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Make Anything Better in an Hour: How to Run a Public Brainstorm

When was the last time you really looked at a bus stop? It's the sort of mundane, everyday object that usually gets overlooked—and that's...

When was the last time you really looked at a bus stop? It's the sort of mundane, everyday object that usually gets overlooked—and that's exactly why it's interesting to think about. There are unexplored opportunities for change, and making even a small change to a bus stop can be really impactful when multiplied all over the country.

Along with GOOD Chicago, Greater Good Studio recently helped facilitate a workshop that generated hundreds of new ideas to redesign the lowly bus stop into a commuter tool, not just a piece of urban furniture. The workshop followed a panel discussion with current experts in the field.

Whether you're redesigning a bus stop or any similar overlooked opportunity, here's a simple guide to facilitating your own public design brainstorm.

Framing Opportunities Through "How Might We" Statements

After a panel discussion introducing the topic, generate some "How Might We" statements that pose generative, open-ended questions to frame the brainstorm.

For example, How might we...

  • make switching between modes of travel (bus/bike/walk/taxi) easier with our new bus stop?
  • make our new bus stop work/feel differently during peak periods of use?
  • make better use of an information screen in every bus stop?
  • \n

Most people believe that a lack of constraints opens up the mind. In some cases, this is definitely true, but for this kind of focused activity we want our participants to have a clarity from questions such as where, when, and for whom is this concept for?

Brainstorm Warm-Up

The 30 circles exercise is simple. By transforming blank circles (in 60 seconds) into objects and symbols, one practices sketching quickly and crudely—vital skills in a brainstorm. The 30 circles was first developed Bob McKim at Stanford.

Public Brainstorm Rules

A lot has been said about rules for brainstorming, but here's a reduced set to get you started:

  • Sketch, then share (before you can talk about your idea, draw it first)
  • Build, don't judge (refrain from judging the feasibility of an idea—instead make your response a positive contribution that builds up)
  • Go for quantity (10 great ideas usually come only after 100 wacky ones—we need them all!)
  • \n

Running a Public Brainstorm

With your rules in hand, your visual vocabulary on call, and your "How Might We" statements at the ready, you're ready to sprint! Read out a statement and ask your participants to draw their ideas in response. Keep your group on this one "How Might We" for about seven to 10 minutes each.

From our experience, participants might respond to this sudden pressure to respond in a few ways, so I've given a couple of tips for you:

  • If an individual only contributes by talking—gently remind that individual to sketch, then share.
  • If an individual sits with Sharpie in hand, eyes wide with panic—ask prompting questions to this person (i.e. When was the last time they were in a situation like the one in question?). As soon as you hear something original, get them to draw what was just said.
  • If an individual dominates the group—gently remind that individual that others need to contribute too and then ask another participant in your group to speak up (look for the person with a stack of sketches piling up).
  • \n

Collect, Sort and Share

Finally, when all the ideas are in, get your group to vote for their favorites and have them share the three strongest ideas. I think you'll be surprised what everyone can come up with in such a short time.

Design can be used to help find new solutions for any problem. Find a problem, design a solution.

Image courtesy of Rei Wang

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