Design Thinking: Brainstorming vs. Design Sprints

Choosing the correct problem-solving tactic can aid in project success. 

It's easy to confuse design sprints and brainstorming sessions if you're unfamiliar with the nuances that make them unique. Though there is some overlap in purpose and activity, the two approaches are quite different and can provide divergent results. For organizations going through a change process or working to solve major challenges, choosing the right problem-solving rubric can make the difference between a creative breakthrough and a frustrating waste of time. Here are some of the key distinctions that will help your organization collaboratively generate new ideas and achieve your goals.


Developed as a means of increasing the output of creative ideas by advertisers, brainstorming was built on four main principles:

  • Generate as many ideas as possible
  • Prioritize unconventional ideas
  • Combine ideas to arrive at the best solution
  • Do not criticize ideas during sessions

By following these principles, the hope is that brainstorming sessions pool the creativity of individuals to arrive a solution based on the wisdom of the crowd. In theory, the freedom from criticism and dual concentration on volume and novelty of ideas allows participants to think creatively and be more open with their ideas. In practice, however, the lack of structure often concludes in aimless ideation without actionable results.

Design Sprint

Design sprints are related to the design thinking methodology, which consists of five major steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. To take the methodology from theory to practice, design sprints are a condensed form of those steps that organizations undertake by gathering a small, multi-disciplinary group of stakeholders related to a particular challenge. Led by a guide, the group commences a comprehensive five-day process that results in a testable prototype, allowing for direct user feedback that helps enhance the solution.

While incorporating elements of brainstorming during the process, what sets design sprints apart is the following:

  • Reliance on structure: The regimented structure of design sprints keeps all participants on task to methodically work through the problem, as opposed to brainstorming's unfocused ideation.
  • Definition of the problem: The early stages of a design sprint ensure participants are aligned in identifying, understanding, and resolving a singular, solvable problem.
  • Focus on feedback-driven refinement: Rapid prototyping allows for a semi-finished solution to be tested with real users at the end of the five-day process, allowing for direct, immediate feedback and iterative improvements earlier in the process.
  • Greater time investment: While time intensive, design sprints front-load the effort required to develop solutions, taking a full five days to go from problem-identification to solution-development to user testing.

Design sprints improve upon brainstorming in a number of ways, one of which is by minimizing brainstorming's dependence on combining less-relevant ideas to produce successful ideas. Another is by providing a way to quickly develop and test solutions through rapid prototyping, which has less overall investment than traditional methods. What design sprints do is provide the guidance lacking in brainstorming to advance it towards a more cohesive problem-solving strategy.

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