4a. Ideation

An introduction to ideation

An introduction to ideation

Ideation, also known as “brainstorming” or “concept generation,” is all about generating as many possible solutions to the problem you've identified. To do this you will:

  • Generate as many ideas as you can, to explore a variety of potential solutions.
  • Sketch or write a description of each idea.
  • Brainstorm with other people for added inspiration and new points of view.
  • Refine your ideas using your design principles.

As ideation progresses, you'll begin narrowing in on a handful of concepts that seem most promising.

Ideation can occur at any point during the design thinking process - although it typically occurs after analysis, once a problem statement and design principles have been identified.

But you don't have to wait for a formal ideation phase to capture your ideas. Throughout the design thinking process you should take notes or make sketches whenever a new idea strikes you, so that you don't forget about it.

What makes ideation successful?

1. Identify your problem statement

Before jumping into concept generation, it’s important to make sure you’ve identified your problem statement (“How might we…?”).

If you’re brainstorming with a group of people, make sure you start the session by sharing the problem statement with everyone. Clearly stating the problem will help set expectations and will help focus the group's efforts.

2. Capture your ideas

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It’s important to capture your ideas as you go, so that you can continue refining them throughout the next stages of the design thinking 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.

  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.

3. Plan time for group and individual ideation


Working with other people - such as team members, project stakeholders, or even users - can be a great way to bring multiple perspectives to an ideation session, and ensure greater diversity in the concepts generated.

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. 

4. Build off each other’s ideas

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Look for ways to build off of ideas that you or your group members have already come up with. Review existing concepts and think about ways you might modify 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 ideas that you would not otherwise have considered.

5. Withhold 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 "bad" or "impossible" 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.

Communicating your ideas through sketches

Communicating your ideas through sketches

Sketching can be a great way to communicate your ideas. As you think through an idea while sketching it out, you may come up with improvements to the idea, or discover issues that will need to be addressed.

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.

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An example of a basic concept sketch

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 is critical to the 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!

Try it out!


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.

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 focused on defining characteristics - such as where the person is in relation to the object, or a key feature or shape of the object.

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

An example sketch where key concepts are highlighted

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. You may want to highlight a key feature or concept in your sketch, using a different colored pencil or marker. Highlighting can help other people understand what to focus on.

Identifying good ideation sketches

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

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

Share and reflect

In your problem-specific learning group, discuss how you would structure an ideation session for the problem you've identified, to make it as successful as possible.