Using Action Ideas to Boost your Creative Idea Search

Simple tips and tricks for generating promising new ideas

Posted Mar 10, 2018

Moh tch via Wikimedia Commons
Giving some lift to our ideas...
Source: Moh tch via Wikimedia Commons

Coming up with good new ideas can seem like a mysterious and mysteriously murky process.  Where do good ideas come from?  Are there any tips, or tricks, or strategies, that we can draw on to help us generate good ideas –– or more of them, more often? 

It might seem that we could just begin by asking people who come up with lots of good ideas:  How do you do it?  Tell me! 

But that approach presupposes that such "good idea generators" know what it is that they do.  It presupposes that the good idea generators know how they think when they're thinking creatively.  It also presupposes that a good idea generator can articulate (convey or tell us) what it is that they are doing. 

Sadly, neither presupposition is often met:  The processes that a good creative idea generator uses are often somewhat obscure and opaque (perhaps subconscious) even to themselves.  So precisely and clearly telling us what they're up to during their innovative idea discovery process may not be at all easy, or even possible.  

But all is not lost:  This is a promising direction, and there's another route that researchers who are keen to understand the processes of generating new ideas can take.  It's not as direct as simply asking someone, and it takes quite a bit of mental work by the researchers themselves, but the payoffs may be worth it.

One possible window for learning new tips and tricks for the idea generation process involves asking designers to "think aloud" as they work on a specific creative problem –– in real time.  The think aloud results can then be followed up later with additional questions about what they did, and why, while also carefully looking at what they do, and what they make, for example, in their sketches or prototypes.  This combined method is at the core of what is known as the "design heuristics" approach, and it has been used to gain a window into the thinking processes of highly experienced industrial designers, engineers, design students, and others. 

What are Design Heuristics?

In everyday language, a heuristic is a mental shortcut or "rule of thumb" that can often get us closer to the discovery of a solution to a problem.  Heuristics can help to guide us as we experiment with different options or use trial-and-error to explore possible solutions. 

Similar to this broader meaning, design heuristics are "cognitive shortcuts" that suggest useful ways of introducing variation or alternatives into our creative actions or practice.  Design heuristics are ways to scaffold our thinking into new directions.

Koutstaal & Binks (2015), Innovating Minds, Figure 3.3
Scaffolding our ideas using design heuristics.
Source: Koutstaal & Binks (2015), Innovating Minds, Figure 3.3

Some design heuristics are highly general, and can be seen in many of the products and services that we use.  For example, for tools or implements that people need to touch, or to hold, such as a writing pen, or a hammer, a commonly observed heuristic is "change the material at points of human contact" –– so writing pens and hammers often having a somewhat rubbery, flexible, or soft "gripping" surface at the pressure points where we hold them.  Other design heuristics are less commonly seen.  For example, the heuristic "use opposite surface" is an approach sometimes found in the design of children's bunk beds, that can have built-in storage drawers underneath the mattress, and also in some types of clothing, such as "reversible" raincoats or scarfs.

Learning from the Design Heuristics Approach

Let's look at one study, from an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Michigan and Iowa State University, that used the design heuristics approach with 24 industrial designers and mechanical engineers.   

The researchers presented the designers and engineers with an open-ended design problem with many potential solutions.  The problem given to each participant was to design a "solar-powered cooking device that was inexpensive, portable, and suitable for family use."  Participants were also given some general additional information about transferring solar energy by using reflection or absorption, or by trapping heat. 

Each participant was tested individually, and was asked to work on the design problem for 25 minutes, while continuously talking aloud, while an electronic pen recorded their voice and their drawings.  After the 25 minutes, each designer or engineer was shown the sketches they had just made, asked to identify the concept, describe what they recalled about each concept and, if possible, suggest how they came up with the ideas.

Very few of the designers or engineers were able to explicitly state what their thinking process was as they worked.  However, there was evidence of many different design heuristics in the concepts they produced.  For example, as she was working on one concept, one designer remarked, "I'll use both a magnifying glass and a mirror, since I'm not sure if the energy will be enough to cook the food."  Although not stated by the designer, this is an example of an often-used design heuristic:  "use multiple components to achieve one function."

Two coders –– one with a background in industrial design and the other with a background in engineering design –– reviewed all of the generated concepts, and independently identified heuristics in each concept.  Overall, 129 separate concepts were generated, and only 3 of the concepts (2%) showed no evidence of the use of design heuristics.  The vast majority of the concepts showed clear evidence of multiple design heuristics.  The average number of heuristics per concept was 5.1.  The maximum number of heuristics for any one concept was 15, with 12% of the concepts showing nine or more heuristics per concept.

The engineers and industrial designers did not significantly differ from one another in the average number of design heuristics per concept, or in the number of concepts they generated.  A large and varied set of design heuristics was used by both groups, for example, "attach independent functional components" (so that several different parts or systems with distinct functions are combined into a single device), or "repeat a component" (e.g., using multiple solar panels).

But did their use of heuristics help the designers and engineers to be more creative? 

To answer this question, the researchers asked two other coders –– blind to the analysis of the design heuristics –– to rate each concept on a 5-point scale from 1 (not creative) to 5 (very creative).  The two coders showed high agreement with each other, and so their creativity ratings were averaged.  These average creativity scores were significantly positively correlated with the number of design heuristics coded for each concept.  If any one design concept showed more heuristics, it also tended to be more creative.  This positive relationship between the number of design heuristics used and the separately-rated creativity of the concepts was found both overall, and within the industrial designer vs. engineer subgroups separately. 

What does this mean for our creative practice?

The designers who used more design heuristics generated more creative concepts.  This suggests that one way to bolster our creative idea generation is to learn to use a wider number and kind of design heuristics.  

Indeed, other research studies have shown that learning about heuristics –– and receiving reminder cues with specific heuristics during idea generation –– can significantly boost the creativity of the generated design ideas.  Such creativity boosts from learning design heuristics have been demonstrated both for designers working on their own, and for teams of designers. 

Learning about design heuristics helped even a highly experienced team of professional engineers working on commercial products to become aware of alternative design choices. Reminder cards that described and illustrated particular heuristics catapulted their thinking into new directions –– and also had other unexpected side benefits.  For example, the reminder cards helped to better structure the team's idea generation search.  The reminder cards prompted more in-depth exploration of each idea, and supported the team in interactively and collaboratively elaborating on each other's emerging ideas.  

To improve your own creative practice, you might develop your own list or set of reminder prompts.  For example, the sculptor and artist Richard Serra once generated a list of "verbs" that he sometimes drew upon in his art practice –– such as "to roll," "to crease," "to fold," "to rotate," "to swirl" ....  

What are some verbs or action words that you could bring to mind to help you ignite –– or to perceive and notice –– new possible directions for experimentation and trial-and-error in your creative process?

Some questions to think about

  • Design heuristics seem to offer new "entry points" into switching up our ways of thinking, helping us to think and explore in new promising directions.  How are design heuristics similar to "open ended questions" or naive questions that we can ask one another, or ourselves? 
  • Why do you think asking yourself such action-related questions as, "what if I flattened this?" or "what if I divided this?" can spark new ideas?  Why are verbs or action words so powerful?
  • Are you trying to approach creative problems with too little structure or too little external prompting?  What questions or ways of thinking could you adopt to give some fresh lift into your ideas –– like the bubble-blowing device –– expanding them and letting them take flight? 


Koutstaal, W., & Binks, J. (2015).  Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change ––especially Chapter 3, "Staying the course and letting go: Varying our degrees of mental control."  New York: Oxford University Press.

Yilmaz, S., Daly, S. R., Christian, J. L., Seifert, C. M., & Gonzalez, R. (2013).  Can experienced designers learn from new tools?  A case study of idea generation in a professional engineering team.  International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation, 2, 82–96.

Yilmaz, S., Daly, S. R., Seifert, C. M., & Gonzalez, R. (2014).  How do designers generate new ideas?  Design heuristics across two disciplines.  Design Science, 1, article e4, 1–29.