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Methods – Lateral Thinking

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What it is:

Designers and users are involved in a series of shared mental activities to provoke new ideas. A useful starting point for this method is to list the sequence of actions in a particular process, then play around with these by removing, reversing or distorting some of them to provoke lateral thinking. Concepts that are generated may be sketched or written by either the designer or user.






Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High


A range of ideas and early-stage concepts

Best suited to:



Early stages of the design process

Generating a broad range of concepts for further development

Building empathy with users

Tackling a problem in new ways if thinking is stagnating



Type of interaction:


Goes well with:

Scenario, Participatory Design Game

What designers say about it

‘These techniques are useful in stimulating new ideas.  When you get users to follow them, it gives an insight into the way they think about problems too…’ – Jonathan West


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Redesign of the resuscitation trolley

Designers Jonathan West and Sally Halls used lateral thinking methods with clinical hospital staff to generate a range of concepts for a new resuscitation trolley.

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Out of the Box

Designers Clara Gaggero and Adrian Westaway faced the challenge of getting older people to talk about technology. They asked workshop participants to create their ideal mobile phone using the bananas and stickers to generate lateral thinking about such devices.

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Background and further reading

Many lateral thinking methods in design are well described in Edward De Bono’s book Serious Creativity. Here is an example. Consider the task of measuring a patient’s temperature. We assume that the nurse is present, places the thermometer in the patient’s mouth, waits and notes down the reading.

The ‘Escape’ method negates these assumptions. What if the nurse is absent?  This provokes a range of ideas around the possible remote recording of temperature. The ‘Reversal’ method switches the subject and object. What if the patient took the nurse’s temperature? This seems ludicrous, but may lead to the patient playing a more active role in the process. The ‘Distortion’ method plays with time sequences.  What if the reading could be noted down without waiting?  This could provoke ideas around a thermometer that stays in the patient, and readings are taken at leisure.

These methods are expanded in more detail, along with many others, in:

De Bono, E. 1995, Serious Creativity, (HarperCollins) 978-0006379584