Invention Class

Introduction: Ideation: Brainstorming & Sketching

In this lesson, I'm going to introduce you to a variety of ways to start refining your idea and honing in on what form it will take, how it works, and why! This is the step in the process where you use the information and images you collected in the Inspiration lesson as a foundation to start designing the actual product.

Brainstorming and sketching really go hand in hand, as sketching is inherently brainstorming (idea generation) and brainstorming can be communicated via sketching. But there are a few other methods of brainstorming that can help you get your brain outside of its box and on its way towards innovation.

A Few Brainstorming Techniques

Everyone works differently. So if any of these techniques don't resonate with you, no biggie. I just ask that you give them a chance and try them at least once.

Hopefully, from all the options provided, you'll find a brainstorming recipe that works for you!

Technique No.1: Mind Mapping

This style of diagramming allows for the creation of a good flow of connected ideas. One word or idea can lead to another, and another, etc. The diagrams by no means have to be fancy like the above example. As you can see below, I most often just use simple circles and lines – but this is a good opportunity to get your creative 'right brain' juices flowing – and drawing (anything) can help immensely with this. So doodle away if you're feeling inspired!

NOTE: This process can also be used to help come up with the list of words for the inspiration research step in the last lesson.

Here are two of the maps I did (on a white board) for my project:

You'll notice that I'm not concerned with perfect writing or line making. I think the freer and looser you are, the less constrained your thinking will be, and the more likely it is that you'll land on a fresh idea.

So if you find you're feeling blocked and the ideas aren't flowing, I encourage you to go to a big white board and write bigger, or try and write as tiny as you can on a piece of paper – or use post it notes and connect them with string. Do something outside of your norm to grease the wheels of your imagination.

Technique No.2: Break It Down, Build It Up

In her book, Design The Life You Love, Ayse Birsel introduces a design technique she calls Deconstruction: Reconstruction. The idea is that you break your design challenge down into its smallest parts (like ingredients in a recipe) before you reassemble them in new ways (new dishes). By doing this you end up with combinations (flavors) that you never would have thought of otherwise!

NOTE: You don't have to draw the ingredients out like I did. It's ok to use words instead! It's the ideas generated by new combinations of the elements that is the important thing, not how you get there.



There, I have three ideas to add to my 'ideas to explore' list!

Technique No.3: Owling

This brainstorming technique focuses on asking unusual questions vs. going straight to looking for obvious answers.

To warm up, start with the basic questions: who, what, why, where, when. Then dive into sillier ones that will change your perspective, like for me: What would Rhianna do? What would Prince do? What would 1982 do? What would an elephant do?

Step 1 - Make up a list of questions.

Step 2 - Answer the list of questions.

Sometimes new information or ideas come from places/times/perspectives you would never have imagined on your own (or as yourself!).

What Now?

Now that you've done all that work, what are you supposed to do with the results of your brainular storming?

This is where you must rely on your intuition and interest. While designing a product that is ultimately intended for others to use requires stepping outside your own biases and desires – i.e.: huge doses of empathy – I think it's important that you are also excited about what you're making.

So make a summary list of the best ideas generated via your brainstorming, i.e. ideas and inspirations that not only will fulfill your users' needs, but ones that you are most stoked about. That excitement will shine through your design and make it more attractive to customers!

Then take this short list and move onto the next step: sketching.


This is without a doubt, the most useful skill to develop if you plan on making a career of designing products.

Even if you are a part time inventor or a one-off product entrepreneur, it's still a good idea to have a go at sketching, as it's the fastest and most effective way to bring the ideas your brain generates into the physical world.

There's something about that flow from brain > to hand > to eyes that not only helps communicate your ideas to others, but helps you evolve and improve upon concepts in the quickest way possible. This is known as rapid visualization.

If you consider yourself to be unartistic and are intimidated by this step, you are not alone! But don't let the fear of doing something poorly (at first) stop you from trying. Anyone can get proficient enough in sketching to benefit from the important role it plays in the concept development process. It just takes practice and a willingness to be less than amazing at something until you (inevitably) get better. :D

The Sketchbook

Any size/type of unlined sketchbook will work. Choose one that fits easily into your bag. I like to use these.

These little friends are a great way to keep track of your ideas throughout the design process. Both words and drawings are at home here. I like to use mine for very preliminary idea sketching (and photo collaging), before I move onto the more physically freeing 8.5 x 11 (A4) pieces of paper (see below) where I refine my favorite ideas.

Here are a few pages from my sketchbook for early ideas of possible forms for my passive amplifier project (based on my research):

The Sketching Paper

High quality 8.5 x 11" (A4) paper is perfect for practicing more refined, presentation quality sketches.

Working on good quality 8.5 x 11 (A4) is the best way to sketch, or work on sketching! :) The single sheets of paper are easy to move and reorient as you're drawing, so you can optimize your dominant hand's movements and better control the lines you're making. The other great thing about working on individual sheets is that they are easy to pin or tape to the wall for reviews or presentations.

Drawing Style

The above sketches by Erik Askin of his NuLunch project are good examples of classic design sketching.

Product designers who work for other companies directly, have spent many years getting proficient in the classic style of design drawing (demonstrated above in the beautiful sketches of Erik Askin), as that's what those who hire them expect to see.

As a one-time inventor or a serial entrepreneur, it isn't really necessary for you to (unless you want to) spend the time to achieve this level of technical sketching prowess. I do however recommend getting a solid foundation of drawing fundamentals under your belt (lines, shapes, shading, shadows, and perspective) , so you can then develop your own style of drawing over time.

Ayse Birsel image via

Ayse Birsel drawing and finished product side by side.

One of my favorite designers, who I mentioned in the brainstorming step, Ayse Birsel, uses a playful, almost cartoon style of drawing to communicate her ideas – and she is a successful product designer that has done work for many high profile clients. It's no less refined, just a different style. So you see, there's no rule that says you have to do it just one industry standard way as long as the sketches are doing their job of helping you develop and visually communicate your ideas.

Image from Lesson 5 of JON-A-TRON's design sketching class on light and shadow.

My co-worker JON-A-TRON has put together a solid foundational design sketching class that I highly recommend taking if you have no sketching experience or just want to shine up your existing skills.

Get Quizzy With It

    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "Which is NOT one of the brainstorming methods we learned about in this lesson?",
    "answers": [
            "title": "Owling",
            "correct": false
            "title": "Starbursting",
            "correct": true

            "title": "Mind Mapping",
            "correct": false
    "correctNotice": "That's correct!",
    "incorrectNotice": "That's incorrect! Try again."
    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "What type of paper is best to use for learning to sketch?",
    "answers": [
            "title": "Graph paper",
            "correct": false
            "title": "Printer paper",
            "correct": true
    "correctNotice": "That's correct!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Sorry friend! Although it can be fun to draw on once you've got some chops, blank 8.5 x 11 printer paper is best for learning on."

What's Next?

Now that we have used research, brainstorming, and sketching to explore directions the product can take, it's time to test out the best (your favorite) ideas with rough prototypes!

Now the fun really begins...

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