Redesigning Wikipedia
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Brainstorming in Parallel

Fast Good Dirty

Many designers invariably fall into a pattern when confronted with higher-order design problems and a very brief timeframe—say, thirty minutes or less. One designer talks, then the others listen. Then, another designer responds or shares their own new idea, the other designers listen, and so on and so forth.

Meanwhile, the clock is still loudly ticking towards a deadline—and the most important actions happening are consensus management. This is not the fastest way to generate the largest number of ideas possible. Working for speed, as opposed to inclusion of multiple points of view in a roundtable-style discussion, requires throwing ordinary meeting etiquette out the window. Decorum can stop creative thinking in its tracks.

So if you're going to work really, really fast to get great ideas out into the open quickly, consider working in parallel as a team. Here's nine guidelines for how it can be done effectively.

1. Decide when you'll decide. Create a schedule, then stick to it. Stay honest. Long-form discussions will kill your momentum.

2. Know your working style. If necessary, work against it. We always default to what we have done or seen before first in a quick project, so if you gravitate towards a specific design style or creative direction, exhaust it quickly through your initial brainstorming and begin to explore areas outside your realm of comfort. Otherwise, you're not going to come up with ideas that feel fresh and new in execution—where they will establish their own life and spirit.

3. Always determine your concept box. You should be starting with a target, not a nebulous region of possible strategies and insights. If you can't articulate the key insight or question that you're trying to answer in one simple sentence, you're in big trouble when it comes to making your client happy.

4. Capture everything. If you have an idea, get it on paper—in both written and drawn form. And your idea doesn't have to be more than a scribble that indicates a direction at first. Without a paper record, it will likely vanish. This is the material you can return to if you find more time or need to reconcept material.

5. Bounce between reflection and action. Be willing to flip back and forth between these two modes to increase the creative friction in the room and not sink into pure reflection. Determine ways to get material out to the whole group for input, then send them off for more output. Have everyone write their ideas up onto a board without any crit or evaluation. Or ideate solo, then pin up your ideas and share them in a group meeting—all while recording what new ideas emerge from group reaction. Then rinse and repeat.

6. Boil up key themes fast. Think in outlines, then details as a far-off second output from your work. Sometimes these themes can lead to new brainstorms that are even tighter in focus or indicate how problems can be split into pieces that multiple designers can tackle.

7. Cull ruthlessly, but only when appropriate. Don't take time to analyze or edit until you're entirely overwhelmed with possible directions. At that point, choosing a few key themes or creative ideas should be relatively easy.

8. Know when to abandon a path. Be fearless about abandoning a direction (or multiple directions) if you're struggling to get an idea into a visual sketched form. If you're moving into a design execution and you're still not sure, it's probably not a strong enough idea to survive—and you've burned up precious time.

9. Give everyone a voice, but have a final say. Let everyone have a chance to note what their favored direction is, but always have one person (the boss of your boss) get to say what ideas from what the group has identified move to client review. Functioning as a democracy is easy when you're a very small team, but in larger organizations, try to get buy-in from your most senior lead to ensure that what's in sketch or rough layout form will survive to the client review with everyone's full attention.

Everything is a prototype—including these brainstorming ideas! Keep trying new ways of coming up with fresh ideas, continuing to prototype how you think about your process of ideation.


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