A 7-decade-old method for producing fresh ideas… again and again

My feebly crafted caricature of the advertising giant, James Webb Young. In his classic book, "A Technique for Producing Ideas," he tells us that an idea is merely “combining old elements in a new way.”

My feebly crafted caricature of the advertising giant, James Webb Young. In his classic book, “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” he tells us that an idea is merely “combining old elements in a new way.”

You know the old saying: For new ideas, read an old book. I just re-read, for the third time in my life, James Webb Young’s classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas. It was written in 1939—the style is a tad formal, but very readable—but its content is as relevant today as ever.

I’ll tell you a little about Mr. Young, who had a pretty astonishing life… a path that probably wouldn’t be possible today.

He was born in 1886 in the Cincinnati area to a middle-class family. He left school in the sixth grade (age 12!) to work for a book publisher. Young was always incredibly sharp and observant—a true multi-disciplinary thinker—and his employer noticed. By the time he was 22, he was named advertising manager.

In 1912, the famed J. Walter Thompson advertising agency recruited Young as a copywriter, where he crafted work that is still studied by ad pros today. By 1917, he was vice president, running the western division of the company. He later opened five offices for the agency in Europe and the Middle East.

It was a pretty stellar career by any measure, but Young was far from done. After retiring from advertising in 1928, he went on to teach at universities and write several books, one of which was A Technique for Producing Ideas. His career enjoyed an impressive third wave, founding and chairing what would become the Ad Council. He was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1974.

Feel inadequate yet? No worries. I’ll sum up Young’s awesome book and idea powerhouse performance technique next.

Young’s 5-step technique for producing powerful ideas

Young didn’t believe in magical creative talent—to him, creativity wasn’t some sloppy Bohemian endeavor. It was a process with definite steps or phases. Young knew this firsthand from his many years as a top-level NYC copywriter. Here’s how he said it works…

STEP 1: Gather raw material

According to Young, this step is critical, but often neglected. The most creative people, he maintained throughout his life, are those who are curious. When faced with a problem to solve, they actively, tirelessly research it, read about it, and fill their heads to the rafters with quality information. Young said acquiring info is like adding pieces of colored glass to a kaleidoscope… it will only yield more colorful combinations.

STEP 2: Digest the material

This is a tough one for our “get it done right now” age, but also essential to creating breakthrough ideas. Young encourages us to dissect the information we have gathered with “the tentacles of the mind.” Look for the meaning in things, flip them around every which way, and start bringing random facts together to see what fits.

STEP 3: Unconsciously process everything

This is perhaps the weirdest stage of all, but also vital to the process. Young says to drop it cold. Don’t think about the problem, the connections you forged or any of the info you unearthed. Let all that sludge seep into the back of your mind for your subconscious to work on while you do other stuff you enjoy… like listening to music or going to the movies.

STEP 4: Eureka!

Young promises us that, like the tip of an iceberg popping out of the water, an idea will appear. It will probably come when you least expect it—while driving to work, mowing the lawn or most likely when you’re half awake in the morning. Whenever it is, jot it down.

STEP 5: Idea vs. reality

Great ideas solve something… they make things better, more interesting, stronger. In this stage, you put your eureka moment on trial, to see if it will actually work. Often, an idea in its raw, newborn form may not solve the problem directly. It will likely have to be finessed a bit or even worked over. Tread carefully, though. It is in this stage, Young warns, that great ideas are often given the boot too soon.

What constitutes a good idea? Young says that a great concept has “self-expanding qualities.” It stimulates others who see it to add to it. And it brings possibilities you never thought of to light.

A high bar, yes, but obtainable—even predictable—using Young’s approach. He likened the process of idea generation to an assembly line at Ford. With practice, you can become a well-oiled, consistently producing idea machine. Like him.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group.

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