Designing Design Workshops V: Brainstorming Brainstorming

Creating fun AND effective ideation sessions

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
8 min readMay 11, 2024

This reflection is part of an ongoing series on lessons learned from implementing human-centered design workshops. Please check out the previous ones failures, foreshadowing, and process.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly changed the way everyone does business. This change is most visible for the service industry, where we see hotels shutting down like high schools on summer break and restaurants quickly catering to delivery service. For others, like a manufacturing business, there is a bit of a lag to the pain. While the day-to-day activities change to accommodate health and safety (employees alternate working days or lunch times and have their temperatures checked daily), at the “profit & loss” level though — and I am using this term loosely — the near future is grim.

As a consultant, I talked to a packaging company that experienced a boost in their current orders, as their clients shift their future demands forward to safeguard against shipping uncertainties. I also talked to an electronics manufacturing company that are fulfilling current orders while no new orders are coming in for the next several months. For both businesses and others that work with physical products, even when new orders do come in, it will take some start-up time to get the production lines working again. And therein lies the uncertainties in future cashflow.

The future slowly catches up to some industries. Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

What does this have to do with brainstorming? I was recently tasked with hosting an open-ended brainstorming session in one such manufacturing business (with whom I have a retainer relationship). The details of the industry and the workshop have been changed for confidentiality. The objective is two-fold:

  1. To get a possible list of new ideas employees can work on to generate income for the company
  2. To supercharge the (understandably de-motivated) employees in these (understandably de-motivating) times

Not surprisingly, the management team wanted to galvanize the top employees to “think outside the box” (! — emphasis mine). For context, this 1.5 hour brainstorming session was run in Thai with a cross-sectional group of 40 employees, from production line employees to mid-level management across two sessions. I got the prompt about a week in advance, which basically boils down to this:

Let’s find new ways to make increase our bottom line!

Yes, this is not a prompt that designers and researchers are used to as far as well-constructed, non-obviously insightful POV statements are concerned. What the company, which owns a few products and intellectual properties and even real estate, needed was someone to frame and focus on how they will bring themselves out of the impacts of the pandemic. I called it the (hopefully self-explanatory) “300-idea challenge”. I’d like to think it’s a bold claim in a traditionally hierarchical, engineering-led work culture.

How do we get to 300 ideas?

If you have worked on any design project at all, you will have some inkling of the power of constraints on creativity. And so the hardest part of this broad prompt for me is narrowing down the question for the client. Like, where do we even start? I propose the following format for the workshop, an accumulation of several iterations with adjustments based on hindsight, and thus described here in present tense:

Part 1: Introduction

  1. Welcome questions: What is the one word you associate with our company? What is the strong point? I do this to prime the participants to think of the strengths and surface positive sentimentalities, which are fuel for fun ideation.
  2. Management introduction: To share the context of pandemic and its impact on the company as a whole, to provide optimism, warmth and good feels, as well as highlight the significance of their individual roles. Clarify that the prompt is about creating new long-term business ventures.
  3. Icebreaker 1 — “yes, and”: This is done in pairs, with participants to imagine what they did together last weekend. This builds a supportive feeling amongst the group.
  4. Icebreaker 2 — “paper clip”: Now in teams, I ask the participants to come up with as many ways as possible of using a paper clip, and then share out loud to the group. Each unique idea (ones that no other group had thought of) earns 1 point and there is a winner (prize optional). The key message here is to really dig into our diversity of thought and leave no stones unturned.
People usually goes camping over the weekend, don’t they? Photo by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

Part 2: Ideation

  1. Team categories: I split the group into teams who are responsible for brainstorming only a single category of idea: new products / new services / new applications / ways to use existing assets of the company. Ideally, the team would have a whiteboard to share ideas on post-its (!).
  2. Brainstorming, Part 1: For the first round of brainstorming, I flash quick prompts for 1.5 minutes each, giving constraints using the powers of 10 thinking (e.g. what if you have a team of 100 to work on the idea? what if you have to deliver the idea tomorrow? what if you have a budget of 1 million baht?). The prompts continue for about 10 minutes — you may skip some if the energy is getting low.
  3. Brainstorming, Part 2: The team is then allowed to look to other teams for inspiration, even switch around members, before I introduce thematic constraints. These can be anything like: what if there is no Internet connection, or no electricity? what if people must be smiling or sweating while using the idea? what if it’s a collaboration between the company and [insert brand name here]? The prompt that gets the most laughs (which you can use to up the energy) is usually about illegal stuff. This part can last up to another 10 minutes.
What brainstorming can feel like. Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash

Part 3: Debrief

  1. Cool down: At the end of the prompts, I give everyone a chance to see what the other teams have come up with and to add on to their ideas. The teams then together count the number of ideas and see if, as a group, we have reached 300. It doesn’t quite matter if we do — it’s a tall challenge and a simple KPI for the day.
  2. Debrief in teams: Finally, I ask the teams to scope out the mass of ideas into clusters, then pick 3 that represent the 1) craziest 2) most fun and 3) makes the most sense. With each, the team dives into what each actually entails and present to the other teams. I invite the management to come listen in — with limited feedback — at this time.

During the workshop that I conducted, I would insert random share-outs and short debriefs about ideas that I thought was interesting to seed further brainstorming. For those particular sessions, we ended up having more than 300 ideas — albeit silly and bad ones amongst the gold — from which we could select good ideas to follow up. The final list of scoped-down ideas was given to the management team as ideation points to do more research and planning. All this in the span of an hour and a half.

There were many intentional choices to the design of any workshop, and here some of the levers and techniques that, in hindsight, proved most effective in achieving the kind of flow I needed to induce in creative brainstorming:

  • Treat icebreakers as a tool: Select icebreakers that reflect the norms and mindsets you want to the participants to try on. The exercises I used were about making mistakes and building on each other’s ideas. I’m sure there are other kinds of improvisation exercises to achieve the same objective, and there might be other norms — say, one of competition — that you would like to encouraged too.
  • Set small rules: When speed is key, sometimes we forget to be clear. I always set rules like writing sentences or drawing on post-its. I have once tried an exercise where participants need to describe their ideas like in a movie scene.
  • Pay attention to energy: Brainstorming are often synonomously associated with design thinking, a dynamic and high-octane affair that produces creativity and innovation. The constantly evolving process of design thinking is not always spitting out corporate rainbows and butterflies, and the brainstorming activity itself is not uniformly energetic either. Icebreakers are usually uppers, while reflections can sometimes be downers, especially in a hierarchical organization. To keep up the energy — and thus creativity — I would mix gallery walking with brainstorming in team spaces, bring room share-outs between team discussions. Food helps.
How are we doing on vibes during the workshop? Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash
  • Funny is good business: I’ve found that posing ridiculous constraints are great ways to provoke the room’s energy, and to dislodge the participants from a idea jam. Asking about settlements on Mars, for instance, or for ideas that are totally illegal (though we often throw the ideas out).
  • Plan every step: Because brainstorming exercises should be short and sweet, every single step should be planned out before hand. Who will be attending and participating in which teams? Do you have a timer and an alarm of some sort to ring people into new prompts? Are there enough pens and post-its? There is no such thing as details too minor.
  • Debrief back to the beginning: At the end of the workshop, be sure to link the ideas and discussion back to the prompt. In our case, if an idea that has been scoped down doesn’t actually have any revenue model attached — e.g. community gardening on land — then I will ask the teams to reconsider their final choices.

Of course, workshops are always a means to an end. Most of the time, and it was certainly true of that particular session, the point of these brainstorming is to empower employees to think and prototype possibilities, to discuss something new with the management, to develop their own capabilities and careers.

Just because we spent an hour or two laughing silly together doesn’t mean we will have achieved the larger objective. The ideas themselves are sometimes fodder for discussions about trying new things, appetizers for the teams’ creativity. Then I would ask myself and the client: what should we do with all this energy?

All the activation! What can we do about it! Photo by Clinton Naik on Unsplash



Paricha 'Bomb' D.

Socially-conscious design educator and instigator in search of challenges that will help us thrive in the 22nd century.