Designing for the Web

Chapter 9


Ideas. They're at the heart of every creative process.

Ideas. They're at the heart of every creative process. However, almost no really good ideas are flashes of inspiration. They may start that way ‘a single glimmer of something special’ but in order to work, they need to be honed.

They need time spent on them. You see, the ‘flash of inspiration’ idea, (the Eureka moment), is only part of a longer process that, if ignored, will see most ideas simply fizzle out. So, how do you 'have' ideas? Sit about and wait for them to pop into your head? If only most of us had the luxury to do so. No, for most designers, ideas have to be squeezed out of us every day. To stand up to this challenge, designers need to arm themselves with some good tools.

Creative Thinking

When I receive a brief, along with research, I try and formulate an Idea Brief, (if I haven't received one already). As discussed earlier, an Idea Brief is a sentence, or two, that will sum up the project and frame it as a problem statement. Something like:

“We need to redesign our News service to appeal to a more global audience”


“How do we engage an older audience for our social networking product?”

This simple sentence is the question you are trying to answer and should be referred to throughout the process of having ideas. I start out the ideas process on my own, with my sketchbook. I take myself away from my every–day working environment to somewhere with a comfy chair and an endless supply of tea (yes, a teashop). I generally sit there for a while staring into space. Most of the time, nothing happens until I start doodling. As I start making those initial marks, then more will follow and I'll start taking notes. The key here is to move from one idea to another quickly. If you think something works – and you will get these ideas where you think ‘that's it, I've solved it’ – then park it, and move on to the next.


Inspiration is a completely subjective thing: One person's junk, maybe another person's pet project. Coupled with insights, inspiration is the other half of generating ideas. You can get inspiration from all sorts of places. Many people find music inspiring for example, or a long walk by the beach. Pieces of inspiration are like the springboards of insights of idea briefs: they send you off in directions that haven't yet been explored. I tend to find inspiration in a lot of things. Actually, I've got a confession to make, I'm a terrible hoarder of all sorts of printed stuff. Wherever I go, I always seem to come home with a newspaper, a flyer or two or some photographs of some signage or typography I've seen. My wife has asked on several occassions why I need all this stuff. ‘You only end up putting it on a shelf and never looking at it again’. Probably true, but it's not the ‘thing’ that I'm interested in – it's what's on it. That gets looked at, the inspiration that that gives generally springboards my imagination off somewhere else – they're useful objects. At @media 2007, a web conference in London, Jon Hicks, (of Hicksdesign), gave a presentation on ‘How to be a Creative Sponge’. It was a lighthearted look at how designers can gain, catalogue and store inspiration from all sorts of sources. One in particular stood out for me – it turns out I'm not the only one who has a taste for flyers. Jon described the flyer stands you find in theatres, cinemas and information centres as an 'all you can eat buffet' of inspiration. Next time you're out, just have a look over one of these stands. See if there is any visual style you can draw inspiration from in one of your designs.

Inspiration can come from many sources

  • Mass culture
  • Pop culture
  • World culture or heritage
  • Poetry
  • Colours
  • Symbols
  • Metaphors
  • Values
  • Dreams
  • Television
  • Music
  • Art
  • History
  • Analogies
  • Sounds
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Myths
  • Legends

Structured Ideas

As I said earlier, it's not enough to rely on those sparks of inspiration for ideas. Most of the time, they have to be worked at. Luckily we have one good tool to help us with that: Brainstorming, or Ideas Sessions as I like to call them.

Ideas Sessions

Ideas Sessions are group activities that take place with key members of the project team. This is important. In order for the ideas to be taken seriously, they need buy–in from the people who matter, namely the CEO, or Marketing Director. Without that internal buy–in on the client side, an idea, no–matter how great, will almost always fail. Another important member of an ideas session is the facilitator. They should be trained in creative facilitation and are there to coax and squeeze the best ideas the team has to offer.

A typical running order of an ideas session would be:

Attendees – get them to bring a random object

Reveal the brief – the aim of the day

The rules of brainstorming

First Burst


The Four R's

Eg. Related World

  1. TV show of cooking – a related world to gardening
  2. List points on a flipchart
  3. Use those points to come up with ideas, E.g. Get celebrity chefs to write articles on the new gardening website

Passionometer, (a fancy name for some stickers). Use stickers – 1 for not so good, 3 for great. It doesn't matter it it's not on brief – the important thing is how people feel about it.

The first thing to do once you've established the rules of an ideas session and discussed the brief, is to have a First Burst. A first burst aims to get those really obvious, preconceived ideas out and on paper before moving on. Everyone will come to an ideas session with some pre–conceived ideas of how the project should look. Generally, they are the most obvious ideas and they will have been worked out in some detail. More often than not, they are the safest, less–risky ideas.
Once that is out of the way, and the ideas have been recorded, it's the facilitator's job to begin coaxing the ideas out of the attendees by using stimulus. The Four R's, (which I'll come to), is a very useful tool in steering ideas generation without a session becoming stuck down a certain line of thinking.
The facilitator will use the Idea Brief and insights gathered during the Research Phase as springboards to send the attendees into other areas of thought.
The facilitator will record all the ideas on a single sheet of paper. After the session is finished, the facilitator will go through all of the ideas one by one and the group will rate them by the Passionometer. One sticker for ‘not feeling it’, and three for ‘wow, this is great’. The most highly rated ideas are shortlisted and then enter the next phase of development.

The Rules of Brainstorming

  • The Rules of Brainstorming
  • All ideas are equal
  • We're here to have lots of ideas
  • No Judging
  • Analyse the ideas later
  • Everyone's equal (no pulling rank)
  • Have fun
  • Keep to time
  • One idea at a time

The Four R's

I mentioned the Four R's as a tool for generating ideas. A facilitator uses them in an ideas session to move the attendees from one idea to the next so they don't begin to analyse or judge previous ideas, or become stale. The Four R's are:

  • Revolution:

    Revolution is turning an idea on its head. Taking assumptions and reversing or removing them. E.g. A pub has four walls and a roof. What if it didn't have walls, but still had a roof?

  • Re–Expression:

    Re–express the idea in a different way or point of view. E.g. What if you were five years old and your parents were buying a booster seat for you. What makes a cool booster seat in your eyes?

  • Think of a related world and use ideas from that world. E.g. Cooking and Gardening. What elements of gardening could be used to sell more recipe books?

  • Random Links:

    Forcing a connection with a random object. E.g. A social networking website and a cactus. Random links often generate ideas which are off brief, but that doesn't matter. Sometimes, the most truly innovative ideas can come with random links. I'm sure Citroén designers were using Random Links when they decided to make the 2CV look like a snail.

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