Divergent thinking workshop 1


Matthew Hynam, Elliot Ballam, Amy Evered, Subarna Gurung, Samuel Hold, Francesca Johnson, Jonathan Jones, Stalo Pitta, Joe Travail


The first in a series of pedagogical workshops to understand how introducing divergent thinking exercises might improve the creative outputs in architecture students. Promoting divergent thinking within the design studio is not new to architectural education. Tutors often run workshops which are aimed at looking at a design problem from a different angle and testing out possible ideas. A common example of this is speed modelling workshops where students are required to rapidly physically model multiple options for a project they are working on. This process will often be used to get a group of students to switch from using one medium to another. For example students who are developing their projects through 2 dimensional plans and sections may be asked to quickly test out a series of options through 3 dimensional speed models. This process of switching mediums and testing options not only allows students to produce new work but also the process makes them think more creatively about their project (Pressman, A. 2012 p.101).


Divergent thinking exercises go beyond this and don’t just promote the switching of architectural mediums but the introduction of alterative creative processes. An example of this is Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt 1975 Oblique Strategies which are a deck of cards that contain individual aphorism designed to help musicians break creative blocks by thinking divergently (Taylor, G.1997). Examples include:


  • Give way to your worst impulse
  • Faced with a choice do both
  • Slow preparation. Fast execution


Whilst initially developed to help musicians reframe problems and trigger creative leaps the cards have proved so popular that architectural writer Guy Horton has developed a set specifically for architects (Horton, G. 2013). Other examples of divergent thinking exercises include:


  • The Dadaist cut-up technique, 1920s (discussed later)
  • Surrealist Games, 1920s
  • Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono, 1985
  • Eye-Con or: How I Learned to Draw Exactly Wrong, Norman Kelley, 2013


The divergent exercise selected for this workshop was the cut-up technique developed by the Dadaist in the 1920s and used notably by the writer William Burroughs in the 1950s and David Bowie in the 1970s (Judkins, R. 2015). The version used here was developed by Dr Robin Wilson of The Bartlett School of Architecture and was successfully used within the author’s final year design project which was subsequently nominated for the RIBA silver medal. (Hynam, M. 2007). The cut-up starts with students writing three short narratives about their projects on lined paper. For each narratives students are given a short scenario such as ‘describe your project from the perspective of someone coming to view it on the opening day. Describe a space inside the project.’ These narratives are designed to help students form an initial understanding of their projects. The three narratives are then cut-up into strips and turned face down on the desk before being randomly selected and arranged into a new narrative. Students then quickly correct the grammar where necessary and read out the narrative. The aim of the workshop exercise was to provide students with a new narrative for their project and help them overcome potential early creative blocks.

The feedback from students found that divergent thinking exercises can help students develop new and creative responses to briefs. Questions were raised about how useful some of these responses might be when reinserted back into the design process. There were also questions over whether divergent thinking exercises would lose their novelty and become predicable in terms of their output. Others thought that the variability of the parameters both in the exercises and within a design project would keep the exercise novel and allow them to keep generating creative outputs. Students also felt strongly that exercises that helped them think creatively were an important part of architectural learning. Something which is also valued by the RIBA in their outline syllabus for architectural course validation (RIBA. 2003).

A study of how divergent thinking could be used at undergraduate level was suggested within the focus group. Divergent exercises would help balance and support the many convergent thinking processes that exist in undergraduate modules such as how to draw plans, how to present work, how to develop computer skills and how to detail a project.

A further workshop will explore the collaborative potential of divergent thinking exercises in order to better understand their potential benefit both in academia and practice. Following this research a collaborative divergent thinking workshop was been run to start to test this. In this workshop students from across undergraduate and postgraduate came together to design a small urban park in Southmead, Bristol. Within the workshop they collaborated together with members of the local community. The research has yet to be analysed but watch this space!

Horton, G. (2013) The Indicator: Oblique Strategies for Architects. Available from: http://www.archdaily.com/347914/the-indicator-oblique-strategies-for-architects [Accessed 20th January 2016].
Hynam, M. (2007) RIBA Presidents Medals Part 2 Project 2007: Spitalfields International Film School, Available from: www.qaa.ac.uk/en/…/Subject-benchmark-statement-Architecture.pdf [Accessed 8th November 2015].
Judkins, R. (2015) The art creative thinking’ Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London
Pressman, A. (2012) Designing Architecture; The Elements of Process. New York: Routledge.
Taylor, G. (1997) Oblique Strategies: Introduction. Available from: http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/OSintro.html [Accessed 27th January 2016].
RIBA. (2003) Tomorrow’s architect: RIBA outline syllabus for the validation of courses, programmes and examinations in architecture, RIBA Enterprises, London.