This super fun ideation technique comes to us from Mónica Fajardo, a Learning Experience Designer based in Bogotá, Colombia, with a background in Industrial Design.
Working at Pillow, she has mentored local startups and facilitated workshops for companies like Adidas, Samsung, and Sura—helping them foster collaboration and set up innovation-driven cultures through the design of fun and creative learning experiences.
She’s also a great bread baker—which makes her a natural fit for the Butter blog!
Mónica originally presented this technique in a Butter Spotlight, so you can also watch her workshop (starting at 8:00) if you’re more of a visual learner.
Brainstorming is great for coming up with lots of ideas quickly—but not necessarily for coming up with creative ideas.
In a brainstorming session, we’re presented with a problem and asked to come up with solutions. Naturally, we gravitate towards and stick with the first ideas that come out of our mouths that solve the problem at hand. Job done!
But what if these obvious answers aren’t creative enough?
What if we’re looking for ideas that are far more disruptive—ideas that would never be anyone’s first, second, or third thought to get from point A to point B?
Fear not, for I come in peace with a step-by-step method that we’ve designed at Pillow to inspire your most creative ideas: pointstorming.
But first, let’s explore what it means to come up with a creative idea.
Where do good ideas come from?
On average, a person has around 6,200 thoughts a day.
But most thoughts can’t be considered full-fledged ideas—unless your craving for a good breakfast motivates you to make yourself some fluffy pancakes with a hot cup of black tea (personally, I think that’s a wonderful idea).
For a thought to become an idea, you must connect two elements you’ve gathered through previous observation and experience.
In order to have good ideas, you need a decent enough library of past experiences and knowledge to make powerful connections.
But having an abundant experiences library doesn’t guarantee we’re always going to have good ideas.
For ideas to be sufficiently innovative and tasty, they need some proper brewing (i.e. time) with the right set of ingredients (i.e. experience and knowledge).
But there’s one more thing missing…
We all know the story of Isaac Newton. While taking a walk, he decided to stop for a moment and sit by an apple tree, when all of a sudden, an apple dropped down on his head, which made him wonder:
Why do apples fall straight down and not sideways or upward?
And so the concept of gravitational forces was born (or so the legend says—there’s no evidence this tale actually happened).
Nevertheless, Isaac teaches us a valuable lesson:
You have to ask the right question in order to make new connections. And asking the right question often comes from getting inspired by unexpected inputs (like an apple falling on your head).
So every day, you are swimming in valuable experiences and knowledge, just waiting for the day that they can connect with each other in order to solve real-life problems. Your head is full of pure gold.
What is creativity?
At Pillow, we define creativity as the ability to connect points that aren’t closely linked.
Let’s think about creativity in the context of problem-solving.
We’re all natural problem solvers. Once we’re presented with a problem, we go straight to the solution. It’s like joining two points with a straight line.
For example, if I asked you how to fix a broken window, you’ll immediately have a couple of ideas in mind:
- put duct tape over the cracks
- fix the broken pieces with transparent superglue; or
- replace the window with a brand-new one
Of course, all these answers solve the problem at hand, but are they the most creative answers? No.
Because we’re so eager to provide an answer as quickly as we can, we overlook more interesting possibilities.
What if, instead of drawing a straight line between problem and solution, we added a detour or another point?
Going back to our little dilemma of fixing the broken window, what if you happened to look down at your desk to see a couple of action figures laying around? Suddenly, sparks fly!
By connecting three points—the broken window, the action figures laying on your table, and the need to stop the window from falling apart—you come up with the idea of recreating a famous fight scene from your favorite show.
Is it the best solution for the problem? Probably not. But I’m certain it’s one of the most creative ideas you’ll ever see.
Let’s do another quick example. What if I asked you to come up with an idea for a business on a hot beach?
You might suggest:
- cold drinks or ice cream
- portable shade or fans
- beach towels or flip flops
But what if I asked you to come up with an idea that includes another point of inspiration: the movies.
Then you might come up with the idea to screen Jaws on the beach, to serve ice-cold popcorn, or to build showers on the beach in the form of human-sized soda dispensers—like this viral ad campaign from Sprite:
One more quick example: what if I want a place to hang up my keys? I could just buy a key holder.
Or, I could add a third point: playing tennis—a hobby of mine. Then, I might come up with the idea of making a tennis ball keyholder:
But coming up with endless sources of inspiration can feel daunting. That's where our Pointstorming tool comes in handy.
What is pointstorming?
Pointstorming is a foolproof creative thinking technique that—unlike brainstorming—supplies you with endless inspiration to trigger great ideas.
Whereas the goal of brainstorming is to generate ideas, the goal of pointstorming is to generate inputs for creative ideas.
Pointstorming is based on the idea that by adding extra points on our path between the problem and solution, we get more creative ideas.
With pointstorming, the world is made up of points. Points can be anything:
- memories, etc.
The magic happens when we suddenly become aware of these points and start forcing associations between them.
This is because creativity works well with constraints. I love this quote from Drew Boyd's Inside the Box:
Constraints, far from being opposed to creativity, make creativity possible.
When we force ourselves to think inside the box, we make it easier for ourselves to create connections.
To pointstorm your way to a solution, you simply list all the points you have on hand and use them to come up with new connections.
The step-by-step guide to pointstorming ideas
Continuing with the food metaphor, poinstorming is like having a beautifully designed kitchen that’s equipped with all the best ingredients, easily within reach.
So to assure ourselves that the result will be tasty (i.e. highly creative), we must first organize our implements. That’s where categorizing makes its flashy entrance.
Because let’s face it, we can all be a little messy with our ingredients, so let’s make sure to follow our recipe.
Here’s how to pointstorm in four easy steps.
Step 1. Bring your points to the table
To start, frame the problem you’re trying to solve as a powerful question.
For example, I’m going to start with a big challenge like “How can I strengthen my family’s relationship?”
Then, it’s time to list all the points at your disposal. This can be knowledge, places, people, objects you have lying around, places, people, and even a few inspirational jokes that may not look like they are related, but will come in handy once we get cooking.
The important thing here is that you bring as many points as possible so we have enough to play around with.
For my example, I might list all the people in my family, objects in our house, activities we like doing, and places we can go.
Step 2. Categorize your points
Next, you should group all the points you came up with into categories.
Categorizing is an amazing thing because it helps our brain better understand and grasp the information we need to process.
After five years of prototyping and validating this method at Pillow, we’ve found five categories that encompass all the necessary ingredients for disruptive ideas to happen:
- Places, and
Let me quickly explain each category:
Objects: List all the tangible and intangible objects found in the problem you are solving. For example, car, computer, and pencil are tangible objects, while Bluetooth, music, and software are intangible objects.
People: When we think about people, we want you to bring not only roles needed to solve a problem but also what that person symbolizes, such as their gender or race. You may need specific people too. Example people points may include: architect, mom, Asian Americans, or Jake.
Actions: These are verbs that either represent the kind of change you want to bring forward or movements that are currently present. For example, run, empower, or engage.
Places: Where is this happening? In a country, on a mountain, inside a house, or perhaps in your mind? Like the Objects category, it’s good that you not only think about physical places as well as more abstract concepts. For example, a pool, the Chapinero neighborhood, or heaven.
Time: This category is the most complex of all. It refers to all the words we use to talk about time, like morning, afternoon, and night. You can also use words like fast, constant, forever, abrupt, or centuries.
Once you’ve sorted your ideas into categories, take some time to think of more ideas in each category.
Once you have around 20 points under each category, you are ready to move on to the next step.
Step 3. Connect your points into an idea
This is where the fun part begins. At the beginning of this post, we talked about how an idea is the result of an unexpected connection.
So your next task is to connect your points together to form an idea. Try to at least choose at least three points from different categories.
Creativity really sparks when it’s put under the pressure of forced association.
At this step, don’t think too much. Go with your gut. Go for the unconventional or the impossible.
The point is not to go for the straightforward answer. Try to mix it up a little by selecting a point completely unrelated to the others.
It might feel difficult at first to turn off that voice in your head that says that it sounds too silly, or there isn’t enough money to pull it off, or my boss won’t like it. We need to welcome the raw and unfiltered in this process so that we can rescue the best bits for later.
So pick a number or blindly point your finger at the list under each category, and try to connect them together until an idea surges.
Here are five points I connected together for my example: necklace, mom, laugh, omnipresent, and night:
From this, I came up with a brilliant idea: a necklace for mothers that counts every time they laugh during the day at every place, so that at night, their children have a happiness report of their mothers.
⚠️ Warning: One common mistake is to write down a phrase that includes all five words from each category. Remember: these ideas are meant to solve the problem. At the end, your idea must have an evident outcome.
👖 Tip: If you’re stuck for ideas, some points on your list may have a world of possibilities in and of itself. A pair of jeans, for example, is also made up of a zipper, pockets, and denim.
Step 4. Share your tasty ideas
Just like when you bake an amazing tray of cinnamon rolls, you’ll want to share the delight with others.
Share your ideas and connections with others. How did you connect the dots?
This exercise gives you the chance to say your ideas out loud, so as you talk, it takes a more solid form. And as you talk, you might spark an idea for someone else.
🧈 Tip: What I love about Butter is that it offers the perfect setting for this step, thanks to its reactions that let you celebrate each other's ideas. You can also post your ideas in a thread in the chat to help spark even more new ideas.
📒 Read more: Want to run your own pointstorming workshop in Butter? Try these tips for designing an engaging workshop.
Start pointstorming your way to great ideas
Innovation, like any life-making decision, is a leap of faith.
The results are unknown and the path may look rocky, but rest assured that you have what it takes to achieve greater things!
It’s like we said throughout this post: you are sitting on a goldmine of knowledge and experiences. Your brain is trained to solve problems and you have what it takes to spark great ideas—you just aren’t always aware of it.
At Pillow, we truly believe that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things as long as they have the right tools. Pointstorming is just one of many that can help you do just that.
If you want to download Pillow's pointstorming PDF, you can access it (in Spanish) on their website here (registration required).
And if you're eager to give pointstorming a shot in Butter, start a free trial here.