Instructions for Brainwriting

By Arthur B VanGundy

Brainwriting is the silent, written generation of ideas in a group. It was originally popularized in Germany in the 70s (although it may not have originated there).

There are two basic types:

  1. nominal ideas in a group that are not shared with other group members while generating ideas) and,
  2. interacting ideas that are shared for additional stimulation.*

An example of nominal brainwriting would be a group of people (either in the same room sitting together OR connected via computer in other locations) write down ideas in index cards or Post-It Notes.

At the end of a set period of time (e.g., 10 -15 minutes) the ideas are collected, organized into groups, and evaluated.


One example of interacting brainwriting is the “Pin Cards” method. Each person in a group writes down an idea on an index card or Post-It note and passes it to the person on their right (or should I say “write”).

The person receiving an idea then can do one of three things:
(1) use the other’s idea as a stimulus for a new idea,
(2) use the other’s idea to think of a modification, or
(3) just pass the card on to the next person.

At the end of a set period of time (e.g., 10 -15 minutes) the ideas are collected, organized into groups, and evaluated.

Multiple variations also exist. For a fun time, try having participants write ideas on the wings of paper airplanes (on different paper colors) and have them exchange ideas by flying them to each other. Pick one up and use it as a stimulus, write down another idea on the plane, and throw again on command.

Or, I’ve also had people write an idea on a piece of paper, tape it to their back, and then walk around a room with others. You read someone’s idea and then add any new ideas by writing on the paper on their back (I call this method, “The Shirt Off Your Back”).

I’ve conducted an in depth research study comparing the two forms of brainwriting with brainstorming variations and a mixture of techniques. A lot of research indicates that brainwriting always (yes, always) results in more ideas than brainstorming, given the same size group and time period.

The difference is NOT due to communication apprehension or “social loafing” (going along for the ride) in brainstorming groups; instead, the difference is quite simple and based on something referred to as “production blocking.”

That is, given two groups of four people each, only one idea at a time can be proposed in brainstorming while a maximum of four ideas can be proposed during the same time interval during brainwriting.

My research also showed that sharing ideas (interacting brainwriting) tends to increase idea quantity over both structured (using deferred judgment) and unstructured brainstorming as well as over nominal brainwriting where the ideas are not shared.

I’ve described brainwriting and many variations in several of my books, including “Techniques of Structured Problem Solving” and “Managing Group Creativity,” available on Amazon.

Related activity:
Try Air Cliche

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.