Divergent vs convergent thinking: What's the difference?

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
February 23, 2023
Two designers creating a prototype.
Divergent vs convergent thinking: What's the difference?
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
February 23, 2023

Divergence and convergence is a problem-solving method that emphasizes empathy, experimentation, and iteration. It is a human-centered design approach that focuses on understanding people's needs, behaviors, and motivations to design creative solutions that meet those needs effectively.

This problem-solving process cycles between expansive and focused thinking to better understand problems people face and develop a solution. Coined by psychologist J.P. Guilford in the 1950s, these cycles of thinking provide the structure for this iterative design thinking process.

In this article we’ll define divergence and convergence, provide examples, walk through each stage, suggest free templates you can use to try it out, and provide tips to help you get the most out of the creative process.

Divergence vs convergence

Divergence and convergence are like the inhale and exhale of the design thinking process. Divergence creates space and possibilities, while convergence brings focus and direction. Designers move back and forth between these two processes throughout the design thinking process, building on the insights and ideas generated during each cycle to refine and improve the solution.

Note: Divergent and convergent phases are non-linear, meaning that when facilitating this process, you may move back and forth as you discover new insights during convergence.

What is divergence?

Divergence is the process of exploring and generating a wide range of ideas and possibilities without any judgment or criticism. Divergent thinking allows designers to expand the possibilities and consider different perspectives, angles, and dimensions of the problem.

What is convergence?

Convergent thinking refers to the process of selecting, evaluating, and refining the most promising ideas from the divergent phase. It involves narrowing down and refining possibilities by selecting the best ideas and combining them to create a coherent and effective solution.

Benefits of divergent and convergent thinking

  • Increased creativity and innovation
  • Better decision-making
  • Human-centered design
  • Enhanced problem-solving
  • Improved collaboration

How to apply divergent and convergent thinking

Let’s walk through an example of using convergent and divergent methods in action using the double-diamond framework mentioned in our guide on co-design.

1. Diverge to ideate

Generate a wide range of ideas without judgment or criticism in a brainstorming session or other quick ideation exercise. Use this discovery period to identify the problem and encourage team members to come up with many possible solutions.

Conducting a Brainstorm template

Use this template to hit the ground running with big ideas that will move your design process forward.

Set the stage before you collaborate with some thought-provoking questions that your team can ideate for. The group can vote to select which captures the problem at hand, or the facilitator can assign a question to each participant.

Set aside some time for the group to brainstorm on their own, then bring everyone together to build upon and clarify the ideas. From there you can vote to decide which idea your team should focus their efforts on and move to the next step.

The Conducting a Brainstorm Mural template.
Use the Conducting a Brainstorm template to encourage creative, fresh ideas.

2. Converge to evaluate the ideas

Evaluate the ideas based on feasibility, viability, and desirability using decision matrices, prioritization grids, or other evaluation tools. The goal in this convergent phase is to clearly define the problem, then understand and map any assumptions behind the ideas, and clarify the requirements for an effective solution. 

Evaluate the ideas the team has so far with the Critique template.

How to run a critique

  1. Present the ideas and context from the brainstorming session
  2. Invite feedback across three categories: what went well, what didn’t go well, and what could be improved
  3. Gather the feedback, organize it by theme, and create actionable next steps within the same workspace

3. Diverge again to develop and prototype

Based on the requirements, begin finding solutions that meet requirements and address end-user pain points and concerns. Improve upon the selected ideas using prototyping and user testing, gathering feedback from stakeholders to ensure that the final solution meets their needs and preferences.

Get started with this step by using the Rough and Ready Prototyping template.

  1. Outline learnings, key scenarios, tasks, and materials required for the prototype
  2. Plan out the prototype storyboard — what is the experience or journey?
  3. Sketch it out: How will we create the prototype?
  4. Create a lo-fi prototype to demonstrate its viability
Related: A guide to prototyping: the 4th stage of design thinking

4. Converge again to further refine

The final divergent step involves refining the solution, testing it for viability, and getting the buy-in and resources to implement it. This doesn't necessarily have to be the final step in this process, but we find it helps to end the session with a final convergence step.

Try the Think-Aloud Testing template to walk through what the final iteration of the solution looks like.

5. Implement

Implement the selected ideas and monitor their effectiveness, iterating the process as needed to continue improving the customer experience.

Tips to get the most out of divergent & convergent exercises

Use a variety of ideation techniques

Experiment with different ideation techniques such as brainstorming, mind mapping, or a round robin to encourage creative thinking and generate a wide range of ideas.

Related: Brainstorming techniques for new, creative ideas

Don't get too invested in any single idea

One of the common challenges of design thinking is when team members or designers choose a favorite idea and get too invested in its success. There's nothing wrong with being passionate about a possible solution, however it's important to remember that addressing the end user or individual's problem comes first. Even if the final solution isn't flashy, if it properly addresses the core issue, it's the right call.

Avoid premature judgment

Avoid prematurely judging or dismissing ideas during the divergent phase, and instead focus on generating as many ideas as possible during ideation sessions.

We recommend establishing some ground rules during the ideation phase to ensure that participants understand the etiquette expected during the session.

Test early and often

Test and validate ideas early and often using prototypes, mockups, and user feedback to ensure that the final solution meets end user needs and preferences. This is helpful not only for validating your initial problem statement, but frequent testing also ensures that assumptions, solutions, and biases are uncovered and evaluated.

Related: 4 examples of human-centered design to inspire your teams

Get stakeholders involved

Including stakeholders or end users in the convergence and divergence cycles can help provide better insight into the user experience, get a different point of view in the design process, and ultimately create a better human-centered solution.

Incorporating multiple stakeholders throughout the process of designing a solution is referred to as co-design.

Use a visual tool to make collaboration easier

Use a visual tool to capture and generate ideas, run interactive feedback sessions, and create prototypes and diagrams all in one place. 

Online whiteboards are a good option, but make sure your platform of choice comes with facilitation features that allow for voting, anonymous inputs, and a timer to lead structured, productive sessions.

The bottom line: problem-solving isn’t “one size fits all”

In summary, the interplay between divergence and convergence allows us to explore a wide range of possibilities and ideas, evaluate them, and refine them until we arrive at an effective, human-centered solution. This process is non-linear and should place stakeholders and users at the very heart of the creative process.

To get the most from the divergent/convergent process, be sure to take these tips into account:

  1. Use a variety of ideation techniques
  2. Avoid premature judgment
  3. Test early and often
  4. Be open and adaptable
  5. Use a visual tool to make collaboration easier

Mural equips teams with the platform and skills they need to explore bold ideas and collaborate with confidence. Get started today with a Free Forever account, and invite unlimited members so your team can collaborate better, innovate faster, and drive more impactful projects.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.