Can These Blocks Unblock Brainstorming?

Now you’re talking–Smart Interaction Lab introduces three simple, toy-like instruments designed to build a better brainstorm.

The modern brainstorm was invented in the 1930s, and then officially inked onto paper in 1953 in the book Applied Imagination, by Alex Osborn, the “O” in ad agency BBDO. We all know how a brainstorm goes down. Minds gather in a room to freely associate, banter, collaborate. There are no wrong answers, only sparks of ideas.


It sounds a lot like, say, a conversation. Which begs the question: How is a brainstorm something that could be invented? No one invented talking to each other or sharing ideas. But what Osborn identified was a need for a focused group activity with enough gusto to produce something wild and inventive within a defined period of time. And like any activity or game, a brainstorm allows for player advantages and disadvantages.

“There’s always a dynamic based on people’s personalities, based on whether they’re introverted or extroverted,” says Carla Diana, head of Smart Interaction Lab, part of Smart Design, a global design firm that’s adding some physicality to the brainstorm with the toylike objects of their Totem series. “It’s very common for one or two people to dominate a brainstorm. It also makes those people who feel timid feel more timid.”

Smart Interaction Lab decided to use the recent Maker Faire in Barcelona as a testing ground for Totem–and to introduce some introvert-extrovert equality to brainstorming sessions. They’ve designed three physical tools to help guide social cues and unlock new ways of thinking.

The first piece is called Baton. It’s basically a talking stick that, like a Bop It, is timed to vibrate and buzz after about four minutes. Like the talking sticks used everywhere from aboriginal tribes to Girl Scout troops, it’s designed to prevent any one person from bulldozing a conversation.

The second Totem prop is a listening machine called Echo, which is meant to be listened to later, in the hopes that forgotten bits of conversation or additional audio will jumpstart new ideas after brains are refreshed. “The philosophy of non-linear thinking is about forcing yourself to think about something completely different,” Diana tells Co.Design. “This idea of randomness is very common in ideation to get you out of your comfort zone.” She offers the example of designing a chair while listening to Echo playing the sound of running water. “I’ll hear the water, and think, ‘I never thought about water, or the form of a cascade.’”

The third tool is a three-piece set of rings, dubbed Alter Ego. Based on theories in the conceptual-ideation expert Edward De Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats, the Smart Interaction team built the rings to provoke people out of personal biases. They come equipped with lights, so if the green light is on, the thinker is cued to take a positive point of view–even if he or she is opposed to an idea. The red light asks the user to play devil’s advocate, and the blue light denotes the group moderator.


Totem is an unproven concept, and Smart Interaction Lab doesn’t have plans to manufacture the series (yet). Brainstorming itself has of late come under siege from critics at advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi to writer Jonah Lehrer. A survey of these criticisms will elucidate at least one thing: It’s a fragmented process that isn’t done right in any one way. And there are plenty of approaches out there. Musician Brian Eno created the Oblique Strategy, which calls for a deck of cards printed with questions or commands like, “Ask your body.”

Totem, like Oblique Strategy or even self-help books, “is really intended as provocation,” Diana says, citing the key to any successful ideation session–or conversation.

Read more about Totem here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.