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Divergent Thinking

Call it ideation, brainstorming, “thinking outside the box,” or whatever you like — divergent thinking is about exploring what’s possible, and it’s a core practice of most designers. It happens intuitively, when we allow ourselves to wonder, speculate, or ask “what if?”—but it’s also important to do it intentionally throughout your design process.

At this point, you may already have some design ideas in mind. Maybe the strategy, solution, or approach you’re seeking has seemed clear from the start. Or maybe you have some insight into the problem you’re hoping to resolve, but you still aren’t sure how to go about addressing it. In either case, resist the temptation to either fixate on your first ideas or to despair about your lack of ideas. Before you decide to go all-in or give up, you owe it to yourself and to the design process to make time for divergent thinking and imaginative exploration.

The Human-Centered Design process has some intentional moments of divergent thinking built in. They generally follow stages of work that require targeted, tight, and focused thinking. Since you’ve just done some tightly focused work through defining your project level principles, now is the time to let your thoughts roam free and unhampered.

To get into this expansive mindset, everyone on the team should work to let go of any thoughts that keep you in the world of practicalities, constraints, timelines, and naysaying. Allow your minds to wander into a world of possibility. Go outside. Go for a walk. Talk about or read things that are unrelated to work. Let your mind roam, explore, and play.

Cultivating the spirit and space for this kind of divergent thinking may come naturally to you, or it may take some practice. With practice, it will hopefully come to feel like “the fun part” of your process, where you give yourself the freedom to fully exercise your creativity. Use the activities in this section to get started.