The Osborn Checklist: A Creativity Method from the Originator of Brainstorming

"Creativity is at once a skill, an art, and a lifestyle." - Alexander Faickney Osborn

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in January, 2016.


To say that brainstorming as a general practice didn’t exist before Alexander Faickney Osborn would be misleading. Collaborative thinking has existed since neanderthals decided to venture out of their single-family caves and employed cultural buffering to assure group survival. But Brainstorming (with a capital “b”) as a specific practice following a defined process was very much a product of Osborn’s studies.

A co-founder of worldwide advertising agency BBDO, Osborn went on to author several theories of creativity, culminating in the creation the Creative Education Foundation. But his foray into pedagogy began back in 1921 with A Short Course in Advertising, his first book in which he explored the principles of the advertising business. Yet it wasn’t until 1942 with the publishing of How to Think Up that the so-called “father of brainstorming” established himself as a foremost philosopher in applied creativity. Later books included Wake Up Your Mind: 101 Ways to Develop Creativeness (1952), Your Creative Power: How to Use Imagination (1952), Applied Imagination (1953), and How to Become More Creative (1964).

Osborn held the underlying belief that everyone had creative potential; all that was needed was a process to teach and nurture it. “Creativity is more than mere imagination,” he proclaimed. “It is imagination inseparably coupled with both intent and effort.” He accessed that intent and effort through brainstorming, a technique that relied on two ideals: the separation of imaginative and judicial judgment; and the principle of suspending judgment. When imagination and judgement are separated and judgement suspended, the imagination is allowed to work freely, which provides the foundation for his theory that “quantity will breed quality.”

And with that in mind he laid out the parameters for traditional or classical brainstorming:

  1. Arrange the meeting for a group of the right size and makeup (typically four to eight people).
  2. Write the initial topic on a flipboard, whiteboard or other system where everyone can see it. The better defined, and more clearly stated the problem, the better the session tends to be.
  3. Make sure that everyone understands the problem or issue.
  4. Review the ground rules. Avoid criticizing ideas and suspend judgement. All ideas are as valid as each other. A large number of ideas is the aim, if you limit the number of ideas people will start to judge the ideas and only put in their “best” or more often than not, the least radical and new. Don’t censor any ideas, keep the meeting flow going. Listen to other ideas, and try to piggy back on them to other ideas. Avoid any discussion of ideas or questions, as these stop the flow of ideas.
  5. Have someone facilitating to enforce the rules and write down all the ideas as they occur (the scribe can be a second person)
  6. Generate ideas , either in an unstructured way (anyone can say an idea at any time) or structure (going round the table, allowing people to pass if they have no new ideas).
  7. Clarify and conclude the session. Ideas that are identical can be combined, all others should be kept. It is useful to get a consensus of which ideas should be looked at further or what the next action and timescale is.

Above all, Osborn emphasized the importance of positive reinforcement: “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it at the bud.”

“Creativity is now something we can turn on and off like a faucet,” he continued. “It is an experience and expression in our lives that must be nurtured. This nurturing process means that creativity is at once a skill, an art, and a lifestyle.”

How to turn it on? Work through the Osborn Checklist:

  1. Put to other uses? As it is? If modified?
  2. Adapt? Is there anything else like this? What does this tell you? Is the past comparable?
  3. Modify? Give it a new angle? Alter the colour, sound, odour, meaning, motion, and shape?
  4. Magnify? Can anything be added, time, frequency, height, length, strength? Can it be duplicated, multiplied or exaggerated?
  5. Minify? Can anything be taken away? Made smaller? Lowered? Shortened? Lightened? Omitted? Broken up?
  6. Substitute? Different ingredients used? Other material? Other processes? Other place? Other approach? Other tone of voice? Someone else?
  7. Rearrange? Swap components? Alter the pattern, sequence or layout? Change the pace or schedule? Transpose cause and effect?
  8. Reverse? Opposites? Backwards? Reverse roles? Change shoes? Turn tables? Turn other cheek? Transpose “+/-“?
  9. Combine? Combine units, purposes, appeals or ideas? A blend, alloy, or an ensemble?

A derivation of the Osborn Checklist was later thought up by Bob Eberle (and written by Michael Michalko), known by the acronym SCAMPER:

  1. Substitute – Components, materials, people.
  2. Combine – Mix, combine with other assemblies or services, integrate.
  3. Adapt – Alter, change function, use part of another element.
  4. Modify – Increase or reduce in scale, change shape, modify attributes (e.g. color).
  5. Put to another use.
  6. Eliminate – Remove elements, simplify, reduce to core functionality
  7. Reverse – Turn inside out or upside down.

Whether you utilize the Osborn Checklist or SCAMPER or another creativity method, the most important takeaway is that you give yourself the necessary time and appropriate place to think instead of relying of random moments of inspiration. “If you go fishing you may not catch any fish. If you don’t go fishing, you’ll never catch any fish,” he said. “As in the piling up of hypothetical alternatives, creative accidents follow the law of probabilities the more we fish, the more likely we are to get a strike.”