A Technique for Producing Ideas

by James Webb Young

This concise booklet was first published in the 1940s by James Webb Young, who became vice president of the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson and the first chairman of The Advertising Council. He wrote it in response to the question, “How do you get ideas?”

Before explaining the process, Young presents two principles.

The first principle is that “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements… In advertising an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events… The specific materials are those relating to the product and the people to whom you propose to sell it.” With regard to the general materials, the author observes “every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known… was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.”

The second principle is “a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.” He also mentions the link between “advertising and psychiatry… why the change of one word in a headline can make as much as 50 percent difference in advertising response… What is the one word-symbol which will best arouse the emotion with which I wish this particular advertisement to be charged.”

The author presents a process to generate ideas using “five steps in definite order.”

  1. “The gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.”
  2. “The mental digestive process” in which you are actively seeking “a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.”
  3. The incubating stage. “In this third stage you make absolutely no effort of a direct nature… Drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.”
  4. “The ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage.”
  5. “The final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness… In this stage you have to take your little newborn 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.”

Note that the Eureka moment is stage four in a process—it doesn’t just happen spontaneously. This is what David Burkus refers to as the Eureka Myth in The Myths of Creativity, a book which offers more extensive insights about the creative process.

Keith Reinhard, Chairman Emeritus of the advertising firm DDB Worldwide, writes in the foreword that he has handed out hundreds of copies of this book, calling it “the most concise and illuminating description of the creative process I have ever read.”

Young, James Webb. A Technique for Producing Ideas. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. Buy from Amazon.com

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