Design: Brain storming

You may often find that you generate ideas without too much effort. Just thinking about a problem is likely to lead you to one or more ideas that may help to solve it. Imagine yourself on a cross-country run standing on the bank of a river. You need to get to the other side of the river but there is no bridge in sight. You don't know how far the next bridge is nor in which direction you should run to reach the nearest bridge. You also don't know how deep the water is.

What do you do? Your first idea might be to see if there's anyone around to ask where the nearest bridge is or how deep the water is. Your next idea might be to find a stick to probe the water and find out how deep the water is. After that, you might think about finding someone with a boat that can ferry you to the other side. Having collected together a few ideas you will then have some options from which to choose. Which of these you actually decide to follow might depend on how anxious you are to complete the course and your assessment of whether or not the option that you have chosen is likely to bear fruit!

In everyday life, ideas often seem to flow naturally. When designing an engineered product or service this is not always the case. Furthermore, if you can only come up with a limited number of ideas (say one or two) you might need to generate more ideas to provide you with a wider range of alternatives or options.

In order to generate ideas we can make use of one or two tried and tested ideas. The first of these is called brainstorming. In brainstorming a group of people sit around and fire ideas at one another.

There are several basic rules for brainstorming:

  • Everyone in the group must contribute and has an equal right to be heard
  • All ideas (however unlikely or preposterous) must be treated with equal respect
  • Everything should be written down so that no ideas are lost (usually one member of the group is made responsible for this and ideas are recorded on a flip chart so that all can see what has been written down)
  • Adequate time should be set aside for the exercise and there should be no interruptions
  • It's important to avoid probing ideas too deeply. This can be left until a later stage.
  • Agree, at the end of the session a selection (typically three or four) of ideas that should be considered as candidates for carrying forward to the next stage of the process. These are the ideas that the group considers (by poll, if necessary) to be the most feasible in terms of satisfying the design brief. Do not, at this stage, reject the other ideas - you might need to come back to these later!
  • At first sight, some ideas may be considered less credible or less serious than others by some of the members of the group (we often describe such ideas as being off-the-wall). Nobody in the group should be made to feel bad or inferior if other members of the group consider their ideas strange or unworkable. Some of the most innovative engineering projects have resulted from brainstorming sessions that have unearthed ideas that, at first sight, have been considered unworkable by the majority of those involved!

How to conduct a brainstorming session:

  • You will need a flip chart and some markers
  • Form a small group to carry out the brainstorming (four to six people is ideal)
  • Set aside sufficient time to meet and choose a venue for the meeting where you won't be disturbed
  • Explain the design problem and make sure that everyone understands it. Write down the design brief on the first page of the flip chart. Tear this page off and pin it up so that everyone can see it
  • Decide on who will write down the ideas that you generate using the flip chart (this    
  • person can also contribute to the discussion)
  • Invite everyone to contribute to the discussion and make sure that they know that all of  the ideas generated will be equally valued by the group. Make sure that everyone understands this and that they all know reason for it!
  • At the end of the session, thank everyone for their contributions.

In order to make your brainstorming session more useful you can:

  • Summarise the ideas from the flip chart on a sheet of A4 paper and circulate this to all  those who took part
  • Set a deadline for comments and further suggestions to be sent to you.

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  Copyright 2002 Mike Tooley - All rights reserved.