but then the overall view might be lost. Furthermore, brainstorming is not suited very well for problems whose solution requires highly specialised knowledge.

References and further reading

  • Roozenburg, N.F.M. and Eekels, J. (1995) Product Design: Fundamentals and Methods, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Roozenburg, N. and Eekels, J. (1998, 2nd ed.) Product Ontwerpen: Structuur en Methoden, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Tassoul, M. (2006) Creative Facilitation: a Delft Approach, Delft: VSSD.
  • Higgins, J.M. (1994) 101 Problem Solving Techniques, New York: New Management Publishing Company.


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