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Why bad ideas lead to good ideas: using “reverse thinking” in a design sprint at the National Gallery of Art

Sketches from a bad ideas brainstorm
Team members sharing ideas at the National Gallery of Art
Team members sharing their “bad” ideas in the design sprint at the National Gallery of Art

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views and opinions of the National Gallery of Art or the federal government.

Cans of spray paint next to the artworks. Glitter bombs in the galleries. Pony rides in the lobby. Free skateboards available at the Information Desk.

These were just a handful of the intentionally bad ideas that a team at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., generated during a “bad ideas brainstorm,” also known as a “wrong thinking” exercise, during a four-day design sprint. Bad ideas brainstorming is a method for generating novel solutions by pushing teams beyond the safe and status quo.

A cross-disciplinary group of museum staff, joined by collaborators from local institutions and community members, were gathered together to imagine and prototype new digital offerings that promote access to the Collection and build stronger connections between the Gallery and its visitors. The grant-funded project specifically called for the convening of an event that would foster play, creation, and innovation, using the Gallery and its collections as a springboard.

Team members doing solo sketching
Team members at the National Gallery of Art generating “bad” ideas during the first round of Crazy 8s sketching.

Design sprints are facilitated working sessions that involve exploring and validating concepts with end-users through research and prototyping. At Designing Insights, we ground our design sprints in the design thinking framework as it’s taught and applied at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of design, or, and specialize in the application of design thinking to museums and cultural heritage organizations. Design thinking offers a method for cultivating responsive and engaging institutions and developing relevant and meaningful visitor experiences and programs.

Generating bad ideas using Crazy8s sketching

A wall of Crazy 8s sketchesIn most of the design sprints that we run, when we are in a “divergent” phase, we urge participants to go for quantity, not quality, and encourage them to come up with wild and crazy ideas. But this was the first time we had explicitly instructed sprinters to generate truly bad ideas. Really awful, embarrassing, egregious, outrageous, impermissible, even taboo, ideas.

And the results were phenomenal. We set aside eight minutes for the solo sketching activity known as Crazy 8s, and asked people to think of the worst ideas possible in response to “How Might We” questions they had already crafted. We then had team members take three minutes each to share their bad ideas with teammates. The howls of laughter (even some snorting) was contagious, and the room came alive.

After each person had a chance to share their bad ideas, we asked them to repeat the Crazy 8s activity, this time adapting, digging deeper, flipping, combining, or exploring the opposite of the bad ideas they had just come up with. (The smart folks over at Design Sprint Academy have a nice variation on how to run the activity; they call it Evil8s and details are here in a Medium post.)

A Crazy 8s sketch of bad ideas
Some deliberately bad ideas generated in the first Crazy 8s exercise

Moving from bad to good

In ethnographic-style interviews with museum visitors, the team heard over and over that the majority of visitors did not consider themselves to be “art people.” Visitors apologized for not being “art people” and expressed a lack of confidence around the skills and personal experiences they brought with them when they walked through the doors.

In response to this, one of the “bad” ideas was to require all museum visitors to attend “mandatory” academic lectures about the museum and current exhibitions before they could come inside. Another related idea was to only allow entrance to visitors with PhDs. These ideas were recognized as exclusive and elitist— positively bad ideas.

Video prototype
Testing the prototype for the “crash course” videos in the Gallery Atrium.

But these bad ideas led to a new concept that the team is now exploring through prototyping: short, on-demand videos related to building skills and confidence around looking at art. Visitors can consume these videos in the atrium before heading into the galleries. These videos will provide short “crash courses” that will empower visitors, build their confidence, and validate that they are art people, no matter their background, training, or experience.

Another theme that the workshop participants heard in their interviews with visitors was that basic comfort is a big issue. Seating, way finding, location of restrooms and food are top-of-mind. In response to this, the team brainstormed ideas for how to make the museum more comfortable and welcoming. One of the “bad” ideas they generated was to require absolute silence in the museum. No conversations at all. A vow of silence upon entry.

This led to another idea: promoting and fostering conversations, and making them visible and tangible. The team prototyped a platform that invites visitors to share their thoughts, stories, emotions, and reflections with other visitors via a digital interface that is displayed in the atrium, and is now in the process of refining this prototype for a potential implementation.

Why do bad ideas lead to good ideas?

What is it about bad ideas that makes them useful tools for leading us to good ideas? How can imagining the worst way to solve a problem actually help us solve the problem?

Team members high-fiving1) It lowers the pressure

Anyone who has been in a traditional brainstorming meeting in which people are encouraged to “be creative” knows how painful it can be. Faced with a blank piece of paper and the pressure to turn on some “creative juices,” most people draw a big fat blank.

But by freeing the group from any pretenses of being creative or having “good” ideas, the self-editing and self-consciousness melts away. As one participant in the sprint at the National Gallery reflected, “Sometimes you just have to be bad before being OK.”

2) It establishes a level playing field

No matter your role or seniority in your organization, everyone is equally qualified to come up with bad ideas. You can’t get a degree in bad ideas (although some of my friends who spent many years in graduate school might argue otherwise …) and it does not matter if you are in a “creative” role in your organization; everyone has the same qualifications when it comes to the generation of bad ideas.

3) It builds trust in oneself and the team

One participant in the sprint reflected that the experience taught her the importance of “trusting your ideas—all of them.” Another shared: “I had a habit of being very hard on myself, but now I think it’s OK to have bad ideas.” It was as if being given this explicit permission to be “bad” built trust in her own innate capacity.

The experience also builds trust among team members. If everyone is deliberately generating “bad” ideas, no one has to worry about being judged by peers, as everyone is making oneself vulnerable.

4) It loosens up the room

The sheer joy that this activity brought to the room was palpable. The humor changed the energy, and connected colleagues to each other. As one participant noted, “How could laughter and a sense of humor not be good for everyone?”

5) It creates space for the good ideas

Starting with bad ideas opens up doors and possibilities. It clears the plate for good ideas. By putting the awful ideas out there, the group is able to adapt, flip, combine, or move on from the bad to the good.

In conclusion

If you’re trying hard to solve a problem and you’re finding yourself stuck, stop trying to come up with a good idea, and think of the absolute worst way to solve it.

“I used to think having bad ideas was bad,” reflected one of the participants in the four-day sprint. “Now I think they can be starting points for revolutionary thinking.”

Give yourself and your team the time and space to mindfully go for bad ideas. Then take the bad ideas and flip them, explore the opposite, adapt and combine ideas, or look for a kernel of a good inside the bad. Then see where it leads you. You might just end up with a revolution.




Birsel, Ayse. To Come Up with a Good Idea, Start by Imagining the Worst Idea Possible. Harvard Business Review. August 16, 2017. Accessed: July 23, 2019.

Dorf, Bob.How Looking at the Worst Possible Idea Could Lead You to the Best One. Inc. July 13, 2017. Accessed: July 25, 2019.

Wilson, Chauncey. Method 4 of 100: Reverse Brainstorming. Designing the User Experience at Autodesk. January 20, 2011. Accessed: July 26, 2019.



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Using improv games for brainstorming and embracing failure: part 2 of 3

Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr

This is the second of three posts in which I’ll share some of my favorite improv games to use with teams who are learning the design thinking process.

The first post covered games to kick-off a meeting or workshop. This post covers games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

Games for Warming-up for Brainstorming

One of the key tenets of improvisational theater—saying “Yes, and!” to the ideas or “offers” your partner gives you —has a profound impact on the creative process. I use these games to demonstrate the power of building on the ideas of your colleagues, which is essential to the collaborative nature of design thinking. By consciously saying “Yes, and” to each other, players experience how much farther a group gets when the members support each other and build on each other’s ideas.

1) Remember Mexico (also called Shared Memory)
Ask everyone to walk around the room, then call stop and tell people to find a partner. Now ask the group to pick a location for a fictional trip. Working with a partner, everyone has to “reminisce” about the trip they took together to that fictional location by responding to everything their partner says with, “Yes, and, remember when …”

Here’s an example of how it might go:

Me: “Hey, remember that time we took that trip to Mexico?”
Partner: “Yes, and, remember how we ended up on that deserted beach?”
Me: “Yes, and, remember how we found a treasure chest buried in the sand?”
Partner: “Yes, and remember that is was full of gold coins?”

Let the pairs reminisce about their shared memory for two minutes, and then call time. Ask for volunteers to share out the last line they spoke. Often the last lines are hilarious, and no two last lines are alike.

Debrief with the group how it felt to say “Yes, and” to everything. Point out to the group that everyone started with the same fictional locale, but the groups ended up with wildly different stories.

2) Let’s plan a party

This is similar to Remember Mexico, but it can be played in larger groups (teams of three to six). Have people get into teams. Tell them they are going to plan a work party, and ask them for suggestions for the kind of party they want to plan (e.g., holiday party, exhibition opening, product launch party, etc.). Agree on what type of party they will be planning.

Tell the teams that the only rule is that every time someone throws out an idea, the others in the group should respond with “Yes, but.” After throwing out a “Yes, but,” the team member should come up with reasons the idea will never work. Let the groups go on for three minutes, shooting down each other’s ideas.

Call time and then ask the groups to repeat their party planning, but now they must respond to every idea with “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but.” Let them go on for three minutes again.

After the second round, be sure to do a debrief and ask how the first round was different from the second round. How was the energy? What was the difference? How did the parties from round 1 compare with those from round 2? (Hint: most groups never get very far with their party planning in round 1.)

Games for Embracing Failure

1) The Failure Bow (or Circus Bow)
I use this game to establish and demonstrate that in the design thinking process, we will have a new relationship to the notion of “failure.” When we are taking risks and pushing ourselves to build new skills, we often fail. But these “failures” often take us places we never might have reached if we hadn’t spoken up, asked a question, or tried something new. And this is worthy of celebration!

The most basic way to teach the Failure Bow is to ask people to practice throwing their arms in the air and yelling “Woo hoo! I failed!” We then spend a minute walking around the room, making eye contact with each other, and booming with great enthusiasm, “Woo hoo! I failed!”

Another variation is to ask for volunteers to come up in front of the group, one at a time. The volunteer in front of the group says “I failed!” and shares a light-hearted failure, and the group gives them an over-the-top, rousing reception of cheers and woo-hoos, celebrating the “failure.”

Examples of a failure might be, “I drove to work with my coffee cup on the roof of my car today!” or “I let my kid eat ice cream for dinner!” The person on stage takes an exaggerated bow and basks in the glow of the celebration of his/her “failure.”

The point of this is to experience what it feels like to celebrate failure. The game finishes when all the volunteers willing to share their “failures” have gone.

2) Group Counting
Have everyone stand in a circle. The goal is to count as high as you can get, starting at the number one, one person at a time. Anyone in the circle can shout out the next number. The trick is that if more than one person says a number at the same time, you have to start over again.

Instead of groaning when someone “messes up” and the group has to start over, everyone yells “Woo hoo! We failed!” and happily starts over.


Games for user testing and prototyping.