Top 5 Techniques for Ideation

Alex Barton

Category: Creative


Ideation demands the highest percentage of the designer’s process. Rarely do we simply hop on the computer and crank out a successful combination of type and image. If you see us do this at work, it’s not because the idea spontaneously appeared: it’s because we’ve spent the whole night and morning thinking about the challenge. You’ll find spontaneity rarely contributes to ideation and tangible media plays a key role in refinement. Here are my top five tips, in no particular order, for facilitating creativity.

A quick aside: my definition of creativity is based on the variables of adaptation and diversity, not artistic skill. And that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.


Not all sketches are meant to be illustrative and pristine; the ugliest sketches can be the most helpful. Try drawing a hundred thumbnails, or bite-sized sketches, and you will discover something you hadn’t thought of before. That could be as complex as aesthetic similarities of two assignment components or as simple a new way to illustrate the letter “g.”


Hopefully at some initial point you will discuss your design intentions with your team. Vocalizing your thoughts helps create concise definitions for your assignments which emphasize essential imagery.

Do not neglect the opinions of non-designers. While they may not communicate their opinions with the same diction as a designer, they represent the wider pool of the consumers of your work, or the average viewer.


Before you even put pencil to paper, begin by thinking of design that’s personally affected you before. What graphics have caught your eye on social media? What emails do you actually save? What websites have you messaged to your friends? Why do you buy one brand of water over the next? Think on questions such as these and you may find an answer to your current design dilemma.


Do not expect to come up with fantastic ideas solely on your own. It takes a diverse point of view to create something unique. Pick up some literature and gain insight into others’ observations. I find literature the most inspirational; books on design often too forcefully assert an opinion or show their age when it comes to digital mediums. Literature leaves room for interpretation through questions of the author’s intent. You’ll be asking similar questions when it comes to designing for clients.  

Aside: a knowledge of history is essential, so don’t neglect every design book, but don’t follow them as strict guides either.


Don’t expect the person preparing the copy to do all the writing. A firm grasp on the basics of written communication is a useful skill for designers as well. If you don’t fully understand the assignment, write down your questions immediately after you finish reading and try paraphrasing the main ideas in your own vernacular. For reasons similar to discussion, you’ll think of solutions in your own language more easily. I particularly like word trees. Start by writing the keywords of the assignment and create “branches” of synonyms and thematic associations. The linear procession can help break unproductive cycles of rumination.

Bonus: Document

Documenting every step of the process can come in handy. Not only will your client most likely expect multiple iterations of their product, but it also gives you a basis of comparison for your prefered design choices. Always find time to duplicate your artboard in Illustrator.

Aside: This principle also applies to time outside of work. Try to keep a camera on you in case beautiful type or the backdrop for your next website appears.

There’s no universal method for creating ideas. If it works for you, it works, but it’s important to understand that the idea and the design are rarely born during the same moment. Thinking this way only creates unreasonable standards that stunt motivation. And when the spark of an idea does come about it’s best to refine with your hands, whether that’s in the language of words or images. Only when the stereotypes of creative spontaneity dissolve, may design flourish and ideas flow.

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