helpIdeation: It's More Than Just Brainstorming


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

1. Identify and use many alternative ideation techniques.


How can someone generate more and more creative ideas? Brainstorming is just one limited technique. This lesson looks at other techniques that can be used with students (and others) to generate a greater number and wider variety of ideas.

Ideation is the generation of ideas. In creative problem solving, the quality of the solution depends on one's ability to generate ideas. Very many ideas should be generated so that the problem solver will have a wide choice of solutions.

This lesson, and its companion, are not meant to be rigorous research articles, but to be practitioner-based suggestions from one teacher to another. They are derived from many sources, including anonymous tips from fellow teachers. Readers may wish to download the PowerPoint presentation that was used by the author with these articles. Permission is given by the author to freely copy any of these three documents if they remain intact and note the authorship.


Problem solving is now one of the most important and most common elements in Technology Education. It is both a method and a goal of Technology Education. While Math teachers have taught problem solving for many years, the problem solving in technology labs is different. Rather than always guiding students to one correct answer, we promote divergent paths to arrive at new solutions. This methodology is inherent in invention and innovation. Typically, we give students a "design brief" or a problem statement. Many Technology Student Association and Technology Education Collegiate Association competitions are centered around a creative problem solving activity.

1. Brainstorming

There are a variety of creative problem solving methodologies (Parnes, 1967; Hutchinson, 1986); some elements are common to the different methodologies. At some point, there is identification of a problem. At some later point, investigation is made into possible solutions to the problem. Eventually, one solution is chosen above the others for implementation. A teacher who implements creative problem solving may use the following strategy:

1. Set a well-defined problem for the students.

2. Have the students brainstorm possible solutions.

3. The students pick the best solution.

4. The students implement the solution.

5. The students evaluate their solution.

Unfortunately, this model is not only over-simplified, it is very limited in the ideation, or idea-generation phase. There are many techniques that can be used to  generate ideas - brainstorming is just one of these techniques. This article covers some alternatives to brainstorming. A discussion of brainstorming is provided in a companion lesson.

2. Forced Questioning

One way of enticing ideas out of the brain is to ask questions. We often ask students questions to stimulate their thinking. But we must do more; we must have them ask their own questions. For example, if students are designing a system for packaging an egg so that it can withstand being released 20 feet above the ground without breaking, they might ask the following:

1. What packaging shapes absorb impact?

2. When, during the egg's descent, does our system act?

3. What other technologies are designed to minimize injury due to impact?

4. Why are we assuming the egg is to fall?

While some questions have complicated wording, these simple questions were coaxed out of students by asking them to start with the terms: "who, what, where, why, how, or when." This is an old method used by journalists; they try to answer all of these basic questions about a news event within the first few paragraphs.

To help students generate questions, some teachers use a "question wheel" or "question dice". The question wheel has a pointer and the words, "who, what, where, why, when, how", written in different segments; one of the question dice is a cube with a different one of these six words on each face. By spinning the wheel or tossing the die, one of the words is selected. The student then develops one or two questions about their topic starting with those words. An elaboration of that technique calls for a second wheel or die, containing the words, "would, could, should, did, will, might." By tossing both dice, the student might get the words, "Why did" or "Who could." These word pairs could then be used to force questions out of the student. You might wish to use other dice as well; one die might contain words relating to evaluative criteria: cost, material, efficiency, time, doability, attractiveness; another die might contain only materials: ceramics, plastics, metallics, woods, composites, other.

Generating questions can be useful in steering students toward finding more information (e.g., Who specializes in packaging? What has been written about packaging? What do car makers do to minimize injury due to impact?) The technique of generating questions can also be helpful during the stage of problem solving where the problem statement is being formulated. Some graduate students have the most trouble, not with their courses or conducting and reporting on their research, but with generating a research problem statement. Forcing them to ask questions can help them refine their thoughts and entertain new possibilities.

3. Attribute Listing

Ideas can offer themselves if we look at things in a different way. For example, what can a typical rubber eraser be used for? It can erase pencil marks. However, if we list the different attributes of the eraser, new and unexpected applications might present themselves. The eraser is abrasive, shock-absorbent, red, 1/4" thick, etc. By thinking of it as an abrasive, some people have rubbed a pencil eraser over the electrical contact on computer cards to improve the electrical connection. If you need a small shock-absorbing bumper (on a cabinet door), consider the eraser. The technique of attribute listing (Hubel and Lussow, 1984) begins by making a list of the attributes of available materials, products or tools. We then attempt to use any of these attributes in the problem's solution.

4. Push/Pull and Other Manipulative Verbs

Osborn and others have suggested the use of manipulative verbs to find creative solutions (Hubel and Lussow, 1984). Manipulative verbs ask us to somehow change or act upon something, such as a problem solution. One of these manipulative verbs is "reverse". The term, "push/pull," denotes a reversal in an approach to a solution. This technique has us at least consider doing just the opposite from that which is expected -- the counter-intuitive at times. For example, if a dog clamps its jaw around my forearm, my first reaction would be to pull my arm away. Why? Because my goal is to get my arm out of the dog's mouth quickly and without injury. Unfortunately, pulling my arm straight out would probably tear quite a bit of flesh. Depending on the bite, it might be better to push my arm further into the dog's mouth, thereby forcing its jaws open.

Another example is the drawer that will not open more than a few inches. Our goal is to open the drawer, yet who among us has not pushed the drawer back in to see if that would help us open it? Push/pull can create more problems if it is not exercised with care. A student should probably not use the push/pull technique to develop and test a new use for a power tool. There are other manipulative verbs; push/pull or "reverse" is just one of them: "adapt, modify, substitute, magnify, minify, rearrange, reverse, combine." This is not a list etched in stone; a teacher can ask the students to use any words to help them generate ideas from a new perspective.

5. Forced Lateral Thinking

There is a tendency to follow established patterns of behavior, and this applies to established patterns of thinking, as well. Past success with certain procedures or solutions may bias us as we consider future problems. Lateral thinking refers to non-traditional ways of thinking. This is often referred to as thinking outside the box.

One way to encourage lateral thinking is to look at specific assumptions of a problem or situation. Next, each assumption would be questioned, and possibly violated. (This is also known as "assumption smashing.") For example, consider students who are building a robot that will compete with other robots, seeing which one can grab the most tennis balls. A traditional question the students might ask is, "How can our robot store more balls than its competitor?" However, by voiding one of the tacit assumptions commonly made in this activity, a student might try rewording the problems statement to be, "How can our robot get one ball and destroy the other robot?" This is not to suggest teaching violence, but it does illustrate lateral thinking through assumption smashing.

6. Thinking Assignments

Role playing can be helpful in having us consider other viewpoints. A variation of role playing can be used to ask problem solvers to take on different, proscribed thinking tasks. One illustration of this is the description of six different thinking hats, noted by Edward deBono.

In deBono's system, any individual could take on specific thinking tasks by literally or figuratively putting on one of the six colored hats. If they put on the white hat, then their job would be "white hat thinking," which is characterized by scrutinizing the facts. Red hat thinking would deal with intuitions and emotions; black with judgment and caution; yellow with logical positivism (or finding the good in each option); green hat thinking would entertain and generate creative alternatives, and blue hat thinking would deal with issues of control, and with metacognition.

7. Analogies & Metaphors 

Analogies and metaphors can offer a poetic nuance to our thinking. By using them in a similar way to forced connections, we can sometimes gain greater insight into a situation or problem.

Consider the following: "My family seems like candle." By elaborating on just how the family seems like a candle new aspects may appear. Is the family dwindling like a candle? Does it provide warmth? Is everything seen in light of the family? Is the flame delicate?

Other examples include:

  • Our company as a life preserver 
  • Love is like a whetstone
  • The Internet is our conscience 
  • In each, it is the later elaboration that may or may not lead to fruitful nuances.

    8. Sketching and Sketch-storming

    When some people are asked to come up with a design, they write, others may sit quietly and think, some may converse, some may model, and some will draw. Sketching can be a powerful tool to generate and communicate ideas.

    I have used sketching most successfully in teaching Graphic Communication. In preparing a layout, I asked students to first develop a number of thumbnail sketches showing different possibilities, later they would produce a rough layout and a comprehensive layout of their best solution. However, during the thumbnail sketching phase, their job is to quickly illustrate a wide variety of layouts. The way I ask these students to draw can be thought of as sketch-storming. While some people who draw thumbnail sketches might begin by drawing a sketch in only five minutes, I usually ask students to draw their first thumbnail sketches in only fifteen seconds each. While their drawings are rougher than most true "thumbnail" sketches, the quantity and variety of ideas is enormous in a very limited amount of time.

    Often, sketching and drawing (even doodling) can help people refine ideas or generate new solutions. While sketching three-dimension objects is very helpful, it also requires some skill and time. In designing a better mousetrap, leave ample time for students to sketch possible solutions, rather than hurrying them through 15-second sketches. It can even be helpful for students to have actual objects to manipulate as they do their drawings.

    9. Constructing / 3D Modeling / Tinkering

    Physical objects can stimulate ideas. When I construct a testing device or a jig or fixture, I usually use pieces of wood, held at different orientations, to help me think through the three-dimensional device. While there may be a drawing either before or after this stage, the visualization that occurs by this technique often sparks new ideas. Tinkering has resulted in numerous inventions and innovations. It does not make sense to always require students to have a finished plan before they touch materials -- instead, get some help from the materials in your quest to stimulate ideation.

    Tinkering and 3D modeling can also be used to test out ideas and facilitate adjustments to solutions. Models can be constructed with a variety of materials: wood, clay, Legos, fingers, etc.  The goal is to generate a wide variety of solutions by helping students with three-dimensional visualization (and vice-versa).

    10. Thought Book / Log / Diary

    Consider the following words of a might-have-been inventor: "Last night, in a dream, I had this great idea for a new invention, but while I remembered the idea when I first awoke, I can't remember it now." Ideas are of little use in solving solutions if we forget them and fail to record them.

    Consider three different strategies to regularly record ideas. One of these is a "thought book." It is can be a 3x5 card that is always in your pocket (and a pencil), although some prefer a small pad. On the thought book, write down any ideas that you don't want to lose. An alternative device is a log. When students do group work, ask them to each keep an individual log. The log is to contain a record of the group's work, a listing of their personal contributions, and their creative and evaluative thoughts. Every day, students can spend quality time with their ideas by jotting them down in their logs. This is a variation of the diary. A diary or log can be set up on a computer; when a word processor is executed, a diary document can automatically be retrieved. This forces the user to record thoughts and happenings whenever time permits. Writing in a diary or log not only records your ideas, it can stimulate you to generate new ideas.

    11. Stream of Consciousness

    Sometimes, forcing yourself to write or to speak can generate ideas. Some authors have used the "stream of consciousness" approach to writing; they write constantly, recording as many thoughts as possible. The goal is to record and stimulate the movement of the mind among concepts. If it enters the mind, write it.

    12. Association

    Stream of consciousness points out associations the mind makes. We can use association of concepts or terms to stimulate ideation. Sometimes, only a seed term is needed. The responder can then use each of their own responses as a stimulus for the next response, generating a long list of terms.

    Another way to use association is to ask students to say or write the first thing that comes into their heads when they hear each of a list of terms. Try pairing students. Each individual is then given a list of terms, or generates their own list. They then ask their partners to make rapid associations with each of these terms. Sometimes, this stimulates new ideas for solving a problem. For example, if the problem is to cushion an egg's impact, the list of terms my students generated was as follows: "egg --> yolk; break --> pedal; fall --> leaf; time --> delay." In this example, one student said the word, "break", probably in reference to eggs breaking. However, the listener heard "brake" and thought about a car's brake pedal. To complicate matters even more, the asker heard the responder say "petal", as in flower petal, and wrote it down. The group's solution was stimulated by the manner in which some flower petals fall. Both association and mispronunciation aided creativity in this case.

    Forced Connections

    Association works because the mind makes a natural connection between two concepts. Let's apply the push/pull technique to see if the reverse also works. What is the reverse technique of association? It may be the forcing together of two seemingly unrelated concepts. This "forced connections" technique can be used to generate "hybrid" ideas. The in-line skate known as the Rollerblade seems to be just such a hybrid idea that somebody developed by linking an ice skate and a roller skate, conceptually. The Swiss army knife is another example, but here the different parts are linked more physically than conceptually.

    Here is an example to try with your students. Have each student write an individual list of five nouns. Select one noun from each of eight students, and write those eight nouns on the chalkboard. Ask each student to then develop an idea for a new product by making a new connection between two or more of the terms on the board. Consider the following list of eight nouns: "baseball, dog, father, chair, water, dress, flashlight, computer." One new product idea is a chair for a child in the shape of a dog, but many more ideas are possible. Some masters of ideation pride themselves on their ability to force a connection between any two or three terms.

    13. Morphological Charts

    One way to use the forced connections technique is to make a morphological chart. This contains different properties of an item. For each property, a column of possibilities is presented. The designer then selects one particular from column A, one from column B, and so on. For example, in designing a new chair, we could pick one attribute from each of of several attribute categories. One path through that categories in the chart would be the selection of a white plastic chair that does not rock, but swivels, is tall and of medium comfort. Other paths are possible; other lists are possible.

    14. Mind Mapping

    Tony Buzan developed specialized software to help people use the technique of mind mapping. This is similar to concept mapping where the individual begins by writing a critical concept on the center of a page. Lines would be drawn outward from that hub to represent the main concepts most strongly related to that initial hub concept. Each of those secondary concepts would then be used as a hub in the graphic identification of tertiary concepts. Sometimes, the secondary concepts are subsets of the hub, but sometimes they are not. The use of the terms 'secondary' and 'tertiary' is not meant to imply subordination.

    Unfortunately, this technique can serve to reinforce narrow thinking. For example, I have asked students in a teaching methods class to provide a concept map for "teaching." One group produced the following set of secondary terms may be: "school, curriculum, methods." They then explored each of those three secondary terms. Noticeably absent, however, was mention of students. I found this surprising, yet it showed me how isolated my students were from public school students, and that was useful information. However, as much as I might have liked for them to put students into their map, all I could do was to ask questions about what might have been overlooked; the map would have been inaccurate if the students had added an element they did not think belonged in their conceptualization.

    15. Other Graphic Displays

    A variety of other graphic display techniques may help students (and others) generate, organize, and structure their ideas. Storyboarding is a technique used in video production. Successive drawings show the scenes of a movie or commercial, as well as the critical action and dialog. By arranging these graphically, it can give a better sense of the flow of the project. PowerPoint and other presentation software also include a "slide sorter view," or thumbnail view that is similar to a storyboard layout.

    Venn diagrams may also prove useful in helping students sort out and organize their ideas. They can see which concepts are subsets, which ones share elements, and which do not share elements. With technology students, it is interesting to see the Venn diagrams they generate with the terms: technology, production, manufacturing, and construction. While Venn diagrams may not directly ask the student to generate a new term, they do ask them to consider the relationships among concepts, which might lead toward new problem solutions.

    Those studying processes may use flowcharting as a technique to graphically illustrate a process. By putting different steps, or concepts, in boxes, a set of linkages with arrows may process conceptualization. Computer programmers use this technique, often with special boxes for decisions.

    16. Fooling Your Mind

    Did you ever try to remember something (What was Cary Grant's birth name?) only to find that you couldn't?  Sometimes, the best technique is to deliberately stop thinking about a problem. Some people call this "putting it on the back burner." Walking around and creating frequent disruptions may stimulate creative ideas, just as it might stimulate memory. Some refer to this as "the discontinuity principle. Fooling your mind with this "unconscious problem solving" also has the advantage of providing more time and a fresh look when you begin again. Crossword puzzle workers often see answers at a second session that they failed to see on the first session. (Oh yes: Archibald Leach.)

    17. Research (Experts, Experiments, Resources)

    Probably the most overlooked source of ideas for technology students to use in solving problems is research. While we may encourage our students to do some prototype development and to eventually test out their solution, many teacher do not do enough, in general, to encourage students to find some of the already existing answers. Having them refer to a class text is only a starting point. If you really cared about solving a problem, wouldn't you attempt to learn all you could about the problem and how people might have solved similar problems in the past? Of course you would. This requires quite a bit of time on secondary research.

    Most of the ideation methods previously mentioned were limited by a common factor: they did not uncover previous solutions by others to similar problems. Why should we ask our students to re-invent the wheel? Wouldn't it be better to have them synthesize all existing information on the wheel, and then to develop an innovation? Have your students ask experts, read magazines and books and visit the library.

    18. Questioning the Problem and its Assumptions

    In "Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan," it was noted that Captain James T. Kirk had been the only cadet at Star Fleet Academy to pass one particular test. The test was designed to see how an individual would react in a no-win situation. Our hero, however, won. He stated that he did not believe in a no-win situation, so he re-programmed the computer that was administering the test.

    Have your students re-program their problems. Is the problem they think they are working on really a problem? A farmer tried a number of different technological solutions in vain in an attempt to grow peaches. Finally, he said he came to the realization that peaches were not one of the crops that would grow on his land; his time was better spent in other activities -- let someone else grow the peaches.

    I use the "question the problem" technique with student teachers. During their seminar, student teachers often cite problems they are having with their students, usually regarding discipline. I ask them to fill in the blanks in the following sentence: "Maybe it's not a (blank) problem, maybe it's really a (blank) problem, instead." A typical response by a student teacher is the following: "Maybe it's not a discipline problem, maybe it's a reading problem, instead." A big part of problem solving is finding the appropriate problem to solve.

    At times, the best way to solve a problem is to try to forget about it for a while. It may be most valuable "to provide a period of time during a project for ideas to 'incubate' or work through in our minds" (Hutchinson and Karsnitz, 1994, p. 212.) Coming back to a problem with a fresh approach may increase the flow of creative juices.


    Ideation is just one part of problem solving. It should be approached from many different angles. The goal of problem solving and ideation in technology is not the solution of problems or the generation of ideas. It is the development of the student's abilities and attitudes. Ideation techniques they learn from us might be used in painting a masterpiece or in writing a novel. Our task is to help them develop these skills, particularly in their technological studies. One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching technology is for students to surprise you with a truly ingenious idea of their own. Let's help each student be all they can be.

    References Cited

    Hubel, V., & Lussow, D. (1984). Focus on designing. Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

    Hutchinson, P. (1986). Problem solving in the British Craft, Design and Technology Programs. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. New York University.

    Hutchinson, J., & Karsnitz, J. (1994). Design and problem solving in technology. Albany, NY: Delmar.

    Parnes, S. (1967). Creative behavior guidebook. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

    "Ideation: It's More Than Just Brainstorming"
    All information is subject to change without notification.
    © Jim Flowers
    Department of Technology, Ball State University