The Zone of Infinite Creative Possibilities

Ideation is the third component in our Design Thinking process, as seen in the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design’s proposal which we’ve discussed in our previous articles:

Image source Interaction Design Foundation Website Interaction-designorg
Image source: Interaction Design Foundation

How Did We Arrive at the Ideate Stage? 

During the Empathize stage: you approach the user and gather data needed to
define the challenge you want to solve. 

During the messy Define stage: you come to understand what the exact needs of
the user are. Most importantly, you aim to define the exact
problem you are trying to solve. 

Once you understand the nature of the problem you create an actionable problem statement that specifies
and focuses the problem you want to solve. It will be the roadmap that guides your team for the remainder of your design work. 

Your problem statement will be the source of topics that
focus on different aspects of the problem you want to solve. In short, it helps you to see and break the problem into components. 

Eventually, you settle on two or three questions that best define the problem. What ideas do these three questions spark? And what solutions will they lead to? 

This the perfect entrance into next step, that being: Ideation. 

The Role of Ideation

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that too many ideas leave you confused, directionless, or unable to make a decision, your goal here should be quantity not quality. 

And here is the best part: no idea is a bad idea. Go after weird, unusual ideas instead of common sense solutions. Do you know how many indispensable innovations that you can’t imagine life without have come from unusual, nonsensical, unreasonable, bold, impossible ideas? 

Yes it sounds counterintuitive and counterproductive but in Design Thinking this is the zone of endless creative possibilities. It is better to have a surplus of ideas than to have to just enough ideas. A diversity of ideas will bring about the best, most creative and appropriate solution. 

During Ideation you release your mind from the mentality of “finding a right solution”, get the obvious solution out of the way, and embrace the broadest possibilities available to you through this process. Ideation is about exploring all varieties of ideas by multiple voices in the team. You get to ask the right questions and discover unexpected areas of innovation.

Ideation is Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Ideation comprises both divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is creating and generating numerous choices. Convergent thinking is narrowing down and zeroing in on a handful of very specific choices that are most likely to solve the problem. Convergent thinking involves synthesis. Convergent thinking is also analytical. 

divergent and convergent thinking

Convergent and divergent thinking is a continuous process through out the ideation stage and the whole problem solving process of Design Thinking. The team may discover that it needs to go back and do more research in order to redefine the problem again. It is a process that is always ongoing. I call this the “ongoingness of Design Thinking”. 

The Ongoingness of Design Thinking 

A fuller understanding of Design Thinking as a whole can be explained as the continuous process of tweaking by constantly going back to the drawing board in a non-linear manner. Think of your favorite mobile phone being released as a different, better version each year, with more improved function and features that work more smoothly than the previous versions. 

After the release of each new version, the team listens to users to hear what works best, what doesn’t, how they feel about every aspect of the product, whether it’s easy to use, what problems they may be experiencing. Some changes are implemented immediately after feedback to fix problems that can be fixed through updates that patch weaknesses or eliminate them. Long term changes that cannot be fixed immediately allow the team to redefine the problem once again then work toward an improved or completely new version.

Tools for Idea Generation

There are many tools for ideation. The most common being brainstorming

  • Brainstorming
  • Body storming 
  • Game storming
  • Mind Maps
  • Storyboarding 
  • Sketchboards

All these will be covered in future articles, but at the moment we’ll focus on brainstorming and mindmapping.

How to Carry Out Ideation

Let’s put this into practical steps.

1. Pick a Facilitator for the Ideation Session

Qualities of a good facilitator: 

  • Excellent moderator and mediator.
  • Respectful of all team members’ contributions.
  • Good at resolving conflicts.
  • Has high energy that can be relied upon to re-energize the room. 
  • Selects members of vastly different backgrounds (disciplines and thinking styles) knowing that a room of like-minded people will not generate many creative ideas.

The Facilitator also:

  • Finds ways to break the ice and bring the team together.
  • Finds a good starting point into Ideation.
  • Defines a time frame.
  • Select the methods to use for the sessions (you can do several methods).
  • Prepares questions to work on.
  • Always keeps the team focused on the goal–user centric.

2. Pick a Note-taker to do the Following:

  • During the sessions: write down, organize.
  • Maintain the threads of ideas so the team will stay on course.
  • After the sessions: photograph and archive the ideas in digital format. 

3. Space and Tools 

An ideation session will require the following:

  • A dedicated room where the team can meet during the project.
  • A large wall/whiteboard to write, stick notes, and draw (visualize) ideas.
  • If possible a table where team members can all gather write down their ideas on notes.
  • Sticky notes, markers, pens, paper.
big fat whiteboard

The research and personas should also be on the wall. These constantly remind the team of the User you are all seeking solutions for.

“Group Think” and the Trap of the “Right Solution”

Group think happens when everyone settles for a particular approach. As a result the group is too quick to settle on the “right” or obvious solution and move on. 

The so called “right solution” is the dead-end you lock yourself into. It is the kind of thinking that originates from playing it safe because you fear failure. 

Taking the easy way out by reaching for the “obvious solution” is the kind of linear thinking that stifles innovation. This may be the result of an authority figure who pushes his or her solution and is not open to contribution of ideas by others (poor leadership). It may also be down to an aggressive team member pushing aside ideas by other members.

Group think creates risk aversion, makes team members hesitate to put forward ideas that are not “safe”.

Fail Often and Fail Fast

Embrace of failure in Design Thinking allows the team members to immediately see ideas that work, and those that don’t work, ideas that work but need to be continually refined and tested until they finally emerge as the best user-focused solution.

Hes happy
They’re happy with that one at least

Design Thinking’s embrace of failure creates a collaborative space that fosters creativity in problem solving.


Remember you also used brainstorming in the Define stage. Brainstorming is an indispensable tool in Design Thinking. You will keep using it through out the whole non-linear process. Integrate it into the whole framework from research phase into prototype and testing phase.

  1. Before a group brainstorming session create space for individual brainstorming. Each member of the group comes up with their own list of ideas without worrying that ideas of others may be better. This frees them to take creative risks on their own. This gives them confidence to present their ideas to the group. Instruct them to think completely contrary to their assumptions.
  2. Each member of a team takes a few minutes to write down their ideas on paper (one idea at a time per each piece of paper). Then, each person passes their piece of paper to another person, who will elaborate on the ideas. After a few minutes, each team member passes his or her paper to yet another person, who elaborates, and so on. After 15 minutes or so, collect the papers and post them for discussion. This exercise is called Brain Write
  3. During group brainstorm use a variety of prompts like trigger words, images etc. to stimulate generation of more ideas. For example, take two different ideas generated by two different members of the group and ask if the two ideas can be combined? You can also take the devil’s advocate position. For each idea they contribute ask them to think of several opposing ideas. Ask if they have seen examples of these ideas in use and how they can improve them beyond how they are regularly used. Use association games. Ask team members to sketch their ideas. 
  4. Round-robin brainstorming: Instead of going around the table clockwise try counterclockwise, or randomly call on members of the team. Make sure the quieter members are always given a chance to voice their ideas.
  5. Rolestorming: Team members take on a persona’s identity and brainstorms in character. It frees them of any inhibitions.
  6. Worst possible idea: Coming up with brilliant ideas all the time is stressful. The point is this tool is to literally come up with a really crappy idea. It’s refreshing. It relieves pressure on the team and also injects light-heartedness and humor into the process. This is a reverse brainstorm process. 

Rules for Brainstorming                         

Novelty is crucial in this process since it is the source of the most innovative ideas. 

Image Sourcehttpwwwgavinolearycom
Image Source:

Mind Maps

Mind maps are among the best tools for ideation. 

“Mind maps are a visual way to organize your thoughts around one topic using words, colors, images and numbers to highlight ideas and draw connections.” – Genevieve Conti

Uses of Mind Maps

  • Generating ideas, examining problems, finding solutions.
  • Breaking down problems and ideas into simpler components.
  • Structuring, analyzing, and synthesizing information gathered during research process.
  • Making connections between emerging patterns and ideas generating new ideas. 
  • Presenting information in a creative and easy to follow format.

Mind maps mirror the way the mind works. The brain works in a non-linear manner and human thinking is also non-linear. 

How to Create a Mind Map

  1. Write the problem definition in the middle of a piece of paper, napkin, whiteboard, mind mapping app etc. (the central question or topic).
  2. Write team members ideas in different directions around problem definition. Use sketches and pictures. For written text, use only keywords. Substitute concepts with simple icons.
  3. Connect related ideas by drawing lines. This is a great method of understanding complex problems.

Ideation Methods to Select Ideas

Once the Ideation session is complete, the team should 

  1. Categorize, refine and narrow down ideas. 
  2. Select the best solutions, ideas, and strategies from a shortlist. 
  3. Vote to select ideas to focus on during the next stage (prototyping).
  4. Bring forward multiple ideas into prototyping to allow for more innovation prospects. 


The goal of the Ideation stage of Design Thinking is to generate a large number of ideas.

Ideation provides source material for building prototypes and putting them into the hands of users for testing.

More on Design Thinking

The following sources were consulted, quoted, and cited in this article:

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