Debating The Rules Of Brainstorming

Designers weigh in on the best ways to brainstorm. Spoiler alert: not everyone agrees.

Debating The Rules Of Brainstorming
[Illustration: Wren McDonald]

Love it or loathe it, brainstorming is a ubiquitous part of office culture. Whether it is an effective tool for generating ideas and solving problems is up for debate. And since we love a good debate, we invited 50 leaders in the design community—typically some of the most opinionated, creative, and analytical types in business—to share how or if they brainstorm. Here are some of their responses, including a characteristically honest one from the legendary and outspoken creative director George Lois.

“You always hear about keeping negativity out of brainstorms. Like, people are just supposed to say happy things and write them on Post-it Notes. Ideas can come from both positive and negative energy.”–Mike Simonian, principal, Mike & Maaike

“Food. Must. Be. Present. When chomping, we think better. No food, no brainstorm.”–Bradford Shellhammer, head of curation and merchandising, eBay

“I see brainstorming as a tool to use when you need to take apart a problem. Success is generating many different dots that can be connected in many different ways—not one stubborn solution. If the end result looks like the product of a mob, I have failed.”–Desiree Garcia, design lead, IBM Watson

“All ‘brainstorming sessions’ are group gropes. A great art director [should] work with a copywriter, and then he or she goes for the big idea that sears the virtues of a product into a viewer’s mind and heart with no paralyzing, pragmatic, unambitious, half-ass ‘strategic thinking’ to contend with.”–George Lois, creative director, Lois Transmedia

“1. Make it playful: Play makes it safe to think differently. 2. Draw: It helps you visualize ideas. 3. Think like a designer: Ask ‘What if?’ questions. 4. Define your values: You can’t decide things by saying, ‘Because I like it.’ You need to understand what you believe in. 5. Make people dance after lunch. Then they won’t fall asleep.”–Ayse Birsel, cofounder, Birsel+Seck

“Always ask why. And when you have your first answer, then ask why again. And again. Until you ladder up to the original cause of the problem to solve.”–Mauro Porcini, chief design officer, PepsiCo

“Everyone—from the youngest to the most senior—has to come in with ideas based on research. We then test the ideas, assessing and editing them. Lastly, we build on the ideas that are getting traction, while keeping a few outliers in hand that can magically seem compelling again.”–David Rockwell, founder and president, Rockwell Group

“Engage everyone in the room. Sometimes the quietest voices are the most powerful.”–Autumn Furr, head of public relations, Rebecca Minkoff