3 Agency-Proven Ways to Put Design Thinking to Work

June 27, 2017

By Matt Magee, VP of strategy at PJA Advertising + Marketing

Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock.com


Everyone I know in advertising and marketing is interested in ideas. Not just good ideas. Extraordinary ideas. The kind that elevate our work and make an unmistakable impact on people, industries, and the world.

Becoming an organization that generates better ideas more consistently takes real discipline. At PJA, we've been looking to the discipline of design thinking: a highly developed set of principles, processes, and tools for creative problem solving. Here are three specific design thinking techniques that have helped us keep improving the quality of our ideas— and the way we work together to generate them.

(NOTE: Several of us at PJA have attended one of LUMA Institute's Human-Centered Design workshops. Shout out to them for inspiring us with their toolkit and approaches.)


Technique 1: Inspiring questions

So much about where you end up on a project depends on where you start. Knowing this, we've been experimenting with using inspiring, open-ended questions to set us on the right path for broad exploration. (Example: "How might we change the way people think about saving?") We like to make this an in-person exercise with our client team and have everyone take a few minutes to write down several questions. Then we review all of our questions together, grouping them by category, theme, etc., and decide which really represents what we're trying to achieve.

This a powerful way to get everyone on the same page before diving into a project. But more important, it's an opportunity to expand our aspirations and unlock the potential for bigger ideas and bigger impact.


Technique 2: Late averaging brainstorms

Brainstorming can lead to stunning ideas; it can also feel like an inefficient exercise that doesn't get the most out of talented people. This can occur when a few voices dominate the discussion and narrow the thinking too soon (a problem called "early averaging"). A simple technique that has helped us overcome this groupthink challenge is late averaging brainstorms. Everyone gets a pad of sticky notes and a pen, and we each spend the first 10 minutes coming up with ideas silently on our own. Then we put them all up on the whiteboard and discuss everyone's ideas together, looking for keepers and themes that will move us forward.

The results can be astounding. A much broader exploration of potential ideas. A faster path to get to them. And best of all, tapping into the creativity of people who may not contribute as freely in the rough and tumble of an old-fashioned brainstorm.


Technique 3: Impact versus investment matrix

It's great to generate a lot of good ideas, but you can never pursue all of them. And decision makers usually don't appreciate being presented a long list of possibilities. An impact versus investment matrix is a smart way to prioritize which ideas get resources and attention. To make one, plot marketing impact on your vertical axis, low to high; plot level of investment on your horizontal axis, low to high. (Remember, investment includes time and effort as well as money.) Then work as a group to put each of your ideas into a quadrant.

This unforgiving matrix has really helped us avoid the tyranny of too many choices. It makes it clear where our best opportunities are — and provides a powerful framework for persuading decision makers to take action. (Pro Tip: Anything that ends up in the low-impact/high-investment quadrant just doesn't make the cut.)

Of course, there's a lot more to design thinking than sticky notes and matrices. But these three specific techniques have generated some real results for our collaborative thinking processes. I hope they lead to some incredible ideas for you.


As VP of Strategy at PJA (@agencypja), Matt Magee focuses on developing campaign strategies that help our clients sell amazing things to the world's toughest buyers.


The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

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