Design Thinking’s Exciting Third Phase: IDEATING

Discover ideation - the 3rd phase of design thinking, where teams puts their heads together to generate ideas through brainstorming, sketching, and more.

Ideation is the third phase of the Design Thinking process, and, as the name suggests, is all about generating ideas and solutions. It’s where the team puts their heads together to think, and churns out the ideas that will ultimately create the end product. The aim of an ideation session is to create a large number of ideas that the team can filter through and cut down to the best, most innovative, and practical solution. 

But ideating can take much more than just sitting in a room and throwing ideas around with the team. Creating a fruitful ideation session can be tough if you’re not well equipped. If you are well equipped, however, and are familiar with techniques such as BrainSketching, Brainwriting and The Worst Possible Idea, you can generate world-class ideas in no time at all. Now who doesn't want that?!

In this article, we’ll teach you some processes and guidelines which will help you facilitate and prepare for productive, effective, innovative, and fun ideation sessions. But first, let’s get the basics covered…

What is Design Thinking?  

Design thinking is a non-linear iterative process that teams employ to understand users and create strong products and services. This process challenges assumptions, redefines problems and creates innovative solutions to prototype and test. All in all it involves five phases— Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

The Design Thinking process is great for tackling problems that are hard to follow or unknown. This process helps the team to reframe the problem in a human centric way and create a product or service that feels intuitive for the end user.

However, if you’re interested in generating those ideas right now, then all you need to know is that ideating is where the idea generation portion of the process begins - and it's very exciting.

What is ideation?  

Ideation is the third stage in the design thinking process and promotes open thinking and risk taking in order to create strong and unique ideas.

Ideation is different to that of a typical idea planning session in that it allows independent thinking with collaboration. You see, in a typical idea planning sessions team members tend to get bogged down by listening to a superior's plan. Once they've heard so much from the superior, all their ideas are set in one direction and their individual strengths and creativity get lost. This leads to the team generating pet ideas that support one main idea and missing out on the strengths of each individual member which should be utilised.

It’s not about coming up with the ‘right’ idea, it’s about generating the broadest range of possibilities.” — Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford

Ideations instill the value that the first solution is not always the right solution - and that sometimes the best ideas come from combining multiple ideas and sharing different perspectives. Sometimes this happens through working alone, then together and then voting to create a democratic process that factors in each individual, other times it comes from moving around, asking the audience and collecting opinions.

Whatever the case, the most important component of ideation is that there is no judgement in the space and that everyone is striving to achieve the end goal as a team, not to win the right answer individually. In this space, team members are encouraged to push their ideas and imagination far and wide.

What does ideating help the team to achieve: 

  • Ask the right questions.
  • Think about solutions with a strong focus on the users and their needs. 
  • Increase their innovation potential. 
  • Work collaboratively in a more supportive environment.
  • Understand the strengths of each team member.
  • Generate a large quantity of varied ideas.
  • Save time.
  • Uncover unexpected areas of innovation. 

The best exercise for ideation:

So let's jump into our favorite way to ideate. There are many ways to go forward with generating ideas which we’ll cover below but first let’s start with our absolute favorite. We’ve found that defining our point of view and then rephrasing our problems to create active, unique solutions using the How Might We method has done wonders for us during this phase. Here’s how to get started: 

Define your point of view: 

First thing is first, you have to define your point of view. You can't create a strong product or service unless you've worked through who the user is, what their needs are and what you know about them. Draw out a diagram to generate these insights to fuel your brainstorm session. We've filled out the one below to give you an idea of how to generate these understanding.

A good rule of thumb is to generate your answers to each stage as so: [User . . . (descriptive)] needs [Need . . . (verb)] because [Insight . . . (compelling)]

Here's an example of how to fill out the diagram: 

Before you move forward make sure that your point of view: 

  • Is narrow enough to follow.
  • Frames the most important aspect for the user
  • Is valid, insightful, actionable, unique, narrow, meaningful, and exciting.

What is a How Might We? 

Now after you've worked through the core of your user and what their needs are you need to work out how to resolve the problems they might be facing. The best way to do this is to rephrase the problem as a How Might We...

‍This is where we take the problem and reword it so our challenge becomes a chance for positive thinking and generating ideas that can not only fix the problem but take the product or service that much further.

How to generate How Might We statements:

  1. Begin with your point of view on the problem you are facing. This could be something like “Catering is too expensive for the events” 
  2. Rephrase the problem into a How Might We…
  3. “How Might costs on catering for our events”
  4. Then ask the team to brainstorm on ways to resolve the problem
  5. Active solutions could be things like “By asking the participants to do a potluck”, “By finding a new catering company”, “By having a company cooking day”, “By not catering the event at all and implementing a lunch hour” 
  6. This way you can get so many positive solutions and really open up the possibilities. 

After you've done this you should have tons of ideas flowing and be collecting lots of ways to turn your challenge into something that can be incredibly beneficial.

Interested in other ways of ideating? Try these: 


Brainstorming means to talk openly with the group and work off the synergy that has been created. The brainstorming technique works by taking each other's ideas and building off of them to create a final idea. This works well in an environment with trust where participants feel they can speak freely without being judged. 


This is very similar to brainstorming - but rather than talking freely with the team the braindump is done by participants writing on post-it notes individually and then sharing with the team.  


Brainwriting overlaps with brain dumping but participants here should write down their ideas on paper for a set amount of time (we suggest 3 minutes) and then pass their sheet one space to the left to their team member. This team member then elaborates on the other participants' ideas. After a few minutes more the participants pass their papers around again and this continues until a full circle has been made. 


Brainwalking utilises movement to spark creativity. Rather than passing a paper around a circle - participants walk around the room to different ideation stations where they then elaborate on other participants' ideas. 


Analogies can be a wonderful ideation technique as they bring a better understanding forward through drawing parallels. By comparing what you are trying to solve for with different objects and scenarios - you can generate out-of-the-box ideas based on understanding the topic in different ways. For example drawing a comparison between a heart and a pump. 

Creative Pause 

This one is great if you feel that you have built up a negative thought process around the product or service or feel stuck in a one-track thought. Pausing mindfully and taking a break from the traps you might have laid out for yourself can do wonders for sparking better ideas. 


Crowdstorming means turning to the audience to spark ideas and evaluate the ones that you have come up with. By using surveys, reviews and social media, crowdstorming gives you a good basis of what to build your ideas on. While sometimes this falls short of bringing the absolute best idea forward, it can do excellent things for insight. 


Cheatstorming is a great way to see what competitors are up to. Unlike most other methods mentioned cheatstorming doesn’t rely on churning out ideas from scratch but looking at what others are doing and leveraging those ideas. Cheatstorming can be thought of as cognitive sustainability - reusing what has come before. 


This is a technique where participants act out the role of the user. Embodying the user in the scenario the team is trying to solve for can generate insight and spark ideas that can lead to a stronger product or service. Feeling physically involved rather than theorising the problems can have a great beneficial effect. 


Yep, that’s right - prototyping itself can be a great ideation technique. When you begin building, ideas come to you naturally. 

Learn more about facilitation and workshopping in our FREE FACILITATION COMMUNITY

Before going forward with Ideating remember to:

Set the mission:

Whenever you embark on a new process or strategy it's important to set a mission. This will help to align the team and make sure that every participant knows what is expected of them. The mission for a great ideation session is to focus on imagination and to push this far and wide. Strong ideation sessions come from team members taking risk, using their imagination and seeing the possibilities as limitless. In order for this to happen three points must be completely understood throughout the team. 

  1. The space is judgement free - We want to fuel creativity and imagination, that means that there will be some out-of-the-box ideas. The team should support all thoughts and encourage participants to share. Embarrassment has no place in a great ideation session.
  2. Quantity is more important than quality - Throw perfectionism out of the window. The aim is to put a lot of ideas on the table. Opt for 20 bad ideas over 2 good ones.
  3. The outcome is always a team win - There is no individual winner in an ideation session, the end result that the team goes with is a win for everyone. The focus shouldn't be to come up with the idea that the team chooses but more to dump all of the ideas you have on the table and see where that leads.

These points are fundamental to the success of an ideation workshop. If team members feel that they can’t think freely for fear of being judged then your session won’t be enjoyable and you’ll only reap half of the benefits. Ideation sessions should be a space to let your imagination run wild, the aim should be to produce tons of ideas rather than hit the nail on the head or “win” the best idea. 

“You can’t have a good brainstorm without setting it up right—having everyone feeling safe and heard. A key element is trust, consistent with IDEO’s culture of trust. Bullies and blowhards are not tolerated.” -  Peter Macdonald, design lead at IDEO.  

Create the right environment: 

For a good, productive ideation session the atmosphere in the room needs to be right. Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding where to set up: 

  • Lots of natural light, if possible!
  • Big whiteboards (or empty walls for magic paper)
  • Distraction-free atmosphere (aka no laptops, or colleagues interrupting your meeting!)
  • Spacious (but not too large that participants have to raise their voice to be heard)
  • Close to facilities for bathroom and coffee breaks

The right type of environment is really at the crux of a good session. Instead of using a boardroom with someone sitting at the head of the table taking the lead - create a space where everyone can feel equal and comfortable. Offer snacks, water and create a calm atmosphere that will allow the participants to do their best work. Creating can be hard if there is an anxious feeling in the room. The ideal room must have sufficient space for the participants to feel comfortable, but not so big that participants can’t communicate easily. These tips may seem small, but don't underestimate what a comfortable space can do for some brain power! 

Get into the right headspace: 

If you’re used to working independently this step is especially important. It can be difficult for those who are used to focusing on just applying their own thoughts to an end goal to jump into collaborative working. Spend a few minutes getting acclimated. Some icebreaker techniques for this are: 

  • Sound Ball - This one is great for clearing out some of the shyness and helping the team feel comfortable around each other. It’s also based on creating different sounds which helps to get that imagination flowing.
  • Knife, Baby and Angry Cat - This exercise is great to build focus while also easing any nervousness.
  • 30 Circles - A wonderful exercise that also helps the team to use their imagination and step out of their comfort zone. 

Set time constraints: 

Brainstorming sessions can run out of steam pretty quickly if the time constraints are not set to keep the conversation flowing. Your session shouldn’t go on tangents and shouldn’t feel stunted. We find that setting 15-20 minutes for each topic you need to cover works well, depending on how many you need to get through. 

PRO TIP: Use a Time Timer so everyone can see the time and has a visual indicator. This will save time and ease any anxiety as all participants will fill in the loop and you won’t have to keep announcing the time. 

During the ideation session: 

Implement the “always say yes” improvisation technique:

Some of the best ideas come from building off of other ideas. The general consensus is that generating lots of ideas creates space to inspire even better, more out-of-the-box ideas.

Stay with us here - sometimes an interesting idea is put forward, but it’s still not quite right and needs tweaking. If you don’t follow the idea until the end you might be missing out on some ideation GOLD. So adopt the improvisation technique of saying “Yes, and…”. Implementing this can do wonders for encouraging participants to build on their thoughts and take their ideas in lots of wonderful directions. This helps to put a positive spin on the contribution and encourages others to feel confident with their ideas. 

Stop the tangents:

With all of the excitement of ideating, it can be easy to head off into multiple tangents about saving ideas and benefiting other areas of work with x, y and z. While it is great that excitement can build, staying on topic is crucial. It’s important for the facilitator to gently guide the participants back to the topic at hand. We find that noting tangential ideas on a whiteboard can help ease the team as they feel their points won't be forgotten, a great method to follow is The Parking Lot method. With their mind clear of distractions they can focus on the topic at hand. 

Concentrate the ideas: 

Brainstorming works best when it is visual. Encourage sketching and condensing information into short headlines to keep track of everyone's thoughts. Long text that rambles on should be avoided. You want to keep everything as simple and clear as possible so everyone can follow each idea. If teammates are talking, grab a Sharpie and jot down their thoughts in a more concise manner. 

Please note that all ideas should be shared one at a time. This allows the scribe to write them, or the participant to be heard as they post their idea to the board.

After ideating: 

Narrow down the ideas:

If the brainstorm has gone well then you should have TONS of ideas. You should have a mix of some practical, easy, difficult and some verging on absolute surrealism. It can be tempting to remove all the ideas that seem too far fetched but DON’T go with your instinct to scrap the out-there ideas. Really out-of-the-box ideas are sometimes the ones verging on genius. 

Try giving your team different coloured voting dots so they can vote according to different categories. You can try labelling each colour to signify a category, for example these could be: the lowest hanging fruit, what you think would bring you closest to a realistic place and the idea that excites you the most.

Join our FREE community and get answers to your questions about facilitation and workshops

Characteristics needed for strong ideation: 

Anyone can create a strong ideation session but having the below characteristics will really set you much further ahead and get you to those golden ideas. 

  • Adapting - Being able to tune into what the tasks needs of you and getting the hang of new tasks quickly.
  • Connecting - Being able to connect themes and ideas to generate more that will add to the bigger picture. 
  • Disrupting - Being able to think through commonly held beliefs and assumptions to find deeper meanings and answers. 
  • Flipping - Turning dead-ends into positive outcomes (HMW is GREAT for this)
  • Creating - Being able to think far and wide and not feel hindered by what is considered realistic. 
  • Experimenting - Be willing and eager to test out the ideas that you are generating. 
  • Trusting - Being able to share the ideas in an environment where you can trust those who surround you.
  • Curiosity - Understanding that there is no such thing as a bad question and asking many questions to gain more knowledge and insight. 
  • Supporting - Encouraging team members to take risks, being a supportive member of the team. 

We're so glad you followed us to the end of how to ACE an ideation session - but don’t just stop there - there’s so much more that can help get those creative juices flowing. Try multiple ways of ideating to find out what fits your team best and let us know how you get on down below! 


Content Creator for AJ&Smart