No joke! Yes, you can learn from how The Onion brainstorms its ideas

Mar 18, 2019 /

Brainstorms can be painful and they’re not always productive, but The Onion has perfected an approach that results in a higher number of good ideas. Writer and ex-Onion staffer Brian Janosch shares their process.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community. To see all the posts, go here.

Brainstorming is a crucial piece in any creative environment, but there’s an ever-present tension that often spoils what should be one of the most fun parts of teamwork. Most brainstorms ask people to generate a flurry of internal mental activity, while simultaneously participating in a flurry of external verbal activity. A fundamental challenge of making brainstorms better is balancing those two forces. How do you allow people to be creative — both inwardly and outwardly?

For an answer, I’ll turn to America’s most trusted source of truth: The Onion. For 30 years, this publication has satirized society with headlines like “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent,” “Archaeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race of Skeleton People,” and “Child Bankrupts Make-A-Wish Foundation With Wish for Unlimited Wishes.”

The Onion has grown into a comedy institution, but it began modestly in 1988 in Madison, Wisconsin. It had a tiny budget and a staff of cartoonists, dishwashers, bartenders and dropouts. The Onion grew to what it is today because the original staffers created a devastating voice and the perfect way to maintain it. I saw this firsthand, because my first professional work experience came at The Onion. My job was to manage the process of moving from idea generation to team brainstorms and all the way through to publication of completed content.

At The Onion, every story begins as a headline. There is no general call for ideas; instead, there is a call for 15 headlines from every writer. Contrary to what you might imagine, these headlines don’t come from an over-caffeinated group around a big, messy table — in fact, The Onion’s process begins with everybody apart. Everyone is allowed to come up with ideas at their own pace, in their own space. It creates a culture where writers can be struck by great ideas anywhere, anytime. When a great headline is needed on short notice, people aren’t pulled together to meet; first, they’re all sent off to create their own lists of ideas.

Next, all of the headlines are brought together and put on one list. Because The Onion is dealing with such a high volume of headlines, it actually holds a short pre-meeting before the main creative session. This pre-meeting brings everyone together solely to separate the gems from the garbage — and 60 percent to 70 percent of the headlines are killed in an hour. This can be a ruthless thing to endure as a creative person, but it’s ultimately in service of the process. That way, when everybody comes together for the primary meeting, you’re dealing with only the best stuff.

There, people pitch and propose how each headline might play out as a full story; many of them can’t. Only 3 percent of headlines survive this process, but those that do are rich and three-dimensional. Each idea that survives this process is crafted with care, and it’s been tested by the group and built up by the team. By the time it’s ready to move into production, it’s bigger and better than when it began.

That’s the general process: creating ideas alone; vetting ideas as a group; then building on the best ones together. Here is how anyone can replicate what The Onion does to improve their own brainstorm process:

Put some thought into the initial prompt for ideas.

Most workplaces, I imagine, don’t need to start their brainstorm processes with joke headlines, but we can all benefit from starting with concise and focused initial ideas. It is the responsibility of the person organizing your brainstorm to come up with a prompt that will elicit the greatest number of good ideas. If the prompt is too vague, it’s going to result in vague ideas; if it’s too specific, it’s going to suggest there’s only one right answer. To find the sweet spot in the middle, you might encourage brainstormers to think less about what the organization or group needs — say, a new slogan or a new product — and to think more about what users or customers want or need. Ask an open-ended question, like “How might we evoke a particular emotion from our audience?” or “How might we get our customers to see an old product from a new perspective?”

Tell people to keep their ideas short.

Don’t be afraid to constrain the length of your brainstormers’ initial ideas. Post-its can be your very best friend here. You want the initial ideas to be compact — like an elevator pitch for a two-story building. Brevity forces creatives to choose their words carefully and speak to the emotional core of their proposal. Plus, concise ideas invite more imagination and improvement from the team, which is the fun part of meetings that you want to optimize for. Demanding that ideas be short is, again, on the organizer.

Solo brainstorming ensures that all people are heard.

As we strive for more diversity in the workplace — creating spaces that respect all voices — there’s something innately exclusionary about the “get in a room and spitball” model. Not just that men have a propensity to dominate these rooms, ’cause we’re working on that right, guys? But it’s a space that caters entirely to extroverts. The rule of play at typical brainstorms is “Think out loud, be vulnerable, and put yourself out there.” But that’s not how everyone works.

However, you can give everyone an equal voice — it just requires giving them space to find it. Sci-fi author Isaac Asimov once wrote, “My feeling is that, as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required.” Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an entire book on the creative process called Big Magic, and nowhere in her beautiful depiction of finding ideas does she recommend sterile conference rooms or fluorescent lighting. Besides, just ask the partner of any creative person, and they’ll tell you that their craziest ideas do not come out in public.

Use the team to build, rather than create.

By giving everyone time to brainstorm on their own, a bumper crop of ideas will be produced. And those are your building materials. The renowned design company IDEO has a philosophy to embrace failure, so if the goal is to build together, think of it as like assembling mail-order furniture … there are going to be some pieces in there you simply don’t need. By intentionally creating excess, you automatically set a quality standard but you also prevent people from getting precious about their ideas.

Go anonymous, and remove personal feelings from the process.

Most of us have seen a meeting go south when personal feelings creep into the assessment of an idea. At The Onion, ideas are stripped of any connection to their originator. By detaching the idea from creator, you’re giving every idea its own chance to thrive.

If you follow these steps — and admittedly it is more pre-work — you’ll be wonderfully set up to have a fruitful session as a creative team. And you already know how to do that part: Listen to each other, collaborate, and be respectful.

Now I acknowledge this isn’t a cookie-cutter formula. Ultimately, the creative process that will work best for an organization or team is one that matches their culture. But to start in the right direction, think of your brainstorm like a great dinner. Someone needs to plan it, everyone should prepare something in advance, you come together, you share, you have a good time, and you all leave better off for it.

I think we’re in a pretty remarkable moment for people wanting to see new ideas. And I believe, in many ways, that art and creativity pave the way for what’s possible in our society. By experiencing a better, fairer, more fruitful and more fun means of collaborating, guess what? We can start collaborating on better, fairer, more fruitful, more fun things for our society. By brainstorming better, it will becomes not only more possible, but more enjoyable, to create the future we want to see. Together.

This post was adapted from his TEDxBloomington talk. Watch it here: