Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Ideation: A synthesis model for breaking mindset and generating alternatives

Michael Pearson
School of Design
Curtin University of Technology


It may seem a paradox that students attending a School of Design should feel the need to be made aware of the knowledge surrounding idea generating, breaking mindset and coming up with alternative solutions to stated problems. These mechanisms bring up the underlying themes of what is creativity? Where do ideas come from? How can I generate ideas at will etc? Why on earth should design students want to know how to do such things? They are creative already. Don't they do this kind of thing naturally? The truth, however, is a little more complex.

Breaking mindset and creating alternatives are about having to hand, strategies for fast tracking the creative process where time plays a crucial role (Tardif & Sternberg in Sternberg 1990 page 430) and, within the process of generating a design solution for a client there are many pressures (Oldarch 1995 page 3). The process of creativity then has major restraints imposed upon it and any strategy to alleviate these restraints must be a welcome addition to the creative vocabulary of the design student. On reflection this is of course relevant to everyone. We all are faced with problems of one type or another and any method that helps solve these problems, the better This paper maps these strategies and proposes a model for its practice.

Context of this study

The pressures of creativity quite naturally do not go unnoticed by the students as their feedback illustrates. ( Internal Audit (Pearson 1994) and the Design Review (S.O.Design 1995) ).

As a consequence of this feedback a course was put together to address these issues within the authors specific discipline in the second year programme. This paper is the developed outcome of that initial feedback.

At this point before concentrating on the model it is appropriate to place it in comparison with this larger picture of creativity. The author chose to concentrate on a psychological perspective as the frame of reference.

Two views on creativity emerge from the literature.

In general, psychologists have viewed creativity as a process existing in a single person at a particular point in time. More particularly the second viewpoint discusses creativity as "existing in a larger system of social networks, problem domains, fields of enterprise, such that the individual who produces products that are judged to be creative is only one of many necessary parts". The view continues "This systems view of creative processes does not preclude the individual view". (Tardif and Sternberg 1988, page 430).

Commenting on Theories of Creativity, Robert S Albert and Mark A Runco (1990) remark that

... the observation of individual differences is the elemental defining factor in psychological understanding of human behaviour. And because creativity is behaviour, one must take into account the influence of individual differences whether from an analytic or ecological point of view. Not to do so negates one essential characteristics of creative behaviour: it is a variation on, if not always a clean break from, the prevailing consensus, pattern, style, or method.
The whole notion of creativity has been analysed to conclude that creativity can be described as being influenced by
person, place, process, product and persuasion (Albert & Runco 1990, 261)

creativity is never the private, hidden experience it was once believed - especially by the Romantics or the analytically oriented - but as an intrinsically shared experience with no one identifiable moment of origin

The issues of person, place, process, product and persuasion are currently being examined as work in progress in the overall title 'Towards Best Practise - Generating a Creative Culture' (Pearson 1996-).

For this research vignette the author has chosen to concentrate on 'process' as it is the most dynamic and readily accessible. By identifying these major characteristics of creative process, the next stage is to anchor these characteristics to a series of activities that demonstrate and enhance the process.

The Creative Process

The following characteristics have been paraphrased from a literature review by Tardif and Sternberg in Sternberg (1988) (see pages 432 to 435 for the authors of this synthesis)
  1. Creativity takes time
  2. Creative process is about the transformation of external and internal representations by forming analogies and bridging conceptual gaps
  3. The creative process depends on constant redefinition of the problem
  4. Creative thought processes involve applying recurring themes and recognising patterns and images of wide scope to make the new familiar and the old new
  5. Creative thought processes involve non verbal modes of thinking
  6. the tension of conflict between old and new
  7. the tension of creating multiple paths to the solution
  8. the tension of organisation in finding better ways for efficiency
The authors believe that there is the question of the accessibility of creative process. According to some authors creativity occurs only in special individuals at rare moments in time, other authors believe creativity to be a normative process - that creativity can be trained and improved. Other authors believe that "creativity is achieved only when the right combination of particular problems, skills, individual and social milieu comes together". There is the controversy of the role of the conscious and the semiconscious elements in creative processing with respect to insight - for some authors this is the key to creativity. Other authors argue that unconscious elements are relevant but not central (Tardif and Sternberg in Sternberg, 1988).

This paper takes the view that in a learning environment the facilitator should be inclusive about theoretical opinion.

With these characteristics identified, from a teaching and learning perspective it now requires that these characteristics are satisfied and developed within a framework that generates learning.

The characteristics of creative process identified by the literature search of Tardif and Sternberg have thus been translated to a unit outline.

  1. Describe, analyse and apply the principles of creative process
  2. Describe analyse and appropriately apply a range of creative thinking and problem solving skills to effect creative design solutions in graphic communication problems.
  3. Recognise the psychological circumstances that inhibit creative accomplishment within personal and group dynamics and be able to overcome these restraints through the application of action and leadership.
  4. Recognise and develop a working methodology that utilises strategies for creative accomplishment that is effective and personal.
These four criteria are then included within the following model, based around the project learning model.

The project learning model forms the central teaching and learning method within the School of Design and this model provides the framework for creative thinking and problem solving.

This model of learning revolves around creating real problems to be solved. A project within the School of Design lasts three weeks and it entails from the student a high level of commitment and discipline to complete.

Lecture - Where do Ideas come from?
A 13 week Semester Project
A 2nd semester of six weekly reinforcements
A 3rd Semester 3 week project
A 4th Semester 3 week project

The Lecture -Where do Ideas come from?

The following extract sets the scene where the lecturer details creative thinking techniques. The lecture continues by detailing succinctly everything that the student will do in this respect over the next two semesters.

The lecture is immediately followed by a tutorial.

Tutorial - Teaching Notes First year First Semester Project one Concepts. page 1 of 4

Creative Thinking and Problem Solving - an introduction to some basic strategies.

Prerequisite - attendance at lecture
Duration - 2 hours - Plan to work in twenty minute sessions including break. this may be broken up in any combination you wish:
Context -The project
Materials Handouts - Butchers paper, markers and their personal notebooks
Content - as follows: Acknowledge this is fast tracking and that each lecturer will be revisiting these techniques in the coming weeks
Feel free to panic and cut the introduction and feedback session !!

A 13 week Semester Project

A 2nd semester of six weekly reinforcements

Session 1

An Exploration of the creative process through interactive play
How to overcome mental blocks in the creative process
An Exploration of idea generation individually and as a group through
Bisociation and Force-fitting
Practise force fitting through class exercise (illustrate life in Perth)
Project 1
Design Synector
Mind Map - (Who am I?) Bring 2 photographs with accompanying description.

Session 2

Deadline for project
Random Association with photographs and captions
Discussion and reflection on Brainstorming and Brainwriting
through the application of the mind map
Extending of mindmap to create new project
Introduction of analogy and Visual puns
Project 2
Visual puns
Think about creating a group identity

Session 3

Session 4

Session 5

Session 6

A 3rd Semester 3 week project

A 4th Semester 3 week project

Project process
Problem solving - analysis, translation. checklisting, solution searching, evaluation and production planning,
Project Content
You are an executive of a corporate body with the lecturer as MDir. You are to promote your own interests by winning approval of your colleagues through reasoned argument that they should back your proposal. This proposal should be an area of interest that has a rich visual backdrop. You are to come to an agreement with your board on the amount of work you are to do so that it is fair and equitable with your peers. This work should revolve around a promotional campaign to increase your interests profile.


The School of Design has a sophisticated assessment instrument based on core and transferable abilities (Green-Armytage & Shaw 1995). Until recently the School relied on assessment by percentage marks decided by the lecturer and later confirmed or denied at semester end.

The school has recently run pilot programmes using peer group assessment based on the consensual assessment derived by B. A. Hennessey and Theresa Amabile (p14 to17 in Sternberg 1988.) They have proved to be powerful instruments because the students have marked each other with honest, yet passionate insight.

Conditions do apply. There are three requirements for the task to be assessed. There must be a tangible product or response. The task must be open ended enough to allow for creative interpretation and 'novelty'. Third, the level of skill must have "no large individual differences in baseline performance" (within the school it would be inappropriate to compare third year work with first year work).

The assessment procedure also has requirements. First the judges must all have experience within the domain, although their levels need not be similar. The second requirement is that the judges make their assessment independently, have no contact with each other and have no criteria. Thirdly they must be aware of any factors that might inhibit creativity or technical performance. Fourthly they should judge the artefacts relative to each other and finally each judge should view the artefacts in a different order.

If appropriate judges independently agree that a given product is highly creative then it can and must be accepted as such (Hennessey and Amabile, page 17 in Sternberg 1988).


Albert, M. A. and Runco, R. S. (1990). Theories of Creativity. Sage London.

Green-Armytage, P. and Shaw, J. (1995). Assessment revisited.

Oldarch, M. (1995). Creativity for Graphic Designers. North Light Cincinnati Ohio.

Pearson, M. R. (1993). Internal Audit questionnaire.

Sternberg, R. J. (ed) (1988). The Nature of Creativity: Contemporary Psychological Perspectives. Cambridge University Press.

Please cite as: Pearson, M. (1997). Ideation: A synthesis model for breaking mindset and generating alternatives. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p252-258. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/pearson1.html

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