Jeffrey Baumgartner building an idea with building blocks

Visual Brainstorming

Non-Verbal Idea Building

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Brainstorming verbally frequently does not work. Visual brainstorming , that is brainstorming with images, objects and actions frequently works spectacularly well.

Why Verbal Brainstorming Fails

The ugly truth about brainstorming is that more often than not it leads to mediocre results. In fact, if you've been involved in brainstorming sessions, you've probably experienced more than your share of events in which few truly creative ideas were suggested.

There are several reasons why a brainstorming session might fail to generate great creative ideas.

  1. Badly formulated challenge. Any proper brainstorming event starts with a creative challenge that is the focus for idea generation. Unfortunately, few people appreciate how important a well formulated challenge is. They'd rather go right to the idea generation part of the brainstorming. Unfortunately, if you get the challenge wrong, the best ideas in the world probably will not solve your problem.

  2. Poor facilitation. Even trained facilitators who do not understand creative problem solving (CPS) are often unable to manage properly a brainstorming event.

  3. Dominating personalities. If one person dominates the brainstorming session, her ideas inevitably become the focus and other participants' ideas are pushed to the side. Unfortunately, this means that only one person is really doing any brainstorming - and that makes nonsense of bringing a brainstorming group together. Worse, dominating people are usually more interested in power than in discovering the best ideas.

  4. Topic fixation. When someone suggests an obviously good idea in a brainstorming event, other people tend to focus on similar ideas. The result is that other avenues of possibility are ignored.

  5. Too much noise. In a good brainstorming event, a lot of people are sharing ideas loudly. That means everyone has to listen to other ideas before sharing their own. The result is more time and energy is spent on listening and interpreting than ideas than on generating ideas. Worse, quiet or shy people tend to keep to themselves when brainstorming gets noisy - so you lose their ideas.

The bad news is that one any of these flaws can spoil a brainstorming event and lead to poor, unimaginative ideas. The good news is that non-verbal brainstorming -- based on images, objects, actions or any combination of these -- not only avoids almost all of the flaws listed above, but seems more reliably to result in better, more usable ideas.

Visual Brainstorming

Visual brainstorming is about collaboratively generating ideas without using the spoken or written word. You might use objects which teams put together to solve problems. You might use arts and crafts materials such as coloured construction paper, tape, string, card, pens and the like. You might use people to create improvisational role plays.

Short video on non-verbal idea building.

An Example

Let's imagine your company manufactures farm machinery. You want to brainstorm new product improvement ideas for your best selling tractors. Rather than running a brainstorming session where people shout out ideas or write ideas on post-it's and stick them to the wall, you set up a visual brainstorming activity.

The first step, of course, is to frame the creative challenge, for example: "What new features might we add to our Super Bull Tractors?" This done, you bring together a diverse group of a dozen people from various divisions in the company as well as a few typical customers. You provide them with a huge pile of Lego building bricks and have them work together to build a model tractor with their new feature ideas. Instead of shouting out ideas, the team works together to build a tractor out of Lego. As with verbal brainstorming, each member should be encouraged to participate and try out new ideas. Likewise, criticism must be forbidden. Talking, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable. But, bear in mind that ideas must be implemented in the Lego model and not simply vocalised.

The tractor that the team builds will probably look nothing like the company's existing tractors. But it will probably be bursting with ideas. (Note: actually, in the author's experience, the team will probably break off into sub-teams each building their own tractors - but that's okay. Indeed, if the initial team is large the facilitator should separate it into multiple diverse teams anyway).

Once the model is completed, speaking is allowed. The team presents its ideas, explains the features and, where relevant, the logic behind those features. Finally, all of the ideas together with images of the Lego tractor are compiled into a report -- unless the company's management is open minded enough to accept a Lego model in lieu of a report!

The advantages to visual brainstorming in the example given include..

  • There are fewer distractions. No one needs to wait for someone else to speak. Everyone can focus on building.

  • No one can sit quietly in the background. unlike in a verbal brainstorming event where quiet people hide behind the noise, in a visual brainstorming event, it is obvious who is participating and who is not.

  • It is harder for anyone to dominate when everyone is building bits and pieces. People who attempt to dominate vocally will be unable to keep pace with the visual development of the ideas and so, will actually, provide less involvement with the end result.

  • In the author's experience, there is far less squelching in visual brainstorming. Probably this is because visual brainstorming is fun, requires a high level of personal concentration and people find it harder to criticise visual ideas than verbal ideas.

Various Approaches

Visual brainstorming need not be limited to physical objects such as new products. You may also use it to brainstorm processes, services and activities. All you need is a little imagination and the ability to visualise problems. Here are a few examples.

  • A software company wants to speed up the process by which new features are specified, approved and implemented.

    A collection of small dolls, building blocks and satay sticks allow brainstormers to simulate people, places, tools and workflow. The dolls, of course, represent people. The building blocks can be made to represent computers, buildings and other structures. The satay sticks can show workflow direction. Thus, the team can build a model of the current process and modify it to improve efficiency. Alternatively, they might tear the entire model apart and start from scratch.

  • A multinational wants to improve internal communications.

    Lego can be used to create representations of divisions, communications methods and the strength of communications. Alternatively, construction paper, tape and small crafts tools can be used to build representations of divisions and string can be used to show the path of communications. As with the above example, the brainstormers can modify the existing model to improve it - or start from scratch and build a better system.

  • A retail chain wishes to attract younger customers to its shops.

    Role-play is probably the way to go. Have the brainstormers break up into teams, where one team represents target customers. The other represents the company. Design a number of improvisational role plays where the customers interact with the company. Discuss the results, how they can be improved and role play again. You will probably need to do this several times. Although this approach is verbal, it also focuses uses movement, gesture and more.

Clearly, there is substantial room for creative thinking in the approach you take to visually brainstorming a problem. And it is worth investing your time in devising a good approach. After all, a creative brainstorming approach is likely to motivate participants to be extra creative in their ideas.

The tools you use in visual brainstorming might include...

  • Children's construction toys such as building blocks, Lego, etc.
  • Dolls and action figures to represent people.
  • String, wire, yarn to represent connections
  • Satay sticks to represent directions
  • Construction paper
  • Tape
  • Modeling clay
  • Cups
  • Bits of fabric, buttons and other sewing materials
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Wire mesh
  • Boxes of various sizes
  • Toy cars

And anything else you can get your hands on. Children's toys, in particular, can be useful as well as encourage creative thinking. Indeed, you would do well to spend some time in a toy shop when planning your visual brainstorming activity.

Evaluation and Implementation

The first step of evaluating ideas from visual brainstorming is to have the team or teams present their models -- or results in the case of role-play -- to a wider audience. This should open discussion on the ideas, their viability and their potential value. At this stage, the facilitator should encourage positive feedback. Instead of criticising weaknesses, the audience should be encouraged to remark upon potential weaknesses and challenge the team to improve upon their ideas. In the example above, an audience member might remark: "The automatic gearbox is a good idea, but I am worried it would not be as reliable as our customers expect our products to be. How could you ensure a high level of reliability?"

The next step is typically to put the results in a written report. At this stage, traditional idea evaluation approaches such as criteria based evaluation matrices, SWOT analyses, business cases and the like may be applied.

Implementation of good ideas should be the result of any brainstorming activity. Surprisingly, many great ideas never reach the implementation stage. Don't let that happen to your ideas! The Creative Idea Implementation Plan is a useful tool for planning idea implementation.


I have seen considerable success with visual brainstorming, including..

  • Higher levels of participation
  • More divergence of thinking (ie. more creativity)
  • More fun

That said, visual brainstorming requires a higher level of creativity in the planning stage in terms of devising an effective approach and appropriate tools. Moreover, socially conservative business people may be reluctant to play with children's toys and may need to be convinced of the value of the activity.

Your best approach would be to run some trail visual brainstorming events with friends, sympathetic colleagues, students or other groups who can provide useful feedback.

In addition, we at now provide visual brainstorming facilitation. Contact us for details.

This has also been born out by research, such as

The Emergence of Abstract Representations in Dyad Problem Solving, by Daniel L. Schwartz in the Journal of the Learning Sciences (1995, Vol. 4, No. 3, Pages 321-354; (doi:10.1207/s15327809jls0403_3).

Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration; (Book) by Keith Sawyer.


Facilitation Services

If you would like someone to facilitate non-verbal idea building sessions with your team, get in touch for an initial discussion about your needs and how we could meet them.


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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