So what the hell is ideation?

Tash Willcocks
12 min readApr 28, 2021

Some tips, tools and a mini intro….

Quote “the best way to have good a good idea is to have lots of ideas” Linus Pauling

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Linus Pauling, chemist, biochemist, chemical engineer, peace activist, author, and educator.

Ideation is part of the design process, it is the third phase in Design Thinking, but is also used in Service Design, Graphic Design and many other areas of the “designs” on offer. In basics it is all about generating ideas. The Nielsen Norman Group describes ideation as “the process of generating a broad set of ideas on a given topic, with no attempt to judge or evaluate them.” You can generate ideas in a multitude of ways, through sketching, free writing or prototyping, I will take you through a few favourites below.

Ideation may seem like the easy part of the design process to some people. It might look like you throw some creative folks in a room, pump them full of coffee, chuck in some post-it’s, a few sharpies and boom! Ideation station here we come.

I’m afraid it’s not all post-its and party poppers.

Well not always. The best ideation sessions come out of well structured and carefully designed exercises that the participants are guided through to help those innovative ideas seed and grow.

From my experience it’s important to help the people involved park their egos, judgement and job title at the door. Ideation needs to be able to grow in fertile ground where no idea is a bad idea.

When I say ‘hold your judgement’ to participants, I mean in relation to themselves as much as others. It’s often that pesky frontal lobe that’s whispering “don’t say that, you’ll look foolish” in our heads. That type of thinking is the slayer of ideation dreams!

In his Ted Talk, Charles Limb shares his research where he put rappers and jazz musicians in brain scanners to see how their minds worked while improvising. (Do watch the video, as he obviously explains it much better than I ever could!)

He says the research team hypothesised that “To be creative, you should have this weird dissociation in your frontal lobe. One area turns on, and a big area shuts off, so that you’re not inhibited, you’re willing to make mistakes, so that you’re not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses.” The rappers and jazz musicians continuously evidenced through improvised sessions that the activity in their frontal lobe activity quietened and allowed them to freestyle seamlessly with others, without the fear of judgement or over thinking.

It is about bouncing ideas, not holding back, and creating a space of fun collaboration, one that sometimes I keep at a healthy pace so that people don’t have time to start questioning themselves, but rather dive in and play.
Do alter the beat, some people think fast, some slower, both will have amazing ideas, mix up the timing to allow both types of mind to shine.

You probably notice the words ‘play’ and ‘fun’ popping up. I said it wasn’t simple, but I never said it shouldn’t be fun.

Humour is a serious business

Edward de Bono -physician, psychologist, author, inventor, philosopher and consultant said “Humour is by far the most significant activity of the human brain.” he believed that humour helps us to ‘pattern switch’. Think of the best jokes; they lead you towards a habitual train of thought but then flip your thinking into an unexpected place right at the last moment.

De Bono created the term “lateral thinking” that’s so widely used’s the art of solving problems using an indirect, creative approach, taking alternative routes to solutions rather than the most obvious ones. It’s a pattern switching process, and while facilitating groups, I’ve found it’s a delicate balance of keeping the humour and fun high without letting anyone get so comfortable that they become lazy.

This works on what de Bono would call an “insight switchover” taking them from a familiar pattern and jumping into a new one. Allowing moments of surprise that trigger ideas and sometimes laughter.

It’s about keeping the group moving mentally and physically, keeping them on the edge of their stretch zone.

Don’t be afraid of the improv

A lot of ideation techniques have grown from improvisation techniques, meaning created spontaneously or without preparation. Mention improv to some people and you see them searching for the nearest exit, so I find it can be about slowly immersing the group or team into the ideation pool, starting with easy warm- ups so you can build towards the more difficult space, it’s about creating space for the introverts, extroverts, chaos and structure lovers.

My (current) top 5 ideation go-tos

A lemon asking to be squeezed

How to squeeze a lemon — the tight on time ice breaker

Snook has used this on many teams, online and offline, it’s a good one if you have little time, but need to loosen up people’s thinking. It can be done in large groups and I have personally witnessed some brilliantly bizarre ways that people have thought of to squeeze a lemon.

  • Get the participants, as individuals or in small groups, to grab a pen & paper.a shared spreadsheet, or doc.
  • Ask them to document as many ways to squeeze a lemon as possible in 2 minutes.

If you think they need a hand you can give them prompts as they go — eg.
‘You have no money’, ‘you have all the money in the world’, ‘you can’t touch the ground’ ‘if you were a dog’ , ‘you could only use a musical instrument’, ‘if you were in space’ (catch all the droplets!)

  • STOP! After 2 minutes gather them back and get each team of a few individuals to share what they think their best ideas are with the group.

Ness Wright & Keira Anderson have used this many times in the Snook Cycle hacks & Tom White, (both Snook’s Senior Service Designers), has run the ‘how to squeeze a lemon’ approach with clients in the Home Office. Online he has found that participants have flourished in unexpected spaces. In particular “how well it worked remotely and with participants that ordinarily might struggle to engage with ideation activities that help model new opportunities. The approach is very low-tech e.g. people could list their thoughts in pre-made powerpoint templates without needing to draw”.

We still love a drawing, but not everyone is comfortable sketching and different learning styles get a chance to shine and burst out when a spreadsheet of ideas was introduced.

“Yes and…” — the getting the mindset right tool

‘Yes and’ is straight from improv. It’s a rule-of-thumb in improvisational comedy. Used as a warm up, it helps the participants accept what another participant has said as an idea and then expand and build on that line of thinking. Rather than saying ‘Yes, but’ in response to an idea, where you immediately start to think why something wouldn’t work, you say ‘Yes, and…’ and build on it.

Think of it like building a sand castle. You can form a big pile of sand with others, it may not seem like it has sense or structure, but that mound can be shaped into something interesting from what’s been built by the group. If someone kicks over your small sand pile on the first attempt with a “No”, or a “Yes But”… well you never get anywhere. It’s a Team is Everything attitude and enables the power of the room thinking.

I mean, think of the person who first bounced out the idea of making an open source encyclopedia and making it free for the whole world Imagine the “Yes, buts” that hovered in that room, but they chose to say ‘Yes and…’ and the world is unthinkable now without wikipedia.

“No” is the #1 creativity killer. Try a “Yes, and…” approach instead — build on others’ ideas rather than shut them down.” says Gustavo Razzett of Fearless Culture

This is the way I run it. There are alternatives.

- Have the participants pair up, or create pairs online that can be putinto rooms.

  • Once in pairs tell them they to decide who’s A and who’s B.
    Inform them Person A will be asking Person B to go out for dinner that night (it can be to design a party, or arrange a fun thing for work etc). Person B needs to say NO, whatever person A suggests person B must respond NO.
  • Have them do this for 2 minutes, bring them back and reflect in the group how that felt for A and B, usually a few people say it’s exhausting, frustrating, disappointing. Some give in! Some of the NO people like the feeling of liberation that saying ‘no’ like a toddler gives them!rap up with reflections from both sides.
  • Repeat the process, but swap roles. This time B asks A to dinner, but A must say “Yes!”, then follow up with “But….” and turn them down. Again give them 2–3 minutes to play with the exercise.
  • Bring them back and reflect. This is usually harder, It’s more disappointing as one person’s hopes are raised, then dashed. At this point you can point out that “No” is sometimes more honest and fairer on the person, client, or team mate. It can stop them wasting energy. “Yes, but…” gets hopes up only to dash them, it can be exhausting and not very transparent.
  • Third round, build some excitement! This time they get to say “Yes… AND” swap roles. Person A starts but simply answers “Yes and” keep building. Give them 2–3 minutes. If they are in the room and it’s buzzing, allow a little more time.
  • Bring them back, reflect and share. Where did they all end up?ow did they get there? Usually there are some great adventures and exploration.
  • Round this up with how important “Yes and…”is as a mind set within a team.

Closing down ideas too soon can suffocate the team’s ability to innovate., Sometimes the crazy ideas, given shape and different points of view added in can become incredible concepts. It’s about allowing the team to have their head in the ideation cloud, but when it’s time to converge getting your feet back on the floor.

  • If you have time, I suggest role modelling “no” & “yes, But” stages, but “yes… ‘’ and `` they are usually raring to go!

Karen Tilstra talks “Yes And…” at TEDxOrlando is a fantastic talk that delves deeper into the idea. In her research, Tilstra talks about so-called “bad ideas”: a cement parachute and a glass hammer.” Sure, if you are a contractor building a house, you won’t give glass hammers to your workers on demo day…but if you are a woman who just broke through the glass ceiling in your field and you won an award…a glass hammer would be a pretty cool trophy to symbolise your achievement. No idea is a bad idea at this stage, keep “Yes Anding” then shape.

2 brains looking at each other one saying SHHH the other has a love heart over it

The silent brainstorm — the keeping it quiet tool

Yes And can be noisy, sometimes the trouble with ideation is that the loudest voice can start leading or unintentionally leading the group. A silent brainstorm or a silent Round Robin can really help in these situations. If a manager stands up in a mixed group and loudly places a post it on the wall, others in the room may unintentionally follow that idea, not wanting to upset their project lead. If you take away the voice and anonymise the post-its through careful facilitation, suddenly no ideas dominate and it allows some to surface that may have been drowned in other processes.

A silent brainstorm runs very similarly to a normal brainstorm as a technique for generating ideas, but in the silent one people remain…. You guessed it… silent.

This allows participants and the group as a whole to think without distractions or influence from other team members. As LucidMeetings states “It helps combat problems with groupthink and social loafing common to traditional brainstorming sessions.” social loafing was a new term to me — here’s a definition from Very Well Mind:“ ‘Social loafing describes the tendency of individuals to put forth less effort when they are part of a group. Because all members of the group are pooling their effort to achieve a common goal, each member of the group contributes less than they would if they were individually responsible.”

Creativity in the Context of Education share how to run a Round Robin using the silent technique, they talk through the advantages and disadvantages and how keeping the ideas anonymous helps the team.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Maya Angelou -poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist.

Crazy Eights And 8x8 — the getting their minds moving at speed tool

These were introduced to me at Hyper Island by Rebecca from Reply & Maks from the Pop Up Agency,

Crazy Eights and 8x8 are very similar in their approach and rely on fast thinking, moving the participant on rapidly through ideas.

Basically, you create 8 ideas in 8 minutes.I like to work out how many ideas that would be in the group and point that out to them. Eg. 30 participants in the group it’ll equal 240 ideas in 8 minutes.

It’s really a good way to show the quantity for quality approach, as you get them to hone the ideas back to one and build from there. It’s about pushing past that first and sometimes obvious idea to the next, next, and the next and…You get the idea!.

8x8 adds an interesting layer of giving you prompts in each section. Eg “What if you did the idea analog only, digital only, with all the money, with no money” etc.

A top tip here is to be visual. The quickest and easiest way to get an idea across is to draw it, no matter what the sketch looks like. scribble it down, remember everyone’s drawing is fine, there’s no judgement here! I find it helps to have someone on the team demonstrate using a stick person, to set expectations low!

“What would (X) do” Take How Might We (HMW) — the thinking from different perspectives tools

Take an opportunity or problem then simply look at it from the perspective of someone else. This can be really fun and an opportunity to step out of your personal comfort zone.

Usually it’s famous people. You take on their lens of the world to look at the HMW. So you think what would Stanley Kubrick do, or Beyonce?hat about Maya Angelou or even Bill Gates? What about your postman, your grandparents or even the family dog? Think about different perspectives on the world and try ideating through their mind.

Try out a few different viewpoints time box each of them. You don’t want to get stuck in one way of thinking.

If you want to stretch the team that little further, ask them to think about the problem as an object.

At Snook, when we worked with Citizens UK, we asked them to think about their future website as a house. We delved into what the rooms would look like, who’s in them? What are they doing? What’s the vibe?

Meg Douglas Howie and Bethan Mitchel from the Service Design team, ran the session and said “It was fun. People really interacted and were involved in creating the houses. It stopped people getting hung up in areas like fonts and buttons that can be distracting at this early stage. It helped the team think more about the different functions the website would play for different people”

In summary: Best practice for good ideation sessions

  • Build on each other’s ideas
  • Create quantity for quality
  • Postpone judgement
  • There are no bad ideas
  • Do not forget humour as a tool
  • What works for one ind
  • Last but not least, be careful to actively listen to each other’s ideas. Try to talk one at a time. It’s easy to talk over one another and some voices (the quieter more hesitant people) can get lost. Remember to keep the room open, let all voices be heard and don’t fall in love with your own ideas. We are in this together!.

…. And last….last but not least! ideation does not exist in isolation, it needs you to synthesise and drive ideas forward, get the team and stakeholders invested to build it into reality.

“Ideation without execution is delusion.”

Robin Sharma — Author, speaker

Further reading

Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity — by Edward de Bono

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray

Musical Creativity and the Brain — Mónica López-González, Ph.D. and Charles J. Limb, M.D.

Evolving improvised ideation from humour constructs: A new method for collaborative divergence — multiple authors

Toolbox Toolbox is a great resource of curated toolboxes that you can find more tools in.

I use some of these tools in the Making Sense of Service Design course With Snook, I wrote this for the participants so if you are interested in joining the next one in June take a look…



Tash Willcocks

Head of Learning Design at Snook, Honorary Fellow & Academic Board member Hyper Island, Letter Lover & Typostrator — Insta & Twitter @tashwillcocks