Two Thinking modes in Design: Divergent vs. Convergent thinking

Learn the differences, when to use each thinking mode, and how to develop creative thinking skills.

In another article, I talked about different Design Thinking models. While their processes may be a bit different from each other, what they all have in common is the switch between two thinking modes. This switch in thinking modes forms the diamond shape in the Double Diamond model. 


The two thinking modes are divergent and convergent thinking. Let’s start with Divergent Thinking. When you ‘brainstorm’ ideas, you are in a divergent thinking mode. This thinking requires you to expand your mind and explore as many ideas as possible. Divergent thinking allows you to see new and endless possibilities. There is no need to be logical here.

What about Convergent Thinking? You are in convergent thinking mode when someone comes up with ideas, and you shoot them down. This is not necessarily bad. It is a necessary process that puts you back in reality. Using logic, you narrow down ideas and find one or two that will work. 

Divergent Thinking vs Convergent Thinking. Source: weareive

In Design Thinking, designers use both Divergent and Convergent Thinking styles. Here is an example. First, the team can diverge ideas by ideating on papers.  Then, they converge ideas and select a few to test and implement. Switching between these two thinking modes can be confusing. Therefore, these two activities are usually scheduled apart in separate meetings. For example, you can hold an hour meeting to brainstorm ideas. Here, no critiques are allowed. All is good. Then, the next day, you hold another meeting solely to cross off ideas by thinking about budget, cost, technology limitations, etc. 

Note that a clear distinction between modes is helpful, especially when collaborating in a team. Imagine that one person is trying to come up with ideas, and another judges them. One person talks about facts, while the other talks about feelings. In that situation, the discussion is unproductive because people are taking different perspectives. To facilitate an effective discussion and decision-making, Edward de Bono developed the Six Thinking Hats framework. The technique encourages people to wear different ‘hats’ or thinking styles and helps the team have a focused discussion where everyone thinks in a parallel and productive way. The six hats are;

  • The white hat - objective; facts & logics
  • The red hat - intuitive; emotions & instincts
  • The black hat - cautious; predicting negative outcomes
  • The yellow hat - optimistic; looking for positive outcomes
  • The green hat - creative; ideas
  • The blue hat - control; management & organization

While Convergent Thinking is more natural, Divergent Thinking can be more challenging as it requires creative thinking. Most people believe they aren’t creative and usually leave the job to the ‘creative’ people. However, everyone can be creative, whether they realize it or not. To uncover creative potential, a great design facilitator design a workshop that creates an environment for creativity. 

In design facilitation, one of the most critical techniques used in enhancing creative thinking is time limitation. Giving more time doesn’t necessarily mean more ideas. Instead, the time constraint allows us to go deep and far into our trains of thought. Among the methods used in the design sprint workshop, the Crazy 8 is a method where you ideate 8 ideas within 8 minutes. That is, you can only spend 1 minute on one idea before moving to the next one. Constraints push you outside your comfort zone and are one of the keys to boosting creativity.  

Crazy 8 method. Source: Zemoso 

Even with these techniques, coming up with innovative ideas can still be challenging. 

How can we train our brains to be more creative?

A psychologist and inventor, William J.J. Gordon explored the system of creativity, and was the founder of the Synectics creativity method. Synectics refers to being able to find connections and relationships between concepts, objects, and ideas that seem unrelated. We can do it daily by looking at everyday objects and choosing the concepts ourselves. For example: What can I do with a paper clip and a spoon? Or What relationship could there be between Books and Cheese? 

The art community adopted this creativity method as a way to create novel artworks. Here, the exercise is to choose an object and draw it in six different ways, choosing from the 23 Synectic triggers. We often see Art Synectic ideas in surreal drawings. Synectics also involves the process of meaning-making through metaphors, analogies, or symbols.

Design Synectics Exercise. Source: artwithjami 

Synectics trigger. Source: spudart

These methods and techniques help us to see things through a different lens and promote our divergent thinking. As a science and engineering person, I’m more confident with my Convergent thinking but not so much in Divergent thinking. The HCI and UX community is strongly based on engineering, while creative thinking is more rooted in Humanities and Art such as languages, literature, and music. To develop creative thinking skills, I believe there are more that designers can learn from the art community.