The Perfect Brainstorm: A How To
Given our fields of interest and chosen professions, most of us have at least once in our lives had to brainstorm for one reason or another. But for those of us who apply this mental tool in our creative pursuits much more regularly, learning to do so effectively is crucial.
Brainstorming could prove an invaluable addition to your creative arsenal, but only if you take the time and put forth enough effort to follow through on the process. This is an unfortunate truth for many, who believe that this “storm” is short-lived. But there is more to it than that.
Brainstorming is more than about just having ideas: it is about having ideas and the means to implement them. You can come up with ideas all day long that sound great on paper and even out loud when you share them with others, but if you have no means to follow through on them, then they will simply fall flat. Just because you have a spark, doesn’t mean you have enough fuel to keep the fire burning brightly. An idea isn’t so much a storm as a drizzle.
If you look up the word brainstorm, it is generally defined as a “discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems.” The key part here is the discussion. When a lot of us are ’storming, we do so on our own or with few participants, and we end up just sharing our idea rather than discussing it. There is no weighing of pros and cons, no comparison with competing or existing models, no contemplation of the concept’s audience. We must take extra steps to ensure that when we brainstorm, we do so as though we were having this discussion, covering all of these bases and fully examining the idea, not just marvelling at our conception of it.
Consider some of our previous articles:
- How Many Ideas Do You Show Your Clients?
A great discussion post that can help you decide how many ideas should make the cut.
- Where Do You Draw Inspiration From?
Another great post from the Smashing vaults to get you looking in the right places for inspiration.
The Calm Before The Storm
Staying on the storm analogy, we come to the first step: getting your brain ready for the oncoming storm, or getting all of your ideas out and ready for cross-examination. Because brainstorming is about solutions, you have to find ways to make your ideas reach those solutions by the end of the process. So, once you have identified your concept, the next step is to lay out all possible paths to achieving the concept. This step and the resulting brain dump of ideas sets the stage for what will unfold in subsequent steps, which we will discuss further below.
Knowing the direction you intend to head with your concept is essential before taking off, so get your wheels turning by identifying the purpose of your idea. When those wheels start turning and the ideas start filling your brain, spill them all out onto the page or screen. No matter how ridiculous or bizarre the idea sounds, get it out and weigh its relevance and practicality later. This initial phase is all about the free flow of ideas; stopping and starting to sort through them is not necessary at this point. In fact, that can be counter-productive because it interrupts your flow. In the beginning, do not judge the ideas; just let them come.
This flow starts everything. Without its uninterrupted fluidity, the rest of the process could become blocked and not reach its potential. So, try to get in the right mindset to get the ball rolling. Only you know how to achieve this. Each of us is different. We each take a different route to get to the same mental state. Some use inspiration, some use perspiration. Some use a short vacation, some use mild medication. But we each have a means of unplugging the filters and letting the creative faucets run.
As the clouds start to gather, we formulate our criteria for sorting the ideas. We take all of the ideas we have generated and look at them critically to separate the probable from the inane, and we move towards more solid ground on which to build our concept. In this step, we begin to seriously consider how to realize our concept, and which of our ideas are viable enough to carry into the more rigorous parts of the brainstorming process. This is the part of the process when we start gathering comparative information to determine the viability of our concept.
We can sort our ideas by comparing them to existing models that are in the same vein. By seeing how those other models succeeded, we get a feel for how our concept might fare under similar conditions and in similar markets, and we see whether our ideas for building and launching the concept are workable. You have to consider a lot as you construct the path towards your end game. This weighing of elements can be time-consuming, but it is the surest way to reach a thoughtful and sound conclusion.
Consider the Market
The first consideration that will heavily sway your concept is the market for your concept. What makes your concept unique? If it is a retail concept, what is the profile of competing retailers? How do you plan to establish your concept quickly in an already active market? These and other questions need to be on your radar so that you know which areas to focus on as you proceed.
Consider the Audience
Another major consideration is the audience you hope to reach. How will you make this connection? How will you going sustain this interaction? What barriers stand between your audience and your concept? All of these questions need to be examined because if some of your ideas don’t establish this connection with the audience, then you should move on to other ideas on your list that might.
Consider the Future
Naturally, as you build the foundation for your concept, you will want to consider the future. What emerging or changing technologies will likely affect your concept? How will your concept hold up as the market evolves? Can your concept evolve along with the market? This won’t happen overnight, so as you make your concept a reality, think ahead to how the landscape will change before and after your concept hits the scene.
The Thunder Rolls
Back to the storm analogy. As we move to the next stage, thunder begins to roll across the sky and our ideas become more fleshed out. The storm is officially underway, and we carve our ideas into more refined tools, all feeding our overall concept, advancing it towards reality. With our idea pool dwindled by process of elimination, we take an even more in-depth look at the remaining ones and expand on them. We make the most of our concept, going the extra mile in these early stages of development, to guarantee that it starts on the most advantageous footing.
Here is where mind-mapping and other brainstorming tools come in handy, allowing us to build on the initial idea and grow it into a more defined concept. You might also consider combining some of your ideas as elements of your overall concept. Not only does this allow you to salvage any ideas that you thought impractical, but it also keeps the concept dynamic and fluid.
This is the stage when, hopefully, the storm clears, the dots start to connect and the path to our goal becomes clear. And we fashion each idea into a more solid building block, our concept returns to that fluid state we saw when we began, when our ideas flowed unimpeded. Now other ideas might present themselves, springing up out of the path we have carved towards our goal.
Cluster Diagrams or Mind-Mapping
One of the best tools for connecting the dots and getting the most out of each idea is a cluster diagram, commonly known as a mind map. You simply take the central idea and expanding it in as many different directions as you can using thought bubbles, which are all connected by lines, showing the relationships between all the avenues you have explored. This is a proven technique for laying out all of the information related to your concept and bringing it all together and growing it.
Turn to Your Circle of Friends
Another resource that can be invaluable for refining your ideas is the community around you and your circle of friends, either the ones around you or on social networks. After all, brainstorming is meant to be an open discussion on determining the viability of ideas; why not open the dialogue to a few select folks whose input you trust. The more you discuss your concept and ideas for implementation with others, the more likely you will find ways to make the concept a success. More perspectives always benefit the brainstorming process.
A Final Thought
Whatever you do, keep thinking outside of the box during each step of the brainstorming process. It is a storm after all: a box will only get soggy. Stay out of the box, and your ideas will, too.
Below are a few posts and resources for brainstorming that we felt you should definitely look at to get the most out of your ’storm sessions. We hope they prove useful.
- Brainstorming Tips and Techniques for Bloggers
A fantastic brainstorming guide for bloggers over at My Ink Blog.
- 25 Brainstorming Techniques
Another awesome collection of assorted advice for tackling the storm.
- 9 Ideas for a More Creative and Effective Brainstorming Process
A wonderful look at the brainstorming process, with ideas on how to make the most of it.
- Mind-Mapping Tools for Designers and Why It’s Important
A brilliant post that discusses the importance of mind-mapping for designers in particular.
- 14 Ways to Brainstorm More Effectively
Another fabulous post that lists various ways to make your brainstorm yield more fruit.