Unlocking ideas: 6 frameworks for design brainstorming

Find out the most effective ways to easily ideate fresh concepts in your design team.

readymag blog_6 frameworks for effective brainstorming

Working out brisk, innovative ideas is essential for staying ahead of the design game. But where do these miraculous concepts come from? Contrary to popular delusions, they don't simply emerge out of thin air due to a designer’s inherited talents or vast experience. Instead, they’re elaborated through a systematic approach to team thinking and thoughtful tweaks to existing ideas—in other words, controlled brainstorming. Yes, brainstorming works miracles only when correctly set, moderated and time-framed.

Read on to learn 6 time-proven and practical frameworks that will wake up your innovative spirit and help every member bring their unique perspective to the table.

Before you begin to brainstorm

Brainstorming is a team activity to generate a massive amount of ideas within a short period of time, then filtrate them and elaborate on the most practical ones. The entire process builds up around strict frameworks aimed at getting people unstuck, improving collaboration, sparkling enthusiasm and accessing the collective creativity.

While unlocking ideas in groups, everyone should:

  • Keep in mind the brainstorming goals and the distinct problem that requires solutions throughout the session.
  • Strictly follow the timing. More time to think is better, right? Not in this case. Every brainstorming session must have specific timing to keep the activity dynamic, spark concentration and avoid group members going off on tangents.
  • Stop filtering their thoughts and toss in even seemingly unrealistic solutions.
  • Continue with ideas that others generate and refrain from criticizing.
  • Note critical results on the spot and finalize them immediately. After the session is finished, outcomes might get lost or misinterpreted. Make sure you write up every important item in a structured document for the future.

How to ideate effectively

Lucrative brainstorming never comes as a given—it’s a skill you can master through practice. Check the methods and tips below to train your creativity or simply jump into team ideation on the spot.

Walt Disney’s method

Equipment: One whiteboard, three packs of sticky notes of different colours and L, M and S sizes, pencils for each member, a timer.

For his own creative processes, Walt Disney used to separate thinking flows by dividing himself into three personalities—The Dreamer, the Realist and The Critic—then trying them on one by one. Some 30 years later, American leadership consultant Robert Dilts analyzed and reinvented this approach to fit almost every ideation process.

  1. Try on the Dreamer role first. The Dreamer fictionalizes ideas without restraints and tries to imagine everything is possible. At this point, you and your team write down as many crazy and wild ideas as possible: you can describe them, draw them or even sing them! Put the representations of these ideas on the board using the largest sticky notes.
  2. Then, switch into the role of the Realist. The Realist sorts out the most viable options and connects them to the real world through practical solutions. Your task now is to outline all the resources required to fulfil the idea, be they money, people, time or technology. Attach the solutions on medium stickers above the corresponding ideas, then get rid of the concepts you can’t find real-world matches for.
  3. Finally, introduce the Critic, who evaluates realistic solutions for stumbling blocks, risks and possible negative outcomes. Now your team can criticize the ideas following the all-important rule: criticize, but explain and suggest options. Write these ideas on the smallest stickers and add them above the solution ones.
  4. Discuss the winning ideas together.

6-3-5 Technique

Equipment: A piece of paper and pencil for each team member, a timer.

This simple framework allows for individual brainstorming before a group activity, which is great for profound thinkers and introverts. What’s more, it forces everyone to take time before shouting or defending their ideas and minimizes the anxiety of evaluation.

  1. Divide your team into groups of six people.
  2. Each person writes down three ideas on a sheet of paper and passes their concepts to the person on the left or right.
  3. The next person then develops the suggested ideas further. Repeat this process five times by passing the papers around the circle.
  4. In the end, you’ll have a multi-dimensional view of all the ideas. Finish by gathering the entire team to sort the ideas and speak their minds.


Equipment: three whiteboards and a marker for each team member.

Mash-up is all about mixing seemingly unmixable ideas to create a breakthrough. Start by grabbing this great spreadsheet from IDEO to make the process as simple as ABC.

  1. To start, identify a problem you want to solve and write it down. Once it’s clear, come up with two unrelated concepts: one that deals with your problem directly and one that’s only slightly related to the main one. For instance: a good festival poster and a car design. Write each category at the top of the board.
  2. Ask your team to devise as many experiences, attributes or features of both concepts as possible. Jot them down on a corresponding board.
  3. Now it’s time for the mash-up. Try to connect things from the first board with the things from the second board. It might give you some totally unexpected ideas and will surely spark your imagination.

Silent storm

Equipment: A pack of XXL sticky notes, pencils and a timer.

Ever wanted to solve all of your puzzles in one shot? The silent storm technique is perfect for such occasions. It helps in avoiding boredom, repetition and needless social encounters.

  1. Gather a team in one room and ask every member to write one open-ended question about their current task on a sticky note and place it somewhere in the room.
  2. Let the team silently walk around the room for a specified period of time and write their own ideas under someone else’s notes.
  3. When the storm is finished, each colleague will have a bunch of ideas about their issue and can revise them on their own.

Duel framework

Equipment: A pack of A4 paper and pencils for each member, a timer.

As you can easily see from the name, this brainstorming variation involves two opponents (or, rather, co-workers) who won’t just criticize each other's ideas but will also build on them.

  1. Define the question for the session and ask everyone to pair off. Then set a   timer for an hour or two and let everyone work in pairs on the solutions.      Usually, it’s more comfortable to think together with someone you know or even like because you can strengthen each other’s ideas and give detailed person-to-person feedback.
  2. Then, each pair presents their best ideas to each other and decides which concept makes it to the final stage and who is going to share it.
  3. Ultimately, each pair delivers one idea before the entire team, and then everyone will share remarks, discussions and evaluations.

Step-by-step ideation

Equipment: nothing special, just a timer and a spare room.

This framework takes more time than the ones described above, but it helps avoid the most common brainstorming problem—when every other idea is heavily influenced by what the group has already heard during the session. Keep in mind that this step-by-step technique works well only in small groups of up to 10 people.

  1. Introduce your team to the problem and the topic. Then, ask everyone to leave the room and two people to walk back in.
  2. The resulting pair generates a few concepts and tells the others when they’re  ready. Then, they let one more person in.
  3. Before the first two share their ideas, the newcomer has to present theirs first. Then, all three discuss the matter as a group.
  4. After that, the process repeats: team members come in one by one, share their ideas and mull them over. Once everyone is in the room, it’s time to come up with the final solution or several intermediate solutions.