What if innovation could be cultivated through a structured yet boundless exploration of ideas? In the landscape of problem-solving, design thinking stands out as a beacon of creativity and empathy. But within this methodology, lies a crucial phase that often determines the trajectory of innovation: brainstorming. Yet, how can teams navigate the complexities of brainstorming in design thinking to unearth solutions that not only solve problems but deeply resonate with users? 

Let’s delve into effective brainstorming practices and discover how to cultivate an environment where creativity thrives and innovation flourishes.

Understanding Brainstorming in Design Thinking

Brainstorming, within the context of design thinking, is redefined as a collaborative ideation process, a symphony of minds converging to explore the uncharted territories of creativity. It’s an orchestrated effort to dismantle the barriers of conventional thinking, enabling a free flow of ideas that are both diverse and inclusive. 

A study by the Design Management Institute indicated that design-led companies, where brainstorming is a key component, outperformed the S&P 500 by 219% over 10 years. This underscores the economic impact of effective brainstorming within the design-thinking process.

This phase fosters a culture of innovation, where every voice is heard, and every idea is a potential key to unlocking new realms of possibilities. It’s not just about the quantity of ideas but the quality of exploration, the depth of inquiry into the realms of what could be.

Setting the Stage for Effective Brainstorming

According to a Google study on workplace dynamics, psychological safety, which is crucial for effective brainstorming, was identified as the most important factor in high-performing teams. The study highlights the importance of creating an environment where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

Before anything else, the stage for effective brainstorming is set by creating an environment that breathes creativity and exudes psychological safety. A clear, focused problem statement acts as the north star, guiding the brainstorming voyage, ensuring that the ideation process remains anchored in relevance and purpose.

Best Practices for Brainstorming in Design Thinking

As a cornerstone of the design thinking process, brainstorming is that fine spot where creativity meets strategy to foster innovative solutions. To harness its full potential, certain best practices are essential, transforming ordinary brainstorming sessions into powerful engines of innovation.

  • Encourage Diverse Participation: 

The richness of a brainstorming session is directly proportional to the diversity of its participants. Research found that diverse teams are able to solve complex problems faster than cognitively similar people. This supports the idea that diversity in brainstorming sessions contributes to more innovative solutions. When individuals from varied backgrounds come together, they bring unique perspectives that can challenge conventional thinking and spark creative solutions. It’s this confluence of different viewpoints that can lead to the serendipitous discovery of novel ideas. Encouraging participation from all team members, regardless of their role or seniority, ensures a wide range of ideas, fostering an inclusive environment where innovation thrives.

  • Defer Judgment: 

One of the fundamental tenets of effective brainstorming is the suspension of judgment. Critique and evaluation at the idea generation phase can stifle creativity and discourage participation. Creating a safe space where ideas can be expressed freely without immediate scrutiny encourages a more open and fluid exchange of thoughts. This practice not only amplifies the quantity of ideas but also emboldens participants to share more radical, unconventional ideas, potentially leading to breakthrough innovations.

  • Aim for Quantity: 

Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel Prize winner, famously said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” This quote could be applied to brainstorming sessions, grounded in the belief that the more ideas generated, the higher the likelihood of producing a truly innovative solution. It’s a numbers game where the sheer volume of ideas increases the odds of uncovering something truly unique and viable. This practice also helps in overcoming the initial resistance and self-consciousness that can hinder creative flow.

  • Build on Others’ Ideas: 

Collaboration is at the heart of brainstorming, and building on others’ ideas is a testament to the collective power of a team. This practice encourages an additive rather than a competitive approach to idea generation. When participants actively listen and expand upon each other’s ideas, it not only validates individual contributions but also elevates the ideas to new levels. This collaborative spirit fosters a sense of unity and shared purpose, driving the group towards more refined and comprehensive solutions.

  • Use Visual Aids: 

The use of visual aids like sticky notes, whiteboards, and digital tools can significantly enhance the brainstorming process. Visual representation of ideas makes them more tangible and easier to manipulate. This can lead to better organization of thoughts, easier identification of patterns, and more dynamic interactions with the ideas. Visual aids also cater to different learning and thinking styles, making the brainstorming session more inclusive and engaging for all participants.

  • Set a Time Limit: 

Imposing time constraints on a brainstorming session can seem counterintuitive, but it serves a critical purpose. Time limits create a sense of urgency that can sharpen focus and increase energy levels. This can lead to a more intense and productive ideation phase, as participants are motivated to share their thoughts more freely and rapidly. Moreover, time constraints can prevent the session from becoming stagnant or veering off course, ensuring that the session remains dynamic and goal-oriented.

  • Encourage Wild Ideas: 

The encouragement of wild, out-of-the-box ideas is what often distinguishes a good brainstorming session from a great one. These are the ideas that, at first glance, might seem too radical or impractical but can lead to groundbreaking innovations. Encouraging such ideas requires a culture that not only tolerates but celebrates creative risk-taking. Even a NASA study on creativity concluded that the freedom to make “far-reaching” associations fosters creativity. It’s about pushing the boundaries of what’s considered possible and exploring the edges of imagination.

  • Clearly Define Roles: 

The clarity of roles within a brainstorming session is crucial for its success. Defined roles, such as a facilitator, note-taker, and timekeeper, help in organizing the session and ensuring that it runs smoothly. The facilitator guides the discussion, keeping it on track and ensuring that all voices are heard. The note-taker captures the ideas, freeing participants to focus on the ideation process. The timekeeper ensures that the session adheres to the set time limits, maintaining the pace and energy of the session. These roles help in structuring the session, allowing creativity to flourish within a guided framework.

  • Prepare Warm-Up Activities: 

Warm-up activities are the prelude to the brainstorming session, designed to loosen up participants and shift their mindset towards creativity. These activities can range from simple icebreakers to complex problem-solving exercises. The goal is to break down barriers, encourage open communication, and stimulate creative thinking. Warm-up activities can also serve to build rapport among team members, creating a more cohesive and collaborative group dynamic.

  • Follow Up: 

Harvard Business Review states that the follow-up is where most brainstorming sessions fail, as ideas are often lost or ignored post-session. This process is where the ideas generated during the brainstorming session begin their journey towards realization. It involves reviewing and evaluating the ideas, selecting the most promising ones for further development. This phase is critical for maintaining the momentum generated during the brainstorming session and ensuring that the creative efforts translate into actionable outcomes. The follow-up process also provides an opportunity for reflection, allowing the team to learn from the experience and improve future brainstorming sessions.

By embracing these best practices, teams can elevate their brainstorming sessions from mere idea-generating exercises to powerful catalysts for innovation. But are there any tools to make this process more efficient and engaging?

Tools and Techniques for Brainstorming

The arsenal of tools and techniques available for brainstorming in design thinking is vast and varied. 

Platforms like Miro or Mural offer expansive, collaborative online whiteboards where team members can contribute ideas in real-time, regardless of their physical location. These tools support the integration of visual aids and enable the seamless organization and categorization of ideas, which can be particularly useful in larger groups or distributed teams. Furthermore, they can facilitate the voting or ranking of ideas, helping to prioritize concepts for further exploration or development.

Moreover, incorporating design thinking software like InVision or Adobe XD into the brainstorming process allows teams to quickly prototype and iterate on ideas. This rapid prototyping capability can bridge the gap between ideation and tangible concepts, enabling teams to explore the viability of their ideas more concretely and collaboratively.

Overcoming Common Challenges in Brainstorming

Now that we’ve explored best practices and tools, it’s crucial to address common challenges that can arise during these sessions and strategies to overcome them::

  • Combating Groupthink: Groupthink can lead to homogenized thinking and stifle innovation. To combat this, encourage dissenting opinions and diverse viewpoints. One effective strategy is the “devil’s advocate” approach, where one or more team members are designated to challenge ideas, prompting deeper exploration and more robust solutions.
  • Managing Dominant Voices: In every group, some voices tend to dominate, which can drown out quieter members. Techniques like the round-robin method, where each participant is given equal opportunity to share their ideas, along with anonymous idea submission through digital platforms, can democratize participation. These methods have been associated with a 20% increase in idea generation in teams with diverse personality types, ensuring a more equitable and comprehensive ideation process.
  • Overcoming Idea Fixation: Teams can sometimes become fixated on one idea or direction, hindering the exploration of other possibilities. To overcome this, take deliberate breaks from the current line of thinking, perhaps by introducing unrelated warm-up exercises or shifting focus to a different aspect of the problem. This can help reset the group’s thinking and open up new avenues of ideation.
  • Dealing with Off-Topic Diversions: Establishing clear objectives and a focused problem statement at the outset can significantly reduce off-topic diversions, by as much as 30%, ensuring that the session remains directed and efficient. To keep the session on track, the facilitator should gently steer the conversation back to the main topic. Setting clear objectives and a focused problem statement at the beginning of the session can also help maintain direction. Maintaining the focus of a brainstorming session is crucial for its productivity. 
  • Addressing Lack of Participation: Lack of participation can be due to various factors, including lack of confidence, fear of judgment, or simply not having the opportunity to speak. Creating a supportive environment that values all contributions can help. Techniques like “pass the baton,” where participants are encouraged to build on the previous idea, can also foster a more inclusive atmosphere.
  • Handling Time Constraints: While time limits can enhance focus and productivity, they can also add pressure and potentially curb the creative process. To manage this, ensure that the time allocated is sufficient and clearly communicate the timeline at the start. If needed, be flexible and willing to extend the session or schedule follow-up sessions to explore ideas fully.
  • Navigating Creative Blocks: Creative blocks are common in brainstorming sessions, where participants may feel stuck or uninspired. To counter this, introduce creative prompts, change the physical setting, or engage in a quick, unrelated creative activity to reignite the creative spark.

Teams that are proactively addressing these challenges can enhance the effectiveness of their brainstorming sessions, ensuring a more productive, inclusive, and creative outcome. 


The art of effective brainstorming lies not in the avoidance of obstacles but in the skillful maneuvering through them, leveraging diverse perspectives, encouraging wild ideas, and fostering a culture of psychological safety. It’s in this crucible that ideas are not only born but are also rigorously tested and refined, readying them for the crucible of real-world challenges.

As we look ahead, the future of brainstorming in design thinking shines brightly, buoyed by the advent of collaborative technologies and a deeper understanding of group dynamics. It beckons us to a world where ideas flow freely, unencumbered by the traditional constraints of time and space, and where every voice, no matter how faint, finds a resonant echo.


  • How do you ensure that brainstorming leads to actionable ideas?

Prioritize ideas based on feasibility, impact, and alignment with user needs, using specific criteria to evaluate and select ideas for prototyping and further development. Additionally, set milestones for implementing and testing the chosen ideas to ensure they transition from concepts to tangible solutions.

  • What do you do if the brainstorming session is not generating enough ideas?

Introduce new stimuli, such as relevant case studies or creative prompts. Break the team into smaller groups or pairs to generate ideas independently before sharing with the larger group.

  • How can remote teams effectively brainstorm?

Utilize digital collaboration tools that mimic the physical brainstorming environment, such as online whiteboards and idea management platforms, ensuring clear communication and establishing ground rules to maintain engagement and productivity. Periodic check-ins can also foster a sense of connection and momentum among remote participants.

  • How do you maintain focus on the user during brainstorming?

Start with a clear understanding of user needs and challenges, using personas or user stories as a constant reference throughout the session to anchor ideas in user-centricity. Regularly revisiting the user’s perspective can help maintain a clear focus on creating value for the end-user.

  • How do you deal with conflicting ideas during brainstorming?

Acknowledge and explore differing viewpoints as potential avenues for innovative solutions. Use conflict as a constructive force to delve deeper into the problem space and uncover unique insights.

  • What role does the facilitator play in a brainstorming session?

The facilitator guides the process, ensures adherence to the ground rules, manages time, encourages participation, and helps synthesize and organize ideas, which is crucial in maintaining the session’s momentum and focus. They also play a key role in ensuring that the environment remains inclusive and that all voices are heard, fostering a safe space for creative exploration.