As creatives, we鈥檙e supposed to be teeming with good ideas. Right? There are times, however, when we鈥檙e brainstorming up a, ahem, storm, and it seems like we just come up empty. Been there, done that. Don鈥檛 get discouraged though. There are actually聽hacks聽you can learn to help make your brainstorming sessions waaaaaaay more effective.

We spoke to Product Manager Karen Holst and Partner Suzanne Howard of IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm that comes up with brilliant ideas that help companies and brands get more creative. Suzanne is also the Dean of IDEO U, IDEO鈥檚 online school that teaches聽design thinking, ways to聽ideate聽and how聽people can solve their own challenges creatively. As speakers at聽Re:Make in San Francisco this Friday (get your tickets here!), they鈥檒l be talking more about IDEO U as well as sharing some of their pro tips on creative thinking. They shared with us some extremely important lessons for brainstorming.


1. Gather insight + create empathy:聽Before you can begin brainstorming, you need to get out there and gather some insight. What that means, according to聽Suzanne, is 鈥済oing out into the world and looking at it in a unique way with fresh eyes.鈥 You can do this by observing and interacting with people, studying technologies and doing research on whatever you鈥檙e planning on creating.

2. Set the stage:聽So you鈥檝e gone out and gathered lots of data, and you can begin forming your questions. Now, you frame your questions. Suzanne tells us, 鈥淵ou need to ask good聽questions.鈥 This is a crucial step, as asking the right questions will lead you to the right answers.

3.聽Defer judgement:聽Now we鈥檝e reached the actual brainstorming phase, and to make it a safe space, suspend judgement.Karen says, 鈥淲e really want people to have creative and wild ideas and have that spur other creative and wild ideas. [We try to] create a creative space so there鈥檚 no judgement, [we can] let ideas flow, so people can build from one another on their ideas.鈥


4.聽Encourage wild ideas:聽Some of the best ideas started out as the most outlandish ideas. That is why one of their rules for brainstorm sessions at IDEO聽is聽that 鈥渢here鈥檚 no difference between the 鈥榦utrageous鈥 and the 鈥榖rilliant,'鈥 says Karen.

5.聽Build on the ideas of others:聽Using other ideas as a jumping off point or a sounding board can actually elevate and grow a creative thought more quickly. Karen says, during a brainstorm session, it鈥檚 best to聽鈥渦se 鈥榓nd鈥 instead of 鈥榖ut.'鈥


6.聽Stay focused on the topic:聽Sometimes when a session starts to get off topic, you need聽to reel it back in. After all, in order to brainstorm constructively, you have to follow some rules. Karen says, 鈥淒iversions are good but we really want to keep our eyes on the prize in terms of what we鈥檙e trying to brainstorm around.鈥 If you鈥檙e leading the brainstorm sesh, Suzanne advises, 鈥淲hat we聽try to do is really gently nudge people back toward the questions.鈥 Other ways include putting in your own crazy, yet on-topic idea. 鈥淲ith a well-placed wild idea, you can kind of attract people鈥檚 creative energy back to the challenge at hand,鈥 she tells us.

7.聽One conversation at a time:聽When you鈥檙e in a room full of creative thinkers, good ideas come up like popcorn in a microwave. Be sure to give each idea plenty of space to be heard. Karen says, 鈥淲e really want to make sure that we hear each other and that we鈥檙e able to build on each other鈥檚 ideas.鈥


8.聽Be visual:聽Some people are visual learners rather than audio learners. Make sure you鈥檙e fully imparting each idea by adding a visual component to your brainstorm. 鈥淎s we鈥檙e brainstorming, we do lots of pictures, visualizations depicting the whole story,鈥 Karen says, 鈥渟o others can visualize the ideas we鈥檙e trying to articulate.鈥

9.聽Go for quantity:聽You鈥檝e heard 鈥渜uality over quantity鈥 before, but throw that adage out when it comes to brainstorming. During a session, try to get out as many ideas as possible. You can weed through them later to find the good ones. 鈥淚n a 60-minute session, we try to generate 100 ideas,鈥 Karen says. Woah. 鈥淚t鈥檚 really about just getting a lot out there and then being able to, after the brainstorm, take a moment to synthesize what you鈥檝e gone through and figure out where the opportunities [are] to spend more time in developing these ideas.鈥


10. Limited time is your friend:聽Have an endless amount of time to produce something often means that you end up producing, well, nothing. Instead, allot only an hour or even 45 minutes to a brainstorm to let yourself think wildly out-of-the-box, then close up the session and go on your way. 鈥淸It] creates聽sacred space for this kind of thinking because it allows people to get a little bit silly and a little bit crazy just during that time,鈥 Suzanne says. 鈥淭hen, they can leave that room and go back to their regular jobs.鈥

11.聽Mash it up:聽One of their techniques聽to help your brainstorm along is taking two different things and thinking about them聽together. 鈥淲e use the phrase 鈥榗ross-pollination,鈥 [but it鈥檚] the idea of bringing two things that are not alike together into a new whole,鈥 Suzanne says. 鈥淚t could be things that are totally un-alike but massively fresh ideas and innovative thinking come from mashing them together.鈥

Check out one of IDEO U鈥檚 brainstorming sessions in the video below.

What do you think of Karen and Suzanne鈥檚 advice? Tell us in the comments below!