Ideation: Magic by Design

Ideation holds a somewhat mysterious “black arts” place in the product development lexicon. Once the door closes on what was a well-kept conference room later opens to reveal a blizzard of scribbled notes and easel sheets peppering walls, tables, floors and ceilings (yes, really!). It’s easy to assume that all the magic actually occurred during that relatively short time span, thereby leading to the perception of superhuman powers of creativity at work.

While some of that may be true, the “magic” is mostly the result of a well-considered process, meticulous preparation and experienced hands keeping the action headed in a direction aligned with project objectives.159

Ideation, as is the case with innovation, has many definitions but at its core it is a process of generating, developing and communicating new ideas. What is much less in doubt is that ideation forms the backbone of the design and innovation process.

Practitioners ranging from focused ideation/innovation experts to large product-development firms imbue ideation with their own wrinkles to create a proprietary aspect to the process. But the essence remains as a generative process to help solve problems, “disrupt” the current climate with revolutionary ideas and anything in between.

“How do they do that?”  

Ideation with little connection to what comes before and what follows likely will not realize its full potential. And since we are all in the business of business, there are objectives to meet at the far end of the process.

The notion of an “electric” ideation session – and they can be just that – that is flush with ideas without some level of immersion into the context of the challenge, the product and end-user is certainly romantic, but rarely realized. The level to which the process reaches depends on allocated time and budget. But typically ideation includes audits of the market, the aisle, or other environments where the product is made, sold and used.


While the term audit sounds like a rigid and straight-forward gathering of data, an audit also should reflect the perspective of those on the team – designers, researchers and marketers who would be sensitive to anomalies and opportunities. Not to be ignored are audits, interviews or observations of others within a product’s “Community of Interest” – that is those whose actions will impact the product in some way, such as in production and distribution, and those who will be impacted by the product, such as the purchaser and the end-user.

The Chrysalis

At this point a team would have the proper foundation to construct a basic hypothesis rendered through words, images or simple sketches. These would serve as stimuli in some form of consumer/end-user interaction, such as one-on-one inter-views or small focus groups perhaps coupled with shop-alongs or other similar activities. Interview verbatims or summations, video, audio and team insights derived from these efforts form the fertile ground for ideation.

Now that the stage is set, it’s time to prepare the actors. Up to this point client activity has been largely passive – providing background, downloading relevant prior research, reviewing stimuli, helping gain access to people and places – but a successful session depends on active involvement and contributions from all. To help bring previous activities into focus, all may be tasked with specific responsibilities.

Some may be asked to develop a brand “collage” consisting of whatever words, pictures or drawings best describe the participant’s emotions and perceptions around the challenge or the brand. Others can set out on activities to help focus conscious and subconscious thought. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination and experience of the ideation leader and research designers.

But are there guarantees? There are none, other than that a well-designed process and ably run session will generate ideas – lots of them. While there is no session script per se, there does need to be structure and a guiding hand to keep a level of directional control. The leader needs to be open to excursions off the mainline but facile enough to shunt some ideas off to mid- or long-term tracks while pushing the team to reach further with others.

Merlin Had an Assistant

A bit of magic and a bit of mystery? That perception will live on, but behind the curtain is where successful ideation is defined and realized. A well-designed and well-run ideation process invariably produces potential solutions much further down the continuum toward real, manufacturable products and market success.

Ideation to Innovation: Scotts Miracle-Gro Gro-Ables story here…

Frank von Holzhausen
Co-founder/Chief Design Officer

Learn more here about Ideation and working with Forge Design & Engineering