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26 February 2015

Idea Generation Techniques - Which and When to Use?

1) For 'N' and 'O' Level students looking for the complete Design Journal self-help links please click here or scroll down to "Design Journal 2015 | Complete Set of Post links for Design Journaling from Beginning to the End".

3) Click 'here' for "Secondary ONE - 2015 - Design Journal - A Pen/Pencil + Note Holder".

In the Singapore Design & Technology Syllabus, there are a few Idea Generation Techniques mentioned and taught from the textbook. They are
  1. Attribute Listing.
  2. Morphological Analysis.
  3. Relay Thinking.
  4. Shape borrowing (found in the lower secondary textbook).
  5. The S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique.

I will not repeat what you can find online or from the textbook on what they are and how the various techniques can be used. But you'll find my 'reviews' on the techniques of which I hope you can end up making a better choice on which and when to use for your coursework. 

Avoid the one method fits the whole class pitfall. e.g. everybody use 'shape borrow' or everybody use 'morphological analysis'. Every project is unique and should be approached with the most appropriate techniques. This is the same with choice of 'research' and 'decision making' techniques throughout your design journal.

Back to Ideas Generation Techniques Review:

(1) & (2)  Attribute Listing and the Morphological Analysis
I am not a fan of both Attribute Listing and the Morphological Analysis as I find them producing very mechanically random 'fast-food' styled outcomes. Though you can use them to produce hundreds and thousands of hybrid ideas which are just a little different from the next, they are not useful for the unmotivated and lowly engaged students. The morphological and attribute listing technique both require highly motivated and engaged students to evaluate, synthesize and make meaning out of the various random outcomes - which many are either not ready for the required thinking efforts that comes after or they simply do not have the caliber to wrap the ideas up into something more practical for refinement.

However it doesn't mean you avoid them. You can use them in the beginning to generate some initial ideas to kick-off the process especially if you do not know what to do and which ideas to begin with. By all means make use of the two techniques but you must understand the respective functions and what outcomes you are expected to end up with.

(3) Relay Thinking
This method of idea generation is fun and it is collaborative by nature. It is useful to gain new insights and perspectives from your friends for your project and to find out what other interesting ideas may evolve from your initial ideas they can think of which you did not. At the end of the session, you can then evaluate and select potential ideas or concepts to be included in your Ideas Generation section. 

(4) Shape Borrowing
This is perhaps one of the most commonly used technique for the lower secondary projects. It is very widely and effectively used in real world design examples where great products are outcomes from borrowing shapes, forms and functional concepts from nature. This technique is great - if you know what it is for and what you will be getting out of it. Otherwise this process if attempted will be as mechanically meaningless as the first two techniques I mentioned above.

The shape borrowing technique can be used for the following outcomes in your project (or product):

You can get inspired by shapes/forms + function fitting [more correctly 'by nature' (animals, fish, insects or plants, any objects, etc.)] for their first principle functionality application.

Example 1: A bottle opener project. Inspired by the beak of a parrot and/or the like. With an end-product that resembles the functional shape of an inspired source - the 'hooked' beak as a leverage to pry open a bottle cap.

Example 2: Getting inspired by the construction site's piling machine. The action of 'piling' columns in the ground seems to fit the idea of a heavy rod slamming on my walnut / almond nut. Then think of what other objects or from nature that uses something to crack nuts or crack open anything.

Example 3: Getting inspired by the shape of a Beetle to an end product, say to the profile of a new car design - form fitting that meaningfully resembles the inspired source. Perhaps for aerodynamic properties or just simply aesthetics or the like.

An example of a shape borrowing project can be found by clicking 'here'.

One example of shape borrowing gone wrong is to fit a supposedly inspired shape to a potential product that does not have an obvious relationship. I am talking about 'meaningfully' inspired applications here. Think about this, how about an 'inspired' dolphin form as a coin box? How do you relate a dolphin to money? coin? storage? Weird isn't it? It will make a perfectly functional container but that is all you can say about it. You cannot tag along the following keywords on that like 'innovative', 'fun' 'interesting', 'novelty', 'funny', etc. It is a plain boring functional product.

(5) The S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique
The S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique is good for 'creating' your first idea and evolving that single concept into other hybrids or something else better later on. Used with varying level of details, the technique is excellent both for Idea Generation (S.C.A.M.P.E.R. used loosely at a macro level generating new raw broad concepts freely) as well as for Concept Refinement (S.C.A.M.P.E.R. used at a micro level focusing on generating options from confirmed concept parts and working towards final decision making as a whole).

I leave this technique for the last because if you really understood what this is,the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique covers (almost) all other existing techniques (including the others mentioned above) you can find. Maybe I should just sayALL other Idea Generation techniques falls under part of or a combination of the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. acronym.

Have a quick look:
  • "Attribute Listing" falls under mainly "Substitute". And as well as one or a combination of the following: "Combine", "Adapt" and "Modify".
  • "Morphological Analysis" falls under mainly "Substitute" & "C = Combine". And as well as one or a combination of the following: "A = Adapt", "M = Modify".
  • "Shape borrowing" falls under mainly "S = Substitue". And as well as one or a combination of the following: "Combine", "A = Adapt", "M = Modify", "P = Put to other use" and "R =Reverse/Rearrage".
  • The S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique is everything above and includes explicitly "E =Eliminate" which is not part of the activities in the other techniques. How the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique can be used meaningfully can be found by clicking 'here'.

So, that wraps up my opinion and views on the various (textbook) idea generation techniques you will come across sooner or later if you chose (or did not choose) to do Design & Technology. 

Idea generation is a fun process. The process is addictive. I can loose sleep and food over this.At the same time, many students who are put off when they arrive at this stage claim that they have no idea, can't draw and/or don't know where to begin.

In order to be having the kind of fun and addiction in Idea Generating, it is necessary the idea generator
  • should have a reasonable level of sketching competency (technical competency)
  • is comfortable and fluid in his idea generating ability (cognitive competency) and 
  • wants to produce quality work (positive emotional presence). 
There are various drawing techniques and practices you can find in my blog as well as on the Design References label on the right hand side of the blog page which you can self-teach and practice. 

Your ability and confidence in generating ideas and communicating them through clear and readable sketches (and annotations) really depends on your willingness to upgrade you competency in drawing. There is no way you can achieve that without practice.

Finally, grow to like (if you did not) what you are doing in Design & Technology - especially to those who did not choose to do this subject or just found out that coursework requires a substantial commitment, effort and time to complete. I say so because I have met too many in my experience. 

To correct what I said about needing substantial effort and time required, if you (a) knew the design process well and (b) commit yourself in the beginning to identify a genuine need (or problem) that requires a solution, you will be able to complete the remainder of the coursework with minimum drag. You also have less of your teacher needing to bug you to produce work. 

The design process for your coursework is no rocket science. It's how everyone of us think everyday. We have a problem or a challenge (Design Need and Situation), we find solutions (generate ideas), we refine our solutions (develop the idea) so that it can eventually be made and put to good use (Realization, evaluation, testing and improvement).

P.S. Let me know if the information is useful or that you have been helped. Feedback and your opinions welcomed.

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