A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young cover

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

Date read: 2015-04-24.
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A practical guide for generating ideas by an advertising executive. Develop a habit of searching for relationships between facts. As a result, you'll be able to produce new combinations of old elements - ideas.


In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles; and second, Method.

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which ideas are produced; and how to grasp the principles which are the source of all ideas.

First Principle:

An idea is a new combination of old elements.

Second Principle:

The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations, depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

When relationships of this kind are seen they lead to the extraction of a general principle. This general principle when grasped, suggests the key to a new application, a new combination, and the result is an idea.

The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas. Now this habit of mind can undoubtedly be cultivated.

Five Steps to producing new Ideas:

The mind follows these five steps in definite order that by no possibility can one of them be taken before the preceding one is completed

Step 1: the mind has to gather its raw material.

It is often ignored and it is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The materials which must be gathered are of two kinds: they are specific and they are general. Example: In advertising an idea, results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people, with general knowledge about life and events.

Two suggestions for gathering material:

  1. The card-index method: write down on the cards the items of specific information as you gather them. After a while you can begin to classify them by sections of your subject. Eventually you will have a whole file box of them, neatly classified.
    • The advantage of this method is not merely in such things as bringing order into your work, and disclosing gaps in your knowledge. It lies even more in the fact that it keeps you from shirking the material-gathering job; and by forcing your mind to go through the expression of your material in writing really prepares it to perform its idea-producing processes.
  2. To store general material a scrapbook or a file is useful.
    • Like Sherlock Holmes and his scrapbooks where he indexed and cross-indexed odd bits of information.
    • Out of such material it is possible to build a useful source book of ideas.

Step 2: the process of chewing on these materials.

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them, as it were, with the tentacles of the minds. You take one fact, and turn it this way and that, look at is in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle. Try to play with it and don’t scan for the meaning too directly or literally.

Two things will start to happen:

  • First, partial ideas will come to you. Put these down on paper. Never mind how crazy or incomplete they seem: get them down. These are foreshadowing of the real idea that is to come, and expressing these in words forwards the process. Here again the little 3 x 5 cards are useful.
  • The second thing that will happen is that, by and by, you will get very tired of trying to fit your puzzle together. Let me beg of you not to get tired too soon. The mind, too, has a second wind. Go after at least this second layer of mental energy in this process. Keep trying to get one or more partial thoughts onto your little cards.

After a while you will reach the hopeless stage. Everything is a jumble in, your mind, with no clear insight anywhere. When you reach this point, if you have first really persisted in efforts to fit your puzzle together, then the second stage in the whole process is completed, and you are ready for the third one.

Step 3: make absolutely no effort of a direct nature.

You drop the whole subject, and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can. It is important to realise that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind, and let it work while you sleep. So when you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely, and, turn to whatever stimulates your emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

Step 4: out of nowhere the Idea will appear.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it - while shaving, or bathing or most often when are half awake, in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night. This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them, and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.

Step 5: “The cold, grey dawn of the morning after”.

You have to take your little idea out into the world of reality. And when you do you usually find that it is not quite the marvelous child it seemed when you first gave birth to it.

  • It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough to go through with applying this adapting path of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.
  • Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

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