Skip to Main Content

Tools for Brainstorming

Design Thinking and Ideation

The materials presented on this LibGuide tab are derived Stephen Gates's podcast and podcast website, The Crazy One. If you are interested in ideation, please visit his site and interact with his materials on his site, including the podcast, show notes, and the "essentials" recommended resources.

Ideation is one part (a big part) of the larger practice of Design Thinking.

Wikipedia has defined ideation as:

  • "...the creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas, where an idea is understood as a basic element of thought that can be either visual, concrete, or abstract.[1] Ideation comprises all stages of a thought cycle, from innovation, to development, to actualization.[2] Ideation can be conducted by individuals, organizations, or crowds. As such, it is an essential part of the design process, both in education and practice."

The three phases of design thinking include:

  • Inspiration (design challenge, research, synthesis)
  • Ideation (framing the opportunity with "how might we" questions, ideate / brainstorm)
  • Implementation (prototype, test, refine, deliver)

These steps are not linear and can often double back to the previous phrase or overlap with the other phases. 

(See the design thinking graphic on Stephen Gates's podcast website for more details.)

It is very tempting to jump right in to the ideation phase because that's the fun and creative part of the process and you get to use lots of post-it notes and colored markers.  Be sure to address the inspiration phase prior to practicing ideation to avoid having to go back to the drawing board.  The inspiration phase is essential for context and data, providing you and your team what you need to successfully brainstorm ideas.

When it comes to the creative process and innovation, sometimes simple brainstorming may not do the trick.  Practicing ideation can be just what you need to solve a problem, create a new product, process, or service.  Using these tools on a regular basis can improve your team's thinking and help you be open to creative solutions.

Applications for ideation can include (but is not limited to):

  • Strategic planning, mission and vision development
  • Chartering a new team or new project
  • Developing a proposal
  • Problem solving
  • Branding
  • Product development
  • Meeting personal or business goals

Ideation should not be used for:

  • Vetting an idea or product.  If you already have a solution or product, you have already passed the creative thinking part of the process.

Frame the Opportunity and Ideate

After you have already completed the inspiration phase (determined the true need and developed strategic initiatives) you can enter the ideation brainstorming phase.

According to Stephen Gates, ideation is the "...process for generating, developing, and selecting ideas." (The Crazy One Podcast, episode 8, "BRAINSTORMING: The 7 rules to running a better brainstorming")

Frame the Opportunity

If you have a clear strategy (strategic plan, problem statement) you can frame the brainstorming session and ultimately take your strategy and turn it into something you can work with.

After completing the inspiration phase you can frame the opportunity by crafting a powerful "How Might We..." question to frame the brainstorm.

  • How = Assumes a solution exists
  • Might = Free from Judgment
  • We = We will do it together, as a team


  • Strategy or problem: Attend WizardWorld Comic Con Chicago next summer.
  • Relevant data: We need about $1,200 for hotel, gas, tolls, and general admission tickets.  The event is one year away.
  • Frame the opportunity (HMW question): "How might we shave $100 off of our monthly expenses?"


Stephen Gates recommends the following steps for the ideation brainstorm process.  Once you craft a strong "How might we" question, as a team brainstorm answers.  (See the show notes on the podcast episode page for more details, or even better, listen to the podcast)

  1. Defer judgment. 
  2. Encourage wild ideas.
  3. Build on the ideas of others.
  4. Stay on topic. 
  5. Hold one conversation at a time.
  6. Be visual. 
  7. Go for quantity.

Another way to frame the problem: A Challenge Statement

Michael Michalko, author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques, suggests framing your ideation with a "challenge statement." 

Instead of a "How Might We" question (HMW), start with "In what ways might I..."

Spend time playing with your challenge statement, or "center the challenge."

  1. Write the challenge as a question: "In what ways might I save $100 per month?"
  2. Play with the wording in the question by substituting a variety of synonyms: "In what ways might I eliminate $100 in spending each month?" or "In what ways might I reduce my budget by $100 each month?"
  3. Stretch the challenge by broadening the question: You can do this by asking, why do I want to do this challenge? For example, "Why do I want to save $100 per month?" In order to save $1,200 by next August. "Why do I want to save $1,200 by next August?" In order to have enough money to go to Chicago Comic Con. "Why do I want to attend Chicago Comic Con?" In order to meet the cast of the Walking Dead. 
  4. Squeeze the challenge to see a more narrow perspective.  Divide the challenge into smaller problems. Solve the subproblems and keep asking "how else" or "why else"? For example, if you want to save $100 per month, a smaller subproblem could be, "how can I cut back on my grocery bill?" or "how can I save on gas money?"

Squeezing and stretching the challenge should help kick-start the ideation process.