118: Concept Ideation





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  1. Thumbnail Sketching
    • Series of small drawings that explore new ideas
    • Purposes:
      • Generate quick ideas
      • Promote divergent thinking
      • Encourage sharing of ideas
      • Make iterative improvements
    • Preparation Steps:
      • Identify exploration topic.
      • Assemble team and drawing materials.
    • Implementation Steps:
      • Ask each team member to work independently
      • Each person focuses on one aspect of the topic and draws pictures of possibilities.
      • Then each person focuses on another aspect and draws more possibilities.
      • Group discusses sketches
      • Pick a subset to refine with additional sketching
    • Helpful Tips:
      • Encourage visual thinking
      • Not perfect drawings
      • Limit sketching round times
      • Refrain from editing early
    • Sample Process
      • Purpose: Explore large number of ideas and develop options to get quick feedback
      • Steps:
        • Thumbnail Sketching (Making)
        • Rough & Ready Prototyping (Making)
        • Critique (Looking)
    • School Applications
      • Teachers can use this technique to brainstorm project ideas and scaffolding ideas
      • Students can use this technique to brainstorm product ideas
  2. Creative Matrix
    • Brainstorm new ideas at intersection of distinct categories
    • Format:
      • Use columns for categories related to people (personas, market segments, problem statements)
      • Use rows as categories for enabling solutions (technologies, environments, policies, etc)
    • Purposes:
      • Generate large number of ideas
      • Promote divergent thinking
      • Develop new and usual ideas
    • Preparation steps:
      • Identify design challenge in need of new ideas
      • Set up grid poster (max 5×5)
        • Label columns – related to people
        • Label rows – related to solutions
      • Form teams
    • Implementation steps:
      • Instruct teams to ideate on the grid
      • One idea per sticky note
      • Limit time – 15-20 minutes
    • Helpful hints:
      • Draw pictures of ideas
      • Fill every cell of grid
      • Reward quantity
    • Sample process:
      • Purpose: Define a challenge and develop many quick ideas
      • Steps:
        • Statement starters (Understanding)
        • Creative Matrix (Making)
        • Visualize the Vote (Understanding)
        • Cover Story Mock-Up (Making)
    • School Applications:
      • Teachers can use this technique to facilitate an activity that has students brainstorm many strategies for building positive classroom environments
      • Teachers can use this technique to develop many project ideas that go with different course topics
      • Students can use this technique to develop many product ideas that go with a problem statement
  1. Round Robin 
    • Ideas evolve as they are passed from person to person
    • Purposes:
      • Get input from all team members
      • Diminish overbearing opinions
      • Generate new and unusual idea
    • Preparation steps:
      • Identify design challenge in need of new ideas
      • Created workshops (1 per person) folded into 4 parts
    • Implementation steps:
      • Instruct each person to write down challenge
      • Each person draws an unconventional solution
      • Then pass paper to the left
      • Write one reason why idea will fail
      • Pass paper to the left
      • Draft resolution to the critique
    • Helpful tips:
      • Limit time – 2-3 minute rounds
      • Encourage wild ideas
      • Invite discussion of new ideas
    • Sample process:
      • Purpose: refocus problem, develop fresh ideas and decide which ideas to develop
      • Steps:
        • Problem Tree Analysis (Understanding)
        • Round Robin (Making)
        • Visualize the Voce (Understanding)
        • Concept Poster (Making)
    • School applications:
      • Students can use this technique to generate product ideas to a design challenge
      • Grade level teachers can use this technique to develop grade level policies that support students
  2. Alternative Worlds
    • Using perspectives to help generate fresh ideas
    • Purposes:
      • See things from a fresh perspective
      • Leverage success from other domains
      • Generate new ideas
    • Preparation steps:
      • Identify topic
      • Recruit diverse team
      • Create list of analogous topics
      • Think about representative organizations
      • Select few alternative worlds to explore
    • Implementation steps:
      • Orient team to key characteristics of each world
      • Ask, how would _______ solve this problem?
      • Seek various ideas inspired by each world
    • Helpful tips:
      • Choose a world different from yours
      • Try to interview someone from alternative world
    • Sample process:
      • Purpose: Generating new ideas from alternative perspectives and visually conveying new concepts
      • Steps:
        • Alternative Worlds (Making)
        • Thumbnail Sketching (Making)
        • Concept Poster (Making)
    • School applications:
      • Students can use this technique to brainstorm products from the perspectives of real companies
      • Teachers can use this technique to design management strategies from the perspectives of real companies known for supporting innovation in their employees


Brainstorming occurs in a lot of PBL projects.  Knowing several brainstorming techniques will allow PBL teachers to facilitate brainstorming in ways that feel fresh and that hopefully help students generate a lot of creative ideas.


Preparation Steps
  • For teacher use:
    • Decide problems that need new solutions (examples: project problem statements, grading policies, management policies, etc)
    • Select brainstorming method(s) that will can help generate the most useful solutions
  • For student use:
    • Identify points in projects where brainstorming will be a useful activity
    • Design resources to help guide students through selected brainstorming activities.  See above.
Early Implementation Steps
  • For teacher use:
    • Implement selected strategies for brainstorming.
    • Follow up with more design steps.  See above for ideas.
  • For student use:
    • Scaffold activities aimed at brainstorming new ideas.
    • Follow-up with more design activities.  See hyperlinks above for ideas.
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • For teacher use (understanding students):
    • Share new brainstormed ideas with students and check to see if they if any of the ideas appear useful and feasible to them.
    • Used brainstormed solutions to develop better projects, strategies, policies, etc.
  • For student use (understanding stakeholders for project):
    • Have students reflect on brainstorming strategies – how did it work?  what assumptions were challenged? what new things were learned? what new ideas were inspired? how can this approach be used in other settings?



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