A Technique for Producing Ideas

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Ideas are the lifeblood of Advertising. While there are a huge range of material already written on the subject, I thought it would be interesting to go back to the one of the earliest sources on the matter.


A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young was first presented to graduate students in advertising in Chicago in the 1940's before being published in the 1960's. More a long form essay, it outlines a simple five step process designed to kick start creativity.

From the foreword by William Bernbach of DDB fame:

"James Webb Young conveys in his little book something more valuable than the most learned and detailed texts on the subject of advertising. For he is talking about the soul of a piece of communication and not merely the flesh and bones. He is talking about the idea. A chemist can inexpensively put together a human body. What he can't do is spark it with life. Mr Young writes about the creative spark, the ideas, which bring spirit and life to an advertisement. Nothing is more important to the proactive of our craft".

Down to the process. The five steps are simply defined as the following:

Step 1: Gather Raw Materials

The materials we need to gather are of two kinds: specific and general.

Specific materials in advertising are those relating to the product and people to whom you are selling. Young claims most of us stop too soon in this process, and outlines a recommendation first told to De Maupassant to help him write better:

"Go out into the streets of Paris and pick a cab driver. He will look to you very much like every other cab driver. But study him until you can describe him so that he is seen in your description to be an individual, different from every other cab driver in the world".

If we go deep enough, between every product and consumers there is an individuality of relationship that may lead to an idea.

The second set of materials is general. This is harder to quantify, but represents a constant and keen investment in learning about new subjects, developed by browsing all sorts of fields of information.

Young sums this up nicely as the following:

"An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of elements. In advertising an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people and general knowledge about life and events".

Step 2: Mental Digestion

This stage is all about gathering up all of the materials to search for relationships, a synthesis almost like putting together a jig-saw puzzle. It is made up of two parts.

In the first part, as you begin to mentally feel out the materials, little tentative or partial ideas will come to you. The goal is to get these done on paper, no matter how crazy or incomplete they seem.

The second part, you will start to get tired. Keep at it, as your mind has an amazing second wind that will get you through.

Step 3: Drop Everything

The third step is the hopeless stage, when everything feels like a jumble, and you are mentally taxed. At this point, you need to make absolutely no effort of a direct nature. Drop the subject, and put it out of your head - let your unconscious take over. Go and do something that stimulates your imagination and emotions.

It is really important to realise that this is an absolutely necessary step as important as the first two.

Step 4: The Idea

At this step, an idea should now emerge, and generally when you least expect it (think leaping out of bed in the middle of the night). As Young explains:

"This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them and passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search."

Step 5: The Cold Grey Dawn

The final stage involves taking your newborn idea out into the world of reality. And inevitably, you usually find that it is not quite the marvellous child it seemed when you first gave birth to it.

The trick here is to not hold it too close to your chest. Submit it to the "criticism of the judicious", and realise that it will require patient working over to make the idea fit the exact conditions.

In Summary

Fundamentally, A Technique for Producing Ideas stuck with me on two points. Firstly, if an idea is nothing more than a new combination of old elements, the importance of constantly seeking out new knowledge is hugely important in any creative field. You never know what random spark will ignite the creative fire, so never let yourself stagnate.

The second is that in our increasingly fast paced world, we can often give in to pressures to not give each of these steps their proper time (or even skip over them). It is important to try and fight against this in order to ensure we continue to create great ideas as an industry. 

Grab the book, it is a great quick and easy guide to sit on the shelf.

This post continues my series on Mental Models.