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How to Have Ideas – Workshop Toolbox

‘How to have Ideas’ is a workshop we run regularly at Think Up with lots of different groups of people: not just designers but professionals from all walks of life who are looking to develop strategies to help time improve their design thinking. In this post I describe the basic tools and concepts we cover in the workshop. If you have been on one of our workshops it should serve as an aide memoire; if you ha haven’t, hopefully it peaks your interest enough to encourage you to come on our next How to Have Ideas workshop.


The basic premise of the workshop is that we are all perfectly capable of having ideas, and some of them can be very good. What we find harder is knowing how we have ideas – and knowing how is an important first step in getting better at having ideas, and to having them more often.


Our approach is not to offer a definitive method, but rather to demonstrate a process that seems to correlate well with individual’s personal experiences of creative thinking, and provides them with a framework against which they can enhance their ability to have ideas. Despite all the research that has been done to date into creative thinking, we still don’t know exactly what is going on in the brain the moment we have a new idea – but we do know a great deal about the processes and conditions that support us in the run-up to creative thought, and the conditions that allow creative thought to flourish, and it is in this before and after domain that our training focuses, providing pragmatic suggestions for people to try, adopt, adapt or reject as they get a feel for what works for them.


What is an idea?

For the purposes of this training, we try not to get too caught up in the epistemology of the word idea, and tend to agree the following definition with the participants, that ideas are new connections between existing elements in the mind.


The useful thing about this definition is that it gives us two areas to work on: putting the right elements in our mind in the first place; and activating the process by which new connections are made.


A powerful visual analogy of this defintion comes from James Webb Young in his excellent little book ‘a technique for producing ideas’. He describes the process of having ideas as using a kaleidoscope. The little pieces of glass represent the existing elements we have in our mind. To create a kaleidoscope we must first find the colourful glass fragments that will go in the end. We then hold the device up to the light and turn the end to form new patterns. We keep turning until we find something that we like. This turning motion is the stimulus that is creating new connections.


With apologies to James Webb Young I call this approach the Kalideascope, as in my mind at least, a pun helps me remember things better. If we want to get better at having ideas, we need to think about what bits of glass we put in our Kalideascopes and then what we do to turn our Kalideascopes.


Filling the Kalideascope

Researching the brief

A good starting point for assembling the elements that will connect together to form your ideas is the design brief you are working on or the problem that you are trying to solve. Delve into different aspects of the brief, for example the users and their requirements, the physical setting for the design need, the technologies referenced, the possible manufacturing processes, the related legislation, the end-of-life or recovery phase.


Another direction for research should be looking at precendents – what have you designed before that relates to this project (you usually have lots of information about precedents)? What have other people designed in this field? What is the state of the art and what is emerging from research?


Go seek inspiration

Once you know what your brief is, go and look for things that inspire you. It could be images online, sculptures in a museum, objects in a shop, urban environments that you like. Visiting or looking at these things will provide you with more elements.


This is both a short-term and long-term strategy. Short in the sense that you can do it in the midst of a project in response that brief, or long in the sense that you can gather these inspirations over time so that they may be of use for some project in the future. As product designer Rich Gilbert put it in my recent interview with him, “Your primary inspiration is often only as good as the material that you are pulling into your head.”


One of the techniques he uses with this colleagues is to go out to seek inspiration and capture what they see using Google Keep, a tool which lets you annotate and share stuff you find. For him it is important to go and see the object of inspiration for yourself, to experience it, to feel it – the photo and description is then just something to bring that experience back to mind.


Draw on your professional knowledge

Your professional knowledge is whole array of stained glass ready for you to draw on for generating ideas. The different disciplines and sub-disciplines of your working life contain concepts, designs, objects, approaches, words, shapes all of which could be an element in a new idea.


When trying to develop a new idea, take a moment to run through different areas of your professional knowledge and ask yourself what you might take from each of these areas.


Of course the wider your professional knowledge, the richer your source of ideas and so you should make it a long-term strategy to carry on broadening your professional knowledge: learn new ways of doing things; experiment with new materials; collaborate with different people, and fill your Kalideascope as you go.


Draw on your outside interests

Your professional knowledge is just one stained glass window in the cathedral of your mind; your hobbies, your passions, where you go, what you listen to, who you talk to – these are all magnificent facades full of coloured bits of glass that can go into your Kalideascope. To prove a point, yesterday I had an hour stop-over in Rouen in northern France and stumbled upon the magnificent modern cathedral dedicated to Joan of Ark, with its splendid and very unusual stained glass facade. I liked it so much that I bought a postcard of it. And today I had the idea of using stained glass windows as part of this explanation.


There is no rule that says personal interests must not pass reception. These outside interests are a rich source of inspiration for you to draw upon. Not only you should draw on them, but you should make it your business to widen them: read widely, visit new places; try out new things.


A word of warning though: it is not enough to just experience lots of things, to read widely etc; to really make the most of these inputs, it really helps to sort this information somehow – to curate it.


This could be done by keeping say a blog or a photo diary about a particular interest, or a Pinterest board. You could keep a scrapbook. You could print or draw inspirations and put them on the wall around where you work or go to think. Each of these approaches force you to engage with these elements more, fixing them in your mind and distinguishing them from the maelstrom of information swirling around us.


Talking to other people

By collaborating with others to respond to a brief, we are drawing upon collective experience. By talking to others about their experiences and interests we are putting information into our minds which could be the basis of a good idea. But talking to other people isn’t just a way to fill our Kalideascope, it is also a way to turn it.


Turning the Kalideascope

So far we have discussed approaches for gathering the elements between which new connections may be formed in our minds. Now we are going to talk about ways to form those connections – ways to turn the Kalideascope.


Talk to other people

In her excellent book ‘Time to think’ Nancy Klien describes the power of conversation with others to help our thinking. It is in dialogue with other people that we can have some of our best ideas, even if the other person says very little. That is because the art is in good listening and asking the right questions. This is the subject of a whole other set of workshops on leading and influencing that we will be launching soon, but for now try the following simple approach when you are working on a creative problem.

  • Find someone to talk to about it.
  • Tell them to ask you simple questions, but to resist the urge to add their own ideas to the conversation
  • Ask them to give you their full attention for ten minutes.


When you have finished, reverse the roles so that the other person can benefit from your undivided attention.


This sort of dialogue works because it forces us to structure in a logical order things that we already know. It is as if syntax is forming the connections between the elements for us.


Ask what if?

I used to call this technique ‘change the frame’, but then I would get bogged down in explaining what a frame is. Then one day my Think Up colleague Ben Godber said we should just call this ‘ask what if’: what if cost were no object; what if the project needed to be completed in a week; what if we had to make the entire thing out of timber; what if the solution had to be flown in by helicopter? These questions, and many more, encourage us to change the frame through which we are looking at the problem. The frame is in effect a filter that allows certain ideas to pass. By changing frames we force ourselves to find different ways of connecting the elements we have in our minds to solve the problem.


Use humour

Humour is another great way to change the filters that determine what ideas we do and don’t allow. You could see using humour as an extension of asking the what if questions above. What if the whole thing was made of jelly; what if the entire concept had to be assembled from parts found inside Christmas crackers; what if every surface was covered in Velcro; what if you did the opposite of everything the client wanted.


Rowan Atikinson provides a useful formula for making things funny – it is to put the highly unexpected in a very normal situation. In doing this you are forming connections between things that are not normally associated – in other words having ideas.


Draw out the problem

This technique is about using an alternative mode of communication to tease out different aspects of the brief.

The technique is simply to sit down with the client and try to draw a sketch of the scenario. This could be a sketch of some sort of physical layout, or a system sketch or a process sketch. Making marks on a piece of paper quickly allows you to check your thinking against your client’s thinking.


Act out the problem

Acting out the design situation transfers the idea generation to the physical realm by a process of ‘cognitive extension’. We use our bodies to help us imagine what the size and shape of something might be and how it might relate in space to ourselves and to other objects.


From this perspective we might identify new connections, dependencies and relationships that could be the basis for an idea.


By taking on the role of different elements of the design problem and acting out the scenario, you may become aware of new factors you hadn’t considered before.


A final thought

The ability to have ideas – to be able to hold and develop thought that is independent of environmental stimuli – is a uniquely human experience. It is a magical thing that I doubt we will ever fully understand. The techniques described here are merely ways of thinking about how we have ideas, and approaches that we have found help people in their creative thinking. Try working through these approaches and see what works for you. And please drop us a line to let you know how you get on.

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