Alex F. Osborn: The Father of Brainstorming
By Russell A. Wheeler, MS1
“We are all students of creativity, and what a path we walk! Best wishes to one who share’s my grandfather’s belief that each of our creative gardens can be grown in this soil of life.”
—John R. Osborn
Alexander Faickney Osborn was “born in the Bronx, New York, on May 24, 1888” (“Alex F. Osborn,” 1966, p. 47). He attended Hamilton College where he was awarded Ph.B. and Ph.M. degrees in 1909 and 1921 respectively (Chae, 1997c). Osborn’s employment career began with jobs in newspaper reporting with both the Buffalo Times and Buffalo Express; the assistant secretary for the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce; sales manager of the Hard Manufacturing Co.; and began his renowned advertising career with the E. P. Remington agency of Buffalo. “During World War I, he worked as a volunteer for the United War Work campaign and there met another young writer, Bruce Barton” (“Alex F. Osborn,” 1966, p. 47).
Osborn joined the advertising agency of Barton & Durstine in August of 1919 with an understanding that he would work primarily out of Buffalo; and the agency would become known as Barton, Durstine & Osborn (“Alex F. Osborn,” 1966; “BBDO,” 1997a). In 1928, Barton, Durstine and Osborn merged with the George Batten firm and would become known as Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (BBD&O) (“Alex F. Osborn,” 1966). Osborn became general manager of BBD&O in 1939 and went on to become its chairman, then vice chairman until his retirement in 1960. He served as a trustee for Western Savings Bank and Hamilton College (“Alex F. Osborn,” 1966), and as a council member for the University of Buffalo from 1951-1959 (University Archives – State University of New York at Buffalo, 1998). Mr. Osborn died of cancer in Roswell Park Memorial Institute on May 5, 1966, at the age of 77 (“Alex F. Osborn,” 1966).
Before he published his theories and applications of creativity, Osborn published the book A Short Course in Advertising in 1921. This book covered topics that were pertinent only to the advertising field. Although the focus of the book was on the principles of the advertising business in general and none of Osborn’s beliefs of creativity were included, this source serves as a beginning point of his publishing career.
In 1952, Osborn published Wake Up Your Mind: 101 Ways to Develop Creativeness, and subsequently published the book under the title How to Become More Creative in 1964. Osborn describes “as a term, imagination covers a field so wide and so hazy that a leading educator has called it an area which psychologists fear to tread” (Osborn, 1952a, p. 3). This haziness Osborn describes is the same energy that powered his imagination to write on the very subject. The book builds on the principles of creativity through showcasing examples of the application of creativity in children, hobbies, writing, marital problems, jobs, health and happiness. Osborn concludes the book with the sentiment that creativity is a component to building character. Since Osborn believed in this notion, it is no wonder why he led BBD&O and many other organizations as well.
Also in 1952, Osborn published Your Creative Power: How to Use Imagination. The focus of this book is to help its readers “become more conscious of the creative power within your reach” (Osborn, 1952b, p. 3). Osborn mentions at the conclusion of his first chapter that “each of us does have an Aladdin’s lamp, and if we rub it hard enough, it can light our way to better living – just as that same lamp lit up the march of civilization” (p. 8). This core belief regarding imagination points out the fact that human beings have the capability of being creative and its just a matter of accessing it deliberately.
With regard to an understanding of the principles behind CPS, Osborn stresses the importance that “we should hold back criticism until the creative current has had every chance to flow” (Osborn, 1952b, p. 264). He later introduces ground rules for group brainstorming: judicial judgment is ruled out; wildness is welcomed; quantity is wanted; and combination and improvement are sought. These four guidelines provide the power behind the use of divergent thinking. Osborn mentions that “not only in business but in every line, the quality of leadership depends on creative power” (p. 307). This notion that creativity drives leadership is why CPS has become a process that can promote real change in any organization through a group of empowered individuals.
Since its initial publication in 1953, Applied Imagination has become one of the most widely known textbooks on the subject of creativity. In 1998 alone there were 25 citations of the before mentioned book by other authors (Institute for Scientific Information, 1998). Chapter eight introduces the CPS process depicting three distinct components: fact-finding, idea-finding and solution-finding (Osborn, 1953/1979). Chapter ten discusses the concept of deferred judgment and quality yielding quantity. The book also discusses exercises to enhance key points discussed in each chapter. The fact alone that the original copyright is 46 years old points out that this “classic” still has its place in the emerging field of creativity and innovation.
Osborn (1955) introduces the concept that provides “optimum opportunity for creative thinking and for judicial thinking is to divide a conference into two sessions” (p. 1). This notion of two separate sessions where the first session allows for ideas to flourish is counterbalanced with a second session where decisions are made on the ideas produced. Osborn stresses that “when it comes to thinking, let’s try to act as if we were two people – at one time, a thinker upper, a producer of ideas; at another, a weigher of ideas” (p. 3).
Another article Osborn wrote regarding creativity appeared in A Source Book for Creative Thinking (1962) titled “Developments in Creative Education,” which was originally delivered as his address to the sixth annual Creative Problem Solving Institute in 1960. The article focuses on scientific research conducted as of 1960 validating Osborn’s theories of creativity (Osborn, 1962). He discusses stages in the CPS process; the principles of quantity breeding quality and deferred judgment; collegiate courses teaching an aspect of creativity; and applications of creativity tools in business, public affairs, the armed forces, and worldwide. Osborn stresses “our main aim is to help education do more to develop creative ability (p. 23). This “aim” is the reason behind why his establishment of the Creative Education Foundation (CEF) and how CEF’s mission has evolved into the following: “to expand the use of creativity and innovation worldwide” (Creative Education Foundation, 1999).
To outline progress in the field of creativity, Osborn (1964) wrote The Creative Education Movement (as of 1964). In this book published by the Creative Education Foundation, he describes current research; basic principles for understanding CPS; the diversity of where creativity is being taught; and suggestions on the use of “group brainstorming.” Osborn outlines four key developments in the research of creativity which include the expansion of creativity research; trends leading to a more creative style of teaching; the commencement of courses on CPS; and incorporating creativity beliefs and procedures into existing courses. He also discusses how the State University of New York at Buffalo utilized a $43,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Education “to help finance further research into the developability of creative behavior by means of programmed instruction” (p. 6).
In addition to his published works, Osborn did quite a bit of public speaking throughout the United States. Osborn (1956a) delivered a speech to a group of sales executives where he discussed “creative management is the power which has enabled man to excel all other animals” (p. 1). He reviewed his six stages of CPS and highlighted the fact that “we need to think up plenty of tentative ideas, because, in ideation, quantity helps breed quality” (p. 2). Osborn also discusses emotional blocks to creativity; asking provocative questions that lead to ideas; the importance of specificity in the wording of problems; and where creativity is being taught in the U.S.
He delivered another speech later in the year at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York. In this speech Osborn (1956b) outlined that “all of us are endowed with two minds: a knowing mind and a thinking mind” (p. 1). Osborn mentions that Albert Einstien made the following statement before his death: “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (p. 3). He went on in his speech to assume that Einstein said the before mentioned statement because “knowledge is the fruit of creativity” (p. 4). This belief that creativity drives knowledge is crucial to Osborn’s motivation to understand the many applications of creativity in human life.
Osborn (1958) delivered another speech to the Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, regarding how the institution could introduce creativity into its liberal arts curriculum. He introduced the inspiration to offer courses on creativity because “that most people have never learned – from education or likewise – that they do possess the gift of creative imagination, that they can develop it” (p. 1). He later described the marketing course he conducted as a sales manager where he “shamefully ignored the fact that creative problem-solving is the without-which-nothing of effective marketing” (p. 4). He concluded his remarks to the faculty with the following: “As a liberal arts man, I am keenly interested in what Macalester may do to improve liberal arts education…and, if so, I hope Macalester will lead the way” (p. 7).
Key Points and Concepts
Osborn has been labeled as the “father of brainstorming” (Chae, 1997a) and “made creative thinking and brainstorming household words” (“Alex F. Osborn,” 1966, p. 47). Although Osborn is credited with the origination of the application of brainstorming (“BBDO,” 1997b; Chae, 1997b; Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger, 1994; Vehar, Firestien, & Miller, 1997; Rickards, 1999), this technique would not be possible without the following two ideals: the separation of imaginative and judicial judgment, and the principle of suspending judgment. The first key point that is carried throughout his work is how the mind has both creative and judicial sides (Osborn, 1952a, 1952b, 1953/1979, 1955, 1956a, 1956b, 1962, 1964a, 1964b). Osborn describes that it’s the imaginative mind that is able to generate, visualize and foresee ideas; and the judicial mind takes care of the analyzing and selecting ideas. His theory of these two kinds of thinking led Osborn to believe that if judgment was suspended, then the imagination could produce ideas.
The second key point focuses on the belief that “deferment-of-judgment during ideative effort to keep the critical faculty from jamming the creative faculty” (Osborn, 1962) is key to imaginative success. He states that brainstorming is productive because “it concentrates solely on creative thinking and excludes the discouragement and criticism which so often cramp imagination” (Osborn, 1952b, p. 272). Osborn elaborates on his deferred judgment principle to suggest the notion that quantity will breed quality” (Osborn, 1953/1979). Osborn adhered to the fact that “the more ideas you think up, the more likely you are to arrive at the potentially best leads to solution” (p. 124). Research proved his hypothesis to depict groups producing 90 percent more ideas when judgment was suspended versus not suspending judgment (Osborn 1953/1979, 1962, 1964a). Osborn’s theories on imaginative and judicial thinking, and the separation of these two kinds of thinking are core beliefs in the teaching and application of CPS today.
For any individual interested in learning about creativity, the work of Osborn is must read. His well-known textbook Applied Imagination is an excellent introductory manual to understanding the applied theory of creativity and Osborn’s core beliefs. Osborn provides numerous exercises to apply the ideologies of his book and the opportunity to incorporate these philosophies into any and every aspect of life. This selection is not to discount any of his other works; however, to give the reader a comprehension of the foundation behind the CPS process.
Other recommendations to gain an awareness of Osborn’s work would be to visit the State University of New York at Buffalo Archives department. The Archives department keeps a collection of work Osborn donated to the University ranging from unpublished manuscripts to copies of some of his books (Osborn, 1948-1966). The Creative Studies Library housed in the E. H. Butler Library at Buffalo State College – State University of New York contains both books and manuscripts written by Osborn as well.
Osborn has left a legacy in the quest to understand applied creativity. His beliefs that everyone has the potential to be creative motivated him to teach and nurture this trait in others. Although the discipline of creativity is multifaceted in nature, Osborn’s theories allowed for research to develop the CPS process into different interpretations and application of the original process (Isaksen et al., 1994; Vehar et al., 1997). The work of Alexander Faickney Osborn has made him one of the founding fathers of creativity research and a scholar that every individual engaged in the application of the discipline should know.
- Alex F. Osborn, 77, a founder and officer of B.B.D.& O., dies. (1966, May 6). New York Times, p. 47.
- BBDO. (1997a). BBDO Worldwide History: The 1890s through WWI. Retrieved October 18, 1999, from http://www.bbdo.com/history/1890/index.html.
- BBDO. (1997b). BBDO Worldwide History: The 1930s through the 1940s. Retrieved October 18, 1999, from http://www.bbdo.com/history/1930/index.html.
- Creative Education Foundation. (1999). Profile and Mission of the Creative Education Foundation. Retrieved October 18, 1999, from http://www.cef-cpsi.org/CEF Mission.htm.
- Chae, K. (1997a). Alex Osborn – Homepage. Retrieved October 18, 1999, from http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~chaekm/afosborn.htm.
- Chae, K. (1997b). Alex Osborn – Brainstorming. Retrieved October 18, 1999, from http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~chaekm/osborn2.htm.
- Chae, K. (1997c). Alex Osborn – Personal Profile. Retrieved October 18, 1999, from http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~chaekm/osborn1.htm.
- Institute for Scientific Information. (1998). Social Sciences Citation Index (Vol. 3). Philadelphia, PA: Institute for Scientific Information.
- Isaksen, S. G., Dorval, K. B., & Treffinger, D. J. (1994). Creative approaches to problem solving. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.
- Osborn, A. F. (1921). A short course in advertising. New York: Scribners.
- Osborn, A. F. (1948-1966). Alexander F. Osborn collection: 1948-1966; 11ft. (Collection No. MS16). Unpublished manuscripts, State University of New York at Buffalo Archives.
- Osborn, A. F. (1952a). Wake up your mind: 101 ways to develop creativeness. New York: Scribners.
- Osborn, A. F. (1952b). Your creative power: How to use imagination. New York: Scribners.
- Osborn, A. F. (1953/1979). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem-solving. New York: Scribners.
- Osborn, A. F. (1955, June). A one-two plan for supervisory conferences. Supervisory Development Today, 1, 1-3.
- Osborn, A. F. (1956a, January 31). Ways to be more creative. Paper presented at the meeting of the Education Committee, Sales Executives Club of New York, NY.
- Osborn, A. F. (1956b, July 8). Was Einstein right? Paper presented at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, NY.
- Osborn, A. F. (1958, October 14). Remarks to the faculty of Macalester College. Paper presented at the meeting of the Macalester College Faculty, Saint Paul, MN.
- Osborn, A. F. (1962). Developments in creative education. In S. J. Parnes & H. F. Harding (Eds.), A source book for creative thinking (pp. 19-29). New York: Scribners.
- Osborn, A. F. (1964a). The creative education movement (as of 1964). Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation.
- Osborn, A. F. (1964b). How to become more creative. New York: Scribners.
- Rhodes, M. (1961). An analysis of creativity. Phi Delta Kappan, 42, 305-310.
- Rickards, T. (1999). Brainstorming. In M. A. Runco & S. Pritzker (Eds.), Encyclopedia of creativity (pp. 219-227). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Chae, K. (1997c). Alex Osborn – Personal Profile. Retrieved October 18, 1999, from http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~chaekm/osborn1.htm.
- University Archives – State University of New York at Buffalo. UB Council, 1846-1962. Retrieved October 18, 1999, from http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/units/archives/council/1846-1962.html.
- Vehar, J., Firestien, R., & Miller, B. (1997). Creativity unbound. Williamsville, NY: Innovation Systems Group.
1This writing reflects a paper Russell wrote on Alex F. Osborn in October 1999.
2The references cited in the article (i.e., websites) were available on the date they were retrieved.