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Creative Power_Brainstorming // Wendy Lai


From a very young age, we were taught to use brainstorming as a tool for gathering ideas and thoughts— the more ideas we can pump out, the better. (image 1) It also came with conditions: no judgment, evaluation or criticism of team members because it made people self-conscious. This is a helpful tool in getting things started but too many ideas, especially bad ones, can impede real progress. The thing about brainstorming is that it gets you to a basic starting point and then leaves you with a cluttered mess. Imagine going through this process in a dynamic and complex situation.

The brainstorming process in group projects of the Design + Make Studio is a perfect example of a dynamic and complex situation. With real clients, (limited) building knowledge, site and budget constraints, strengths and weaknesses of each team player, and amongst other challenges, design intentions get lost along the process. As we work in teams and not as individuals, as in previous years, it is critical to foster group creativity and teamwork through not simple brainstorming, but also with constructive criticism and negative feedback.


Brainstorming, a term popularized by an advertising executive named Alex Osborn in the 1940’s, is a creative technique to promote a collective group effort in generating ideas in hopes that it would be more effective than individuals working alone. Osborn encouraged brainstorming without criticism because he thought that negativity scared people away. He instructed his employees to “defer judgment” and “go for quantity” (Lehrer, 2012). Sure, ideas poured out, but what about the quality of these thoughts? That is where Osborn’s notion of brainstorming is flawed. In the design world and especially in the Design + Make Studio, quality outweighs quantity. To tap into the maximum potential of this creative tool, group members must be critical in their consideration in order to make the best design decisions. Criticism acts as a sieve that filters out the nonsense and ensure a worthy end product.

Having been on several teams working on different projects, I have experienced brainstorming on many levels. Being thrown in a group at random, sometimes the results are excellent and sometimes they are lackluster depending on the dynamics and efforts of the bunch. Looking back on the reStart project, our team struggled through the design process due in large part to the brainstorming phase. Premature ideas were often passed off without any criticism or questioning as a group and these incomplete thoughts became the core ideas where we would base our final design proposal of from. As a result, these unchallenged ideas were adopted and turned into a mediocre design proposal. If we had challenged each other’s ideas more, there might have been a stronger and more reasonable design outcome. At the time, the project felt somehow lacking but the issue at hand was too obscure to understand. In retrospect, it is pretty clear that the lack of criticism or inefficient use of brainstorming within the team was a leading factor to a weak design.


A study in 2003 by a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, Charlan Nemeth, suggested that Osborn’s philosophy of censoring criticism during a brainstorm proved to be less effective than brainstorming with negative feedback. In this study she divided her class into teams and gave them all the same problem. She assigned a couple of teams with the standard brainstorming procedure that included the no-criticism ground rule. The other teams were encouraged to debate and criticize each other’s ideas. The results: the teams that were given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On the average, they generated about twenty percent more ideas. Furthermore, after the teams were disbanded, individuals were asked to give more ideas about the subject matter; the non-critical brainstormers produced an average of three additional ideas, whereas the debaters produced seven (Lehrer, 2012).


According to Nemeth, “dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints (Lehrer, 2012).” In other words, exposure to unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity. She believes that criticism allows people to dig below the surface of imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable. Such fruitful results came with the Alma City Park + Pool project. With the luck of the drawl, our team got along wonderfully and had productive brainstorming sessions. Ideas poured out with the help of extensive research. But most importantly, we pushed and challenged each other’s thoughts. We questioned every design move and used criticism to weed out weak ideas. Our project made it to the final round with intriguing reactions and results.


With countless hours of brainstorming sessions under my belt, Nemeth’s viewpoints are noteworthy and valuable because creative problem solving as a group is better than flying solo. But it is even more effective if we debate and criticize each other’s ideas in order to achieve a higher threshold of knowledge. As design issues become more advanced and complex, we need to realize the potential power of brainstorming to help lead us in the right direction.  

Written by Wendy Lai

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