Designing a Brainstorm Boosting Tool

I recently reconnected with James Allen, founder of a UK-based consultancy called Creative Huddle, to have a meta-discussion about the nature of creativity. We had a good time picking each other’s brains on our relationship with creativity, what it was, and whether it could be taught. While I personally believe that everyone has some hidden potential ready to be unlocked, creativity seems to be in a different class. I suppose it takes a certain kind of fearlessness, either by having an innate willfulness of spirit that causes one to push forward new ideas despite what others think, or by virtue of being safe within a supportive environment where judgement of new ideas is not considered threatening or damaging. It’s not so much the ability to have ideas that is at the root of creativity; it’s having the desire and will to express them in the first place, so they may see the light of day.

The notion of a judgement-free zone played very well into a current topic of interest for James: creating enabling tools for productive brainstorm sessions for business people who aren’t in a bona-fide “creative industry”. Creativity, he noted in one conversation, applies to every field. The first step of a productive brainstorm is to create ideas in the first place. Lots of them. Many of them that might be regarded as terrible, but are the necessary stepping stones toward greater ideas.

What would a “brainstorm helper tool” look like? And could we MAKE it? I agreed to do some exploration for fun, and to my delight James was fine with the idea of sharing the process as we go.

Here’s how he kicked off the process a few weeks ago:

James' Creative Mindmap This impressive mind map outlines the key elements that James had identified as contributing to a good brainstorming session, from process to mindset to technique to facilitation. He explained it to me over Skype in some detail; he also has a series of blog posts that explain the elements of brainstorming on The Creative Boom if you’d like to know more. My task: figure out how to make some kind of one-sheet diagram that would help participants in a brainstorm session come up with ideas by suggesting fruitful ways to think, emphasizing quantity over quality while gently supporting the process.

Using the mind map as a starting point, I noted that many of the idea generating approaches seemed to share patterns, so I grouped them together (figuring this might be helpful to brainstorming noobs that liked the comfort of structure). I also reworded them to evoke a mental image and reaction. For the purposes of this first draft, we assumed that a moderator would be present to set tone and establish the rules of the brainstorm, so I didn’t worry about putting that into the sheet; it’s designed to trigger ideas so you can write them down to evaluate later. One or two sheets per idea, we figured, would be good. As a quantitative measure, the number of idea papers used and stuck up on the wall for all to see is the metric.

Dave's Creative Trigger Sheet To the right is my first pass interpretation of the one-sheet brainstorming helper. It’s a sketch with many unresolved elements, though I shamelessly allowed my myself to use as many cheesy Illustrator effects as possible to impart some personality to it. Gotta try stuff to see if it sticks! The idea is that you start from the top, and meander down a path to hit upon an idea that catches your fancy.

There are many things that I don’t like about it, but it seemed like it was going somewhere, so I was curious to see how James would react. One of the wonderful things about a creative collaboration, when both parties share the expectation that there are no real rules other than a commitment to nudging the problem toward some direction, is that every interaction creates something new and unexpected, which in turn drives the pursuit of excellence.

James's Development James liked the first pass, and he re-interpreted the squiggly lines as a pick your own adventure game, providing a sketch that resembles a kind of game board (left). One idea is that you place a marker on the sheet, and move it from node to node. Each node has a suggested idea, and you fill the idea in a box somewhere. You have some freedom in picking how many nodes you want to visit, and each node has a multitude of possible destinations. What I like about this approach is that the user is more constrained in choice, which is a useful creative trick, in a way that might feel more like guidance.

Filling in all the nodes with ideas and routing them around the page will be a challenge that I’m planning to tackle next week…I really have no idea what it will look like at this point. I’m a little freaked-out at the layout challenge, and I’m not looking forward to routing all those nodes in a way that looks nice. The first step is to just start laying in elements and drawing lines.

So that’s where we’re at right now. James has posted his reflections on the process so far on his own blog as part of our creative discourse. Stay tuned for future developments!