Prototyping vs. brainstorming – how to help teams create together.

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

This is a blog post I wrote for the incredibly insightful photographer, Charles Gupton and his passion project called Mindfire.


Most people share a mistrust (hate) of brainstorming meetings. They feel contrived. High pressure. Hollow, without context. Add strangers to the mix and we worry if we’ll work well as a team. And if you’re in mixed company, too often the creative people feel pressure to come up with the best ideas. Don’t get me wrong. I love working with other people. In fact, the highest compliment you can pay me is to say you like partnering with me. I just think if you’re looking for a great idea, traditional brainstorming isn’t the way.

Last week, I found myself at a conference of AIGA (the professional association for design) leaders on a small team of eight strangers working to solve to an organizational problem and deliver a solution the next morning.

Instead of calling them brainstorming sessions (or the conference favorite: “break out sessions”), they were called prototype sessions.

Prototype: An early sample or model built to test a concept or process

or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

I love the key words here: “sample,” “test,” “act,” “learned from.” Note that it’s not about a finished ad, logo sketch or tagline. It’s something to learn from—not something to do.

So, back to our prototype session. Our goal was to find ways to incorporate lifelong design education into AIGA. And the beauty of our session was that we’d been prepped well

1. FODDER: We all signed up for this session before the conference. And in the day or so previous, most of the Prototype session topics were covered in general session.

2. FOCUS: We had clear goals: To create a sentence or 5-word mission statement, elevator speech and 1-week/6-month/1-year launch plan. And do all this within a certain time limit.

3. FINISH: We had to present something, so we knew the idea should be fleshed out enough that it could communicate well with attendees.

Each of these goals became our common purpose. In the end, we came to a very human, real prototype to test: We all want to learn things we don’t know. So let’s start by admitting what we don’t know publicly (on Twitter using the #AIGAidk hashtag). Then, at the six-month mark, let’s collect our need for knowledge and by the one-year mark, let’s start educating. 

Most of all, let’s stop storming brains. Instead, create context by prepping well, and encourage success by setting clear goals (What can we accomplish in the first week?) with a deadline.