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Why Visual Trumps Verbal Brainstorming

Friday, November 25th, 2011


The ugly truth about brainstorming is that more often than not it leads to mediocre results. In fact, if you’ve been involved in brainstorming sessions, you’ve probably experienced more than your share of events in which few truly creative ideas were suggested.

There are several reasons why a brainstorming session might fail to generate great creative ideas:

Badly formulated challenge. Any proper brainstorming event starts with a creative challenge that is the focus for idea generation. Unfortunately, few people appreciate how important a well-formulated challenge is. They’d rather go right to the idea-generation part of the brainstorming. Unfortunately, if you get the challenge wrong, the best ideas in the world probably will not solve your problem.

Poor facilitation. Even trained facilitators, who do not understand Creative Problem Solving (CPS), are often unable to manage properly a brainstorming event.

Squelching. Criticizing ideas during the idea-generation phase of brainstorming ‘de-motivates’ everyone. It tells participants that wacky ideas will get you in trouble. The thing is: the wackiest ideas are the most creative. So, any squelching basically communicates to participants that creative ideas are not wanted. And participants oblige by suggesting uninspiring and predictable ideas.

Dominating personalities. If one person dominates the brainstorming session, his/her ideas inevitably become the focus and other participants’ ideas are pushed to the side. Unfortunately, this means that only one person is really doing any brainstorming—and that makes nonsense of bringing a brainstorming group together. Worse, dominating people are usually more interested in power than in discovering the best ideas.

Topic fixation. When someone suggests an obviously good idea in a brainstorming event, other people tend to focus on similar ideas. The result is that other avenues of possibility are ignored.

Too much noise. In a good brainstorming event, a lot of people are sharing ideas loudly. That means everyone has to listen to other ideas before sharing their own. The result is more time and energy is spent on listening and interpreting ideas, than on generating ideas. Worse, quiet or shy people tend to keep to themselves when brainstorming gets noisy—so you lose their ideas.

The bad news is that one any of these flaws can spoil a brainstorming event and lead to poor, unimaginative ideas. The good news is that non-verbal brainstorming—based on images, objects, actions or any combination of these—not only avoids almost all of the flaws listed above, but seems more reliably to result in better, more usable ideas.


Visual brainstorming is about collaboratively-generating ideas, without using the spoken or written word. You might use objects, which teams put together to solve problems. You might use arts and crafts materials, such as colored construction paper, tape, string, card, pens, and the like. You might use people to create improvisational role-plays.


Visual brainstorming need not be limited to physical objects, such as new products. You may also use it to brainstorm processes, services, and activities. All you need is a little imagination and the ability to visualize problems.

There is substantial room for creative thinking in the approach you take to visually-brainstorming a problem. And it is worth investing your time in devising a good approach. After all, a creative brainstorming approach is likely to motivate participants to be extra creative in their ideas.

The tools you use in visual brainstorming might include…

Children’s construction toys such as building blocks, Lego, etc.Dolls and action figures to represent people.String, wire, yarn to represent connectionsSatay sticks to represent directionsConstruction paperTapeModeling clayCupsBits of fabric, buttons and other sewing materialsPipe cleanersWire meshBoxes of various sizesToy cars

And anything else you can get your hands on. Children’s toys, in particular, can be useful as well as encourage creative thinking. Indeed, you would do well to spend some time in a toyshop when planning your visual brainstorming activity.


The first step of evaluating ideas from visual brainstorming is to have the team, or teams, present their models—or results in the case of role-play—to a wider audience. This should open discussion on the ideas, their viability, and their potential value. At this stage, the facilitator should encourage positive feedback. Instead of criticizing weaknesses, the audience should be encouraged to remark upon potential weaknesses and challenge the team to improve upon their ideas.

The next step is typically to put the results in a written report. At this stage, traditional idea evaluation approaches, such as criteria based evaluation matrices, SWOT analyses, business cases, and the like, may be applied.

Implementation of good ideas should be the result of any brainstorming activity. Surprisingly, many great ideas never reach the implementation stage. Don’t let that happen to your ideas! The Creative Idea Implementation Plan is a useful tool for planning idea implementation.


The author has seen considerable success with visual brainstorming, including..

Higher levels of participationMore divergence of thinking (i.e.: more creativity)More fun

That said, visual brainstorming requires a higher level of creativity in the planning stage, in terms of devising an effective approach and appropriate tools. Moreover, socially conservative business people may be reluctant to play with children’s toys and may need to be convinced of the value of the activity.

Your best approach would be to run some trail visual brainstorming events with friends, sympathetic colleagues, students, or other groups who can provide useful feedback.

Cover image (Business meeting) and top image (Discussion) from Shutterstock

This is a cross-post from Jeffrey Paul Baumgarner.

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of The Way of the Innovation Master and Report 103, creator of Jenni innovation process mgmt software, founder of & father of two great sons. Follow him on Twitter at @creativeJeffrey.

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The ugly truth about brainstorming is that more often than not it leads to mediocre results. In fact, if you’ve been involved in brainstorming sessions, you’ve probably experienced more than your share of events in which…