Attribute Listing

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Attribute listing is a technique from the early 1930's which

  • takes an existing product or system,
  • breaks it into parts,
  • identifies various ways of achieving each part, and then
  • recombines these to identify new forms of the product or system.

It has many variants, and is an important precursor to techniques such as Morphological Analysis and Value Engineering.

A new kind of pen or project management method probably has much the same major functional elements as any other kind of pen or project management method, but with some important difference in the way the elements are achieved or put together. So to generate a new way of doing something, you could list all the key attributes of current approaches, and try to improve on some of them. So:

  1. Identify the product or process you are dissatisfied with or wish to improve.
  2. List its attributes. For a simple physical object like a pen, this might include: Material, Shape, Target market, Colours, Textures, etc.
  3. Choose, say, 7-8 of these attributes that seem particularly interesting or important.
  4. Identify alternative ways to achieve each attribute (e.g. different shapes: cylindrical cubic, multi-faceted….), either by conventional enquiry, or via any idea-generating technique.
  5. Combine one or more of these alternative ways of achieving the required attributes, and see if you can come up with a new approach to the product or process you were working on.

Unfortunately, classic Attribute Listing offered no advice about the ‘combinatorial explosion’ that occurs as the number of attributes and alternatives increases. If you have N attributes and each could be achieved in M alternative ways, there are MN combinations – so even with only 5 attributes, each with only 4 alternatives, you already have over 1000 logically different combinations! The designer is left to explore different possible combinations using imagination and intuition.

Using randomly chosen combinations to stimulate ideas: If you prefer a more mechanical and less intuitive way of using this array of alternatives, you could generate provocative combinations by working through each attribute in turn and picking one of the ways of achieving that attribute at random (e.g. with dice). You can then use this either as a random stimulus to trigger more ideas (cf. Random Stimuli) or you can attempt a form of constructive evaluation by identifying what would be good about it, and what problems it would create (e.g. Plusses, potentials and concerns, or Receptivity to ideas). This process of generating random combinations and then using them to stimulate ideas can be repeated ad lib.

The combinatorial problem is explored more fully in later developments such as Morphological Analysis.


  • R. C. Crawford, The Techniques of Creative Thinking, 1954
  • M. Morgan, Creating Workforce Innovation, Business and Professional Publishing, 1993