Divergent Thinking

Your constantly-updated definition of Divergent Thinking and collection of videos and articles

What is Divergent Thinking?

Divergent thinking is an ideation mode which designers use to widen their design space as they begin to search for potential solutions. They generate as many new ideas as they can using various methods (e.g., oxymorons) to explore possibilities, and then use convergent thinking to analyze these to isolate useful ideas.

“When you’re being creative, nothing is wrong.”

— John Cleese, Famous comedian and actor

Convergent and divergent thinking

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Divergent Thinking Can Open up Endless Possibilities

The formula for creativity is structure plus diversity, and divergent thinking is how you stretch to explore a diverse range of possibilities for ideas that might lead to the best solution to your design problem. As a crucial component of the design thinking process, divergent thinking is valuable when there’s no tried-and-tested solution readily available or adaptable. To find all the angles to a problem, gain the best insights and be truly innovative, you’ll need to explore your design space exhaustively. Divergent thinking is horizontal thinking, and you typically do it early in the ideation stage of a project. A “less than” sign (<) is a handy way to symbolize divergent thinking – how vast arrays of ideas fan out laterally from one focal point: Design team members freely exercise their imaginations for the widest possible view of the problem and its relevant factors, and build on each other’s ideas. Divergent thinking is characterized by:

  • Quantity over quality – Generate ideas without fear of judgement (critically evaluating them comes later).

  • Novel ideas – Use disruptive and lateral thinking to break away from linear thinking and strive for original, unique ideas.

  • Creating choices – The freedom to explore the design space helps you maximize your options, not only regarding potential solutions but also about how you understand the problem itself.

Divergent thinking is the first half of your ideation journey. It’s vital to complement it with convergent thinking, which is when you think vertically and analyze your findings, get a far better understanding of the problem and filter your ideas as you work your way towards the best solution.

A Method to the “Madness” – Use Divergent Thinking with a Structure

Here are some great ways to help navigate the uncharted oceans of idea possibilities:

  • Bad Ideas – You deliberately think up ideas that seem ridiculous, but which can show you why they’re bad and what might be good in them.

  • Oxymorons – You explore what happens when you negate or remove the most vital part of a product or concept to generate new ideas for that product/concept: e.g., a word processor without a cursor.

  • Random Metaphors – You pick something (an item, word, etc.) randomly and associate it with your project to find qualities they share, which you might then build into your design.

  • Brilliant Designer of Awful Things – When working to improve a problematic design, you look for the positive side effects of the problem and understand them fully. You can then ideate beyond merely fixing the design’s apparent faults.

  • Arbitrary Constraints – The search for design ideas can sometimes mean you get lost in the sea of what-ifs. By putting restrictions on your idea—e.g., “users must be able to use the interface while bicycling”—you push yourself to find ideas that conform to that constraint.

© Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Learn More about Divergent Thinking

Take our Creativity course to get the most from divergent thinking, complete with templates.

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Read one designer’s detailed step-by-step account of divergent thinking at work.

This UX Collective article insightfully presents an alternative approach involving divergent thinking.

Literature on Divergent Thinking

Here’s the entire UX literature on Divergent Thinking by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Divergent Thinking

Take a deep dive into Divergent Thinking with our course Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services .

The overall goal of this course is to help you design better products, services and experiences by helping you and your team develop innovative and useful solutions. You’ll learn a human-focused, creative design process.

We’re going to show you what creativity is as well as a wealth of ideation methods―both for generating new ideas and for developing your ideas further. You’ll learn skills and step-by-step methods you can use throughout the entire creative process. We’ll supply you with lots of templates and guides so by the end of the course you’ll have lots of hands-on methods you can use for your and your team’s ideation sessions. You’re also going to learn how to plan and time-manage a creative process effectively.

Most of us need to be creative in our work regardless of if we design user interfaces, write content for a website, work out appropriate workflows for an organization or program new algorithms for system backend. However, we all get those times when the creative step, which we so desperately need, simply does not come. That can seem scary—but trust us when we say that anyone can learn how to be creative­ on demand. This course will teach you ways to break the impasse of the empty page. We'll teach you methods which will help you find novel and useful solutions to a particular problem, be it in interaction design, graphics, code or something completely different. It’s not a magic creativity machine, but when you learn to put yourself in this creative mental state, new and exciting things will happen.

In the “Build Your Portfolio: Ideation Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises which together form a complete ideation project so you can get your hands dirty right away. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

Your instructor is Alan Dix. He’s a creativity expert, professor and co-author of the most popular and impactful textbook in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan has worked with creativity for the last 30+ years, and he’ll teach you his favorite techniques as well as show you how to make room for creativity in your everyday work and life.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

All open-source articles on Divergent Thinking

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