A Technique for Getting Ideas

By James Webb Young

Prefatory Note
How It Started
The Formula Of Experience
The Pareto Theory
Combining Old Elements
Ideas Are New Combinations
The Mental Digestive Process
"Constantly Thinking About It"
The Final Stage
Some After-Thoughts


With regard to the general principles which underlie the productions of ideas, it seems to me that there are two which are important. The first of these has already been touched upon in the quotation from Pareto: namely, that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements. That is, perhaps the most important fact in connection with the production of ideas. However, I want to leave the elaboration of it until we come to a discussion of method. Then we can see the importance of this fact more clearly, through the application of it. The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations, depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge, To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts. An illustration of this might be taken from a relationship between advertising and psychiatry. At first blush it might be hoped that there is no relationship. But the psychiatrists have discovered the profound influence which words have in the lives of their patients-words as symbols of emotional experiences. And now Dr. Harold Lasswell has carried over these word-symbol studies of the psychiatrists to the field of political action, and shown how word-symbols are used with the same emotional force in propaganda. To a mind which is quick to see relationships several ideas will occur, fruitful for advertising, about this use of words as symbols. Is this, then, why the change of one word in a headline can make as much as 50 per cent difference in advertising response? Can words, studied as emotional symbols, yield better advertising education than words studied as parts of rhetoric? What is the one word-symbol which will best arouse the emotion with which I wish this particular advertisement to be charged? And so on. The point is, of course, that 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. Consequently, 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. I venture to suggest that, for the advertising man, one of the best ways to cultivate it is by study in the social sciences. A. book like Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class therefore becomes a better book about advertising than most books about advertising.