paper airplane

Air Cliché is a fun ideation (brainstorming) tool that will energize your group

By Arthur B. VanGundy

This creativity technique is the combination of a fun atmosphere, a structured brainstorming procedure, and brainwriting. This idea generation activity helps groups generate ideas while simultaneously encouraging the playful atmosphere needed for unique ideas. Paper airplanes are used to create this atmosphere while enhancing cross-fertilization of ideas.

Initially generating ideas individually and in writing (known as brainwriting), dramatically increases the potential idea pool when compared with traditional brainstorming groups. For instance, a five-person brainstorming group can generate only one idea at a time (this is known as “production blocking”). In contrast, groups which generate ideas individually and in writing will generate four to five times as many ideas since everyone theoretically can contribute at once.

Air Cliché
Procedure Steps:

Introduce the technique by noting that the most productive idea generation groups are those which have fun. This idea generation activity helps groups generate ideas while simultaneously encouraging the playful atmosphere needed for unique ideas.

To begin, discuss the challenge with the large group and ask for any questions or clarifications. Once everyone understands the problem, instruct the participants to organize into small groups of four to seven (five is ideal). Pass out the following list of clichés to each participant (or use a book or software program on clichés to think of additional clichés). Encourage the group members to add their own clichés to this list.

List of Sample Cliches:
Ace in the Hole
Back to the Drawing Board
Bag of Bones
Bark Up the Wrong Tree
Beggars Can’t Be Choosers
Cart Before the Horse
Chase a Rainbow
Chip Off the Old Block
Divide and Conquer
Drop in the Bucket
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining
Fair Shake
Filled to the Brim
Fish in Troubled Waters
Flip Your Lid
Fly the Coop

Ask each person to select one cliché and try to use it as a trigger for an idea. Tell them to write it down on a piece of paper, using markers and writing in large letters. Allow approximately five to ten minutes for this activity and emphasize the need to defer judgment while generating ideas.

To illustrate, suppose the problem involves generating ways to improve a flashlight. Based on a few of the clichés listed above, group members might think of the following ideas:

  • A textured, rough grip to prevent slippage (from “Bark Up the Wrong Tree”).
  • A multi-colored novelty flashlight (from “Chase a Rainbow”)
  • A flashlight with storage compartments (from “Divide and Conquer”)
  • A flashlight with modular power source components which would permit use of different size batteries; the components also would provide flexibility in strength of the light beam as well as in the type of available batteries which could be used.
  • A flashlight with a “flippable” cover to protect the lens (from “Flip Your Lid”)

After group members have generated three or four ideas, instruct them to fold their papers into paper airplanes and fly them to one of the other groups. (Try to coordinate this activity so that everyone throws their airplanes at about the same time.

If there are more than two groups, ask the participants to avoid flying most of their airplanes to one or two groups.) Group members next should collect the airplanes flown to them and take turns reading aloud the ideas written on them to the other group members.

Each group then tries to improve the ideas read or use them as triggers to brainstorm other ideas. Groups record all modifications and new ideas. Finally, each group should select a sample of their best ideas and report them to the large group. If time permits, ask the large group to evaluate the overall process.

Customization and Options

The paper airplanes also can be used as a warm up exercise or ice breaker for brainstorming sessions. For instance, you might have participants brainstorm totally absurd ideas for a problem, write them down on paper airplanes, and fly them to other groups.

Groups receiving the ideas then discuss the ideas and decide which ones are most impractical. The winning idea is the most absurd one from all the groups. To illustrate how even bad ideas can trigger more practical ones, ask each group to attempt transforming its worst idea into a more workable one.

Group members can use their own clichés or those from a cliché dictionary (e.g., The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers, Ballantine Books, 1985).

Arthur B. VanGundy Ph.D. was Professor of Communication at the University of Oklahoma from 1976 – 2008. He was Board Member at Creative Oklahoma, Inc., and a Leader at Creative Education Foundation.  He wrote the creativity training program for the American Management Association and the creativity chapter for The American Marketing Association’s Marketing Encyclopedia.