Ideation – A Brainstorm’s Not Just For Christmas

Part four in a series of blog posts looking at effective design.

So, you’ve been briefed on a new design project.

You have an understanding of what your goals are for the design, and you’ve researched your audience to get a good grip on what they want and what they don’t want. You’ve also managed to secure a decent budget so you can really put the effort in to produce something impressive.

So now we get to the exciting bit! It’s time to fire up Photoshop and get to work on a few glossy concepts to present to stakeholders, right?

Wrong! This is where designers all too often slip up.

The first idea is rarely the best

While it’s tempting to rush to the “comp” (or comprehensive layout) stage where the proposed design is presented in nearly complete form, getting there prematurely can make the discussion of early ideas more complicated.

If you’ve been in a presentation meeting where designers and stakeholders argue over details, you’ll understand how tricky it can get. Wrestling with information architecture, content strategy, layout, interaction, colours, textures and pixel perfection all at once is too much and more often than not, results in design chaos, with budgets escalating and timescales stretching.

More importantly, defining a final solution too quickly and discussing the finer details at this early stage can actually stifle creativity and reduce the chances of ending up with a first rate design.

So how do you overcome this?

Third or fourth time lucky

For those of you that studied “Design Technology” at school, you’ll possibly remember that when you started a project, the teacher would ask everyone to draw up loads of rough ideas – as many as they could think of.

More often that not, you’d draw one idea really neatly, become attached to it and then half-heartedly scribble a few others onto the sheet, adamant that the first idea was ‘the one’. As we mature as designers, we grow out of this ‘first idea is best’ mindset and realise that the teacher had a point after all.

Imagine if there was a funnel showing the creative design process. This is the stage where the funnel would be at its widest, where designers should be generating the most ideas.

This gives us the best chance of ending up with something really great as the funnel narrows; something better than the competition, better than the last design, better than your audience expected! It’s all about being critical and not settling for second best.

Ideation – the more the merrier

In the real world, designers are often scared to come up with too many ideas because more ideas often means more opinions and more feedback – potentially bringing about the dreaded ‘design by committee’ hotchpotch.

At this early stage, it’s best to think about really high-level abstract solutions to the problem and not get bogged down in detail. This is the time to feel free and live up to your creative title. It’s exciting! Who knows where you might end up?

Keeping ideas conceptually rough in the ideation stage is the key to the ‘too many cooks’ issue. It’s the designer’s job to maintain control of all these early ideas, facilitate and curate them to form an elegant final solution.

We recently got together to brainstorm ideas for the new dotMailer query builder and I invited developers, designers, project managers and even consultants to contribute. One at a time, each person shouted out ideas and we wrote them up on post-its and stuck them on the wall.

The end result was a wealth of creative ideas we could use to inform the finished design.

Go crazy

The most important thing is to ensure people aren’t afraid to let go, free their minds of existing system knowledge and shout out the most crazy and whacky ideas. Adding restrictions at this stage dramatically reduces the chance of generating a good idea.

There are a few rules to a brainstorming session that all participants should be made aware of:

  • Be clear about what the objectives of the session are. What are you trying to solve?
  • All ideas are welcome and no ideas are bad or good, don’t even discuss validity at this stage.
  • Avoid discussing details as there’s more chance of going off on a tangent. You are only after high-level ideas at this stage.

So, you’ve opened your mind and poured the contents across the floor. What do you do with that glut of content to make sure you move forward with the best ideas and get the best result?

Watch out for the next post when we’ll be talking about how to curate ideas and work them up into tangible design solutions.

For a roundup of the whole Design blog series check out our handy Effective Design page! Be sure to pop by regularly as we’ll be updating it with other blogs in this series, here is the link.