4. Ideation

An introduction to ideation

Design Process Diagram, Ideate Stage

Ideation, also known as “brainstorming” or “concept generation,” is the process of coming up with ideas for possible solutions to your design problem. Ideation is an example of divergent thinking within the broader design thinking process, where the goal is often to generate as many potential concepts as possible (which you will later refine and narrow down your ideas).

While ideation can technically occur at any point during the design thinking process, it is usually emphasized after analyzing research findings - at which point you will have a better sense of the actual problem you want to solve, and the types of requirements or ideal solution criteria (“design principles”) you will need to address. Ideation is also frequently used in response to feedback on early prototypes, when the design needs to be refined or redirected.

But you shouldn’t feel obligated to wait for a formal ideation phase of the process before capturing your ideas - throughout the design thinking process you can be jotting down notes or sketches for potential solutions as you think of them, to avoid forgetting them.

What makes ideation successful?

Identifying the ideation prompts

Before jumping into concept generation, it’s important to identify the problem statement (“How might we…?”) you want to address. Particularly if you’re working with a group of people, clearly identifying the ideation prompt ensures everyone will be coming up with solutions to a common problem, and also gives people a chance to ask clarifying questions about the problem if needed.

Capturing ideas

One sheet sketchIt’s important to capture your ideas as you go, so that you can continue working with them and refining them throughout the next stages of the design process. Good rules of thumb are to (1) capture each idea on its own piece of paper, (2) give each concept a clear, short title, (3) create a quick and simple sketch to illustrate the idea, and (4) add a 1-2 sentence description alongside your sketch with further details, as needed. You may also want to use arrows or colors to highlight and/or label the most important parts of the idea in the sketch. Here is a worksheet you can use to capture your ideas: [link]

Allotting time for group and individual ideation

Working with other people - such as team members, project stakeholders, or even target users - can be a great way to bring multiple perspectives to an ideation session, and ensure greater diversity in the resulting concepts. It can be tempting to spend all of your time as a group brainstorming out loud together. However, mixing in time for silent, individual brainstorming before you begin sharing your ideas with the group can give everyone a chance to think more deeply about their own ideas, and helps to ensure everyone’s voice is more likely to be heard.

Building off each other's ideas

A useful approach to ideation is to build off of ideas that you or your group members have already come up with. Look at existing concepts and think about ways you might modify or add to them, or consider a twist on the concept that could improve it in some way. You may also find that, by paying attention to other concepts people are generating, you are inspired to come up with completely new or different ideas that you would not otherwise have considered.

Withholding judgement

Some of the ideas you generate might not be very good - but that’s okay! Part of ideation is exploring all sorts of potential concepts, most of which will never make it to the next stage of your design process. It can be tempting to immediately dismiss seemingly bad or infeasible ideas as soon as you come up with them - but try to withhold judgement. These ideas may inspire other, different ideas, or make you think about some aspect of the solution in a new way. If you threw them away immediately, you would miss out on that added inspiration.


Describe what a successful ideation session might look like based on what you know so far. Which aspects do you think are most important to successful ideation, and why? Share your thoughts with your learning group.

Communicating your ideas through sketches

The Value of Sketching

Example of a quick and simple sketch

Sketching can be a great way to communicate your ideas. The act of sketching out an idea can also help you think through the idea itself, potentially imagining new ways to improve your idea, or recognizing issues you may need to address.There’s a common misconception that to do design thinking you have to be an artist. That’s not the case! Anyone can be a design thinker, regardless of their sketching and drawing abilities.

Sketching can be as simple as drawing stick figures and basic shapes. It can be helpful to include a person (or people) in your idea sketches, to show how a product or service might be used, or the context in which it exists. This helps to reinforce the human-centered focus that we want to maintain throughout our design thinking process.

You may be surprised by the amount of information you can communicate with a few stick figures and basic facial expressions. If you need some inspiration, watch this video on sketching dynamic stick figures:


Ready, set, sketch!

Getting comfortable with sketching

It’s time to get comfortable with quick and simple sketching. Grab a few pieces of paper and a pen or pencil. Find an object in your environment and draw a person using it three times: in 1 minute, then in 30 seconds, and finally in 10 seconds.

1 minute timer: https://www.google.com/#safe=active&q=60+second+timer

30 second timer: https://www.google.com/#safe=active&q=30+second+timer

10 second timer: https://www.google.com/#safe=active&q=10+second+timer

Highlighting the most important part of the sketch

Take a look at your three drawings. What elements did you focus on when your time was most limited? You may have found yourself focusing on defining characteristics - such as where the person is in relation to the object, or maybe a key feature or shape of the object.

Focusing on defining characteristics can be a helpful way to quickly capture and communicate a new concept without getting hung up on unnecessary details. The more you practice, the easier it will get!

You can also highlight key features or ideas in your sketch using a different colored pencil or marker, to help other people understand what to focus on. As you’re sketching, think about the one big idea you want someone looking at your sketch to take away, and make sure that point is clearly communicated.

Which of the following is a good example of an ideation sketch?

  • Basic sketch
  • Sketch with a catchy title
  • Sketch showing an interaction
  • Sketch with a different color call-out

Four techniques for ideation

Start with the problem statement

Use the problem statement you’ve identified (“How might we…?”) to generate as many concepts as you can. Aim for quantity. It may help to select a target number of ideas you want to generate (e.g., 100 ideas in 30 minutes), and count them as you go.

Combine your design principles

Use the design principles you’ve identified (“The solution should…”) to help you generate new ideas to your problem statement. You can start by generating concepts that relate to each principle individually, and then challenge yourself to come up with concepts that address multiple principles at once (e.g., “How might we address X and Y at the same time?”). Ideally you will be able to generate concepts that address all of your principles simultaneously.

Look at moments of pain

There may be a process or activity associated with the problem you’re trying to solve - for example, going to a doctor’s office. Think about each step in the activity or process, and identify things that are painful during each step of the process (e.g., paying for the doctor’s visit). Select one or two of these “pain points” as the prompt for your ideation.

Consider multiple perspectives

Establish an ideation prompt (“How might we…”). Everyone involved in the ideation assumes the same user perspective (e.g., “First-time patients”). As the ideation slows, have everyone adopt a different user perspective (e.g., “Doctor”) and try generating further ideas with that type of user in mind.

Make a plan: Pick two brainstorming techniques that you’d like to try for the problem you’re focusing on - you’ll use these in the next module to generate new ideas.

(Note: this is what they will do in module 4b)