Using Design Thinking to Improve Brainstorming

A few weeks ago, I came upon an article from my alma mater, entitled ‘Thirty Ideas Are Better Than One’. Given that Design Thinking and idea generation was on my brain, I had to know more.

I began reading and when I got to the line, "30 ideas are always better than one", I paused. I asked myself, “Are more ideas really always better”? I thought back to the many brainstorm sessions I'd been in. Most of them generated amazing ideas in large quantities, but many of those ideas were lost along the way. 

As I considered the results of these sessions, I realized the answer to my question was "More ideas are usually better, but knowing how to prioritize and validate those ideas is where the real magic happens". Allow me to explain further. 

"Brainstorming" is a term most of us know and love. It’s an older term, “popularized by Alex Faickney Obsborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination”. [1] Given that it’s a fairly inexpensive and effective way to generate cross-functional ideas (if you have the right players in the game, of course), teams like the one referenced in the article often utilize the exercise.

There is no doubt that brainstorming is a solid method for idea generation. It's a technique heavily utilized by most if not all of the major players in the innovation and design industry [2], and it's something we employ often at Design Think Labs. 

Despite knowing that brainstorming can help teams produce more ideas and fast, it’s important to realize that doing so is only half the battle. Many times teams go into brainstorming sessions and come up with a slew of ideas only to have the work get lost when the team leaves the room. 

Why? 

There are two key reasons. Either the problem statement was not clearly identified at the beginning of the session leading to unfocused, ineffective ideas [3], or the ideas themselves are good but so numerous that teams have no idea where to begin. In this second case, the team freezes. Instead of chopping away at making the ideas a reality, they choose to look elsewhere for innovation. [4, 5]

One method for combating these problems is to call in Design Thinking. The Design Thinking process isn’t revolutionary, nor is it inaccessible. In fact, user-centered design practitioners have been utilizing it since the industry's inception. However, the method isn’t only for design practitioners, and once it's learned can be used time and again to solve problems like these. 

Using the method solves the brainstorming problems in several ways. 

First, when using Design Thinking as a framing of and extension to brainstorming, one's brainstorming efforts are inherently fusing the human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. [6, 7]

Brainstorming when your teams’ brains are primed in this way, means the ideas you produce, even those that seem way “out there”, are anchored at the intersections of user needs, business needs, and technical possibilities. Sure, the ideas may and should push the boundaries in these three regards, but because they are rooted at this meeting point, they’re sure to have a level of context necessary to at the very least add value and understanding to your outcome.

To take this point further, we know that Design Thinking allows a team to define the right problem, ask the right questions, and, when ideas are created, to choose the best answers. [8] Knowing this we can confidently say that framing any idea generating brainstorming session with Design Thinking will sit your team and the ideas your team generates at the golden intersection necessary for innovation. [9]

After you've used Design Thinking to solve the issue of ineffective idea generation through brainstorming, you'll need to know what to DO with all the new, effective ideas. Thinking like a designer solves this as well. Inherent in the Design Thinking process is a framework for selecting the best ideas to test, then testing those ideas quickly to see which ones hold promise. [10]

By framing brainstorming which so easily allows us to generate ideas, with the Design Thinking methodology which inherently ties our foci to the intersection of user needs, business needs, and technical feasibility, the problems which surface far too often as a result of brainstorming, cess. This means at the end of the sessions the team is left with a slew of effective ideas and a roadmap defining what to DO with those ideas. 

It's true. Thinking like a designer takes your brainstorms to a whole new level.

So I ask you this: Are more ideas always better than one?

I think by now you know the answer. 


1. Wikipedia. Brainstorming. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org

2. IDEO. Effective Brainstorming Techniques. Retrieved from https://www.ideou.com.

3. Perspective on problem definition - "It is important to spend time agreeing on the problem to be solved. A whole round of divergence and convergence on the problem statement can be done before giving people a chance to suggest solutions." - Markman, A. (2017, May 18). Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong. Retrieved from https://hbr.org

4. "Without that rigor, organizations miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies." - Spradlin, D. (2012, September). Are You Solving the Right Problem?. Retrieved from https://hbr.org

5. "The paradox of choice isn’t just for shoppers" - Wikipedia. The Paradox of Choice. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org

6. “which IDEO calls design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.” - IDEO. Design Thinking. Retrieved from https://www.ideou.com.

7. “a method of meeting people’s needs and desires in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way." - Brown, T. (2008, June). Design Thinking. Retried from 

8. “Within these steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen." - Cohen, R. (2014, March 31). Design Thinking: A Unified Framework For Innovation. Retrieve from https://www.forbes.com

9. Bole, K. (2012, December 4). Design Science: UCSF Project Applies Innovative Thinking to Research. Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu

10. “There are some problems that are not solvable. You might not find a technology that’s going to solve a particular problem, but what you want to do is discover that quickly. So, the design thinking methodology doesn’t necessarily generate better ideas than competing methodologies. It’s just that this methodology allows you to test your ideas quickly to see which ones hold promise.” - Fyffe, S. & Lee, K. (2016, January 19). How Design Thinking Improves the Creative Process. Retrieved from https://www.gsb.stanford.edu