Brainstorming and Creative Problem Solving

Back in the old days, when portfolios were pages in handsome cases which were delivered to headhunters who then delivered them to potential hirers, I took some courses at the School of Visual Arts to bolster my graphic design portfolio. The idea was that I would wedge my way into the advertising business. (Against the odds, it actually happened that way: I got a call on a Friday afternoon asking whether I had any soft drink samples in my book. “No, but I can have them in there over the weekend.” “Good, drop the book at BBDO on Monday at 9am.” I got the job in the all-TV Pepsi/Diet Pepsi/Mountain Dew creative group because of that weekend’s effort.) The most useful and valuable classes I took at SVA were both taught by Dom Marino and Deanna Cohen, a working creative pair at DDB who pushed us very hard. DDB, incidentally, is credited as being the first ad agency to pair art directors with copywriters in teams. We had extensive homework and a weekly in-class one-hour conceptual exercise. What they taught us was how to have fun conceptualizing and how to brainstorm. But I have long recognized that I actually learned as much from my writing partner, David Ferris, as from the professors. Dave has gone on to become an advertising copywriter and Creative Director in Chicago. I went on to work in advertising for a few years, then score the terminal degree in advertising design from the ’Cuse, and finally teach and write about advertising design.

Here is my take on brainstorming, with some research to make it sound official from Wikipedia and a couple of other sources:

In briefest possible terms, brainstorming is a two-person (or small group) way to come up with lots and lots of ideas, some impractical and a few useful, in a short period of time. The goal is to build on each others’ notions (left), quickly and without editing. Rule One: No editing while the session is in play: anything is okay – weird ideas must be added to or built on, not critiqued or killed.  Rule Two: Set a time – 15 minutes, or a half hour – in which the goal is to write down as many ideas as you can. Rule Three: Editing ideas comes after the end of the play session – and the crazier ones can then be turned over for usability.

CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING (CPS), colloquially called “BRAINSTORMING” The Creative Problem Solving Process (CPS) was developed by Alex Osborn and Sidney J. Parnes. It is group brainstorming made of three parts: 1) Understanding and defining the problem; 2) Generating ideas about the problem; and 3) Finding, defining, and acting on best solutions. CPS follows these three process stages in six steps:

A. Understand and define the problem
Step 1 Objective Finding (identify the goal, wish or challenge)
Step 2 Fact Finding (gather the relevant data)
Step 3 Problem Finding (clarify the problems that need to be solved in order to achieve the goal)

B. Generate ideas about the problem
Step 4 Idea Finding (generate ideas to solve the identified problem) (ways of thinking about the problem from different angles and perspectives)

C. Find, define, and act on best solutions
Step 5 Solution Finding (move from idea to implementable solution)
Step 6 Acceptance Finding (plan for action)

CPS is flexible, and its use depends on the situation. The steps can be (and often are) used in a linear fashion, from start to finish, but it is not necessary to use all the steps. For example, if one already has a clearly defined problem, the process could begin at Step 4) Idea Finding.

The purpose of brainstorming is to generate ideas. Brainstorming is a group creative technique for generating ideas, in contrast to “lone ideation.” Group and lone creative techniques share two common approaches: divergent thinking (exploring the widest variety of ideas possible), and convergent thinking (narrowing down the possibilities and digging into a few of them more deeply). Group creative techniques can use word games, written exercises, improvisation (thinking spontaneously, without preparation), algorithms (a process or set of rules to be followed), and using random associations to open new directions. This last technique is called aleatoricism and specifically uses chance. Some of these are coin tossing, picking something out of a hat, or selecting words at random from a dictionary.

Osborn claimed that two principles contribute to “ideative efficacy”: deferring judgment and reaching for quantity. A brainstorming session does not allow for any judging or denigrating anyone else’s ideas, and requires producing the largest number of ideas you possibly can in a set time.

Following these principles were his five rules of brainstorming:
1 Have a single specific question to work on
2 Focus on quantity of ideas – more is better, most is best – in a set amount of time.
3 Withhold criticism – build on each others’ ideas, especially the ones that seem impractical. Rather than comment on their viability, use these ideas to create another idea.
4 Weird is good – creativity requires freshness and the unfamiliar, so being uncomfortable or forced to work with wild or unexpected ideas is absolutely part of the process.
5 Combine and improve ideas – good ideas may be combined to form a single better idea. This is a separate step in which you edit and rebuild.

There are three measurable outcomes of a brainstorming session, according to Emily Callaghan, author Personalities of Design Thinking.” They are:
1 Involvement The number of contributions a team member offers. Quantity leads to quality and each participant having a range of ideas provides several that may work.
2 Satisfaction How much fun the brainstorming session is, which is a wholly subjective assessment. It should be fun because having fun is relaxing and new ideas come from play. Participants often claim brainstorming is one of the most fun parts of their work responsibilities.
3 Actionable Ideas How many ideas are generated that are worthy of further development. Generate ideas that can develop into strong solutions. Actionability is an editing process done after the completion of the brainstorming session.

Brainstorming is most effective when there are participants from several disciplines (for example, graphic design, industrial design, copywriting, business, marketing, and research) and personality types (as defined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a widely-used assessment tool that evaluates personalities and strengths on four scales: extrovert vs introvert; sensing vs intuition; thinking vs feeling; and judging vs perceiving). The latter may be more difficult to ascertain, but the former is a must have and easily arranged.

Frustrated by employees’ inability to develop creative ideas individually for ad campaigns, Alex Faickney Osborn (1888-1966) arranged group-thinking sessions and in 1939 discovered a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of ideas produced by his employees. After developing his discovery, Osborn published Applied Imagination in 1953 in which he systematized his creative problem-solving methods. This book popularized the term “brainstorming.” After graduating from Hamilton College in upstate New York, Osborn joined the E.P. Remington ad agency in Buffalo, an in-house advertising agency for a patent medicine maker, where he was appointed as new business manager. In 1919, Osborn joined with Bruce Fairchild Barton and Roy Sarles Durstine to form the BDO (Barton, Durstine & Osborn) advertising agency. Osborn acted as manager of BDO’s Buffalo branch. He was largely responsible for the 1928 merger of BDO with the George Batten Company to create BBDO, an agency that today is one third of the Omnicom Group, the second-largest ad agency in the world. (Full disclosure: I worked in the creative department of BBDO briefly in the late 1970s.)