Posted August 8th 2010 at 11:20 pm by
in Collaborating like a Designer

Applying the Right Tools at the Right Time to Elevate the Right Ideas


An array of simple materials used during a one-day Design that Matters workshop to generate early ideas for a phototherapy device treating infant jaundice in Southeast Asia. Photo by Elizabeth Johansen from Design that Matters (DtM).

It is easy to fall in love with an idea that just isn’t quite right, especially when it’s your own idea. We are all familiar with that feeling of acute sensitivity when others discuss one of our brainchildren. Natural instinct leads many of us to hide away polishing an idea using PowerPoint or SolidWorks before feeling comfortable sharing it with others. Yet, as Garr Reynolds notes, “It’s not about tools, it’s about ideas. Designers from various fields spend a lot of time away from new technology tools, using pencil and paper to sketch out their ideas.”

~  from How to Become a Better Manager… by Thinking Like a Designer by Jimmy Guterman, MIT Sloan Management Review 2009


Professional volunteers Jeewon Jung, Gerd Schmieta, Sloan Kulper, Tim McNerney, and Dave Duncanson (not pictured) at Design that Matters one-day Workshop. Photo by Tim Prestero from Design that Matters.

My favorite tools for early idea generation are:


…..•         Sharpies, multicolored

…..•         Pencils and erasers

…..•         Small, multicolored Post-its

…..•         Large poster post-its (2ft x 3ft)

…..•         Blank, white paper

…..•         Scissors

…..•         X-acto knives or box cutters

…..•         Bendable floral wire

…..•         Tape (scotch, masking, duct)

…..•         Inspirational images or objects


Using these tools, Design that Matters held a one-day workshop with five professionals to generate early concept ideas for our project designing a phototherapy device to treat infant jaundice in Southeast Asia.

Below, two sketches produced during a one-day workshop at DtM. Photo by Elizabeth JohansenDtM_Firefly_Deep_Dive_Ideas

The left hand sketch depicts a phototherapy device that would allow a blanket to be wrapped around it for the infant’s comfort and warmth. In the bottom right hand corner of the sketch, another participant added the idea of a kayak skirt for infant warmth. The right hand sketch shows an idea inspired by the Christmas lights. This device would allow multiple infants to get phototherapy simultaneously, eliminating the problem of sharing limited devices between many families.

Using the right tool at the right time can have a variety of benefits. Pencil sketches and rough paper shapes emphasize that the idea is initial so we don’t fool ourselves or others into thinking it is anything else. Here are just some of the additional benefits of using these types of tools:

•         Prevent falling in love with the wrong idea too early in the process.

•         Elevate the best ideas to the top with little wasted time.

•         Enable team members to build on ideas by sketching directly on top of each others work.

•         Encourage rapid iteration and feedback – little time spent polishing.

•         Put stakeholders at ease when giving feedback.

And for those of you who insist on continuing to polish your precious ideas, I leave you with this helpful video from Mythbusters: Polishing a Turd.

Elizabeth Johansen is the Director of Product Development at Design that Matters, creating new products and services for the poor in developing countries. Elizabeth’s passion to create a positive social impact through design have led her to facilitate more than 20 design thinking workshops and speaking engagements. Prior to DtM, Elizabeth worked for eight years as a product designer at IDEO.

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