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 these two general principles in mind – the principle that an idea is a new combination, and the principle that the ability to make new combinations is heightened by an ability to see relationships – with these in mind let us now look at the actual method or procedure by which ideas are produced. As I said before, what I am about to contend is that the in the production of ideas the mind follows a method which is just as definite as the method by which, say, Fords are producted. In other words, that there is a technique for the use of the mind for this purpose; that whenever an idea is produced this technique is followed, consciously or unconsciously; and that this technique can consciously be cultivated, and the ability of the mind to produce ideas thereby increased. This technique of the mind follows five steps. I am sure that you will all recognize them individually. But the important thing is to recognize their relationship, and to grasp the fact that 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, if an idea is to be produced. The first of these steps is for the mind to gather its raw material. That, I am sure, will strike you as a simple and obvious truth. Yet it is really amazing to what degree this is ignored in practice. Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering material we sit around trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process whale we dodge the preceding steps. The materials which must be gathered are of two kinds: they are specific and they are general. In advertising, the specific materials are those relating to the product and the people to whom you propose to sell it. We constantly talk about the importance of having an intimate knowledge of the product and of the consumer, but in fact we seldom work at it. This, I suppose, is because a real knowledge of a product, and of people in relation to it, is not easy to come by. Getting it is something like the process which was recommended to De Maupassant as the way to learn to write. "Go out into the streets of Paris," he was told by an older writer, "and pick out 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.” This is the real meaning of that trite talk about getting an intimated knowledge of the product and its consumers. Most of us stop too soon in the process of getting it. If the surface differences are not striking we assume that there are no differences. But if we go deeply enough, or far enough, we nearly always find that between every product and some consumers there is an individuality of relationship which may lead to an idea. Thus, for example, I could cite you the advertising of a well-known soap. As first there appears nothing to say about it that has not been said for many soaps. But a study made of the relation of soap to skin and hair – a study which resulted in a fair-sized book on the subject. And out of this book came copy ideas for five years of advertising; ideas which multiplied the sales of this soap by ten in that period. This is what is meant by gathering specific materials. Of equal importance with the gathering of these specific materials is the continuous process of gathering general materials. Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested-from, say, Egyptian burial customs to Modern Art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow : browsing, no milk. Now this gathering of general materials is important because this is where the previously stated principle comes in -- namely that 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, will general knowledge about life and events. The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations. So it is with the production of ideas for advertising--or anything else. The construction of an advertisement is the construction of a new pattern in this kaleidoscopic world in which we live. The more of the elements of that world which are stored away in that pattern-making machine, the mind, the more the chances are increased for the production of new and striking combinations, or ideas. Advertising students who get restless about the "practical' value of general college subjects might consider this. This, then, is the first step in the technique of producing ideas: the gathering of materials. Part of it, you will see, is a current job and part of it is a life-long job. Before passing on to the next step there are two practical suggestions Imight make about this material-gathering process. The first is that if you have any sizable job of specific material gathering to do it is useful to learn the card-index method of doing it. This is simply to get yourself a supply of those little 3 x 5 ruled white cards, and use them to write down the items of specific information as you gather them. If you do this, one item to a card, 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. The second suggestion is that for storing up certain kinds of general material some method of doing it like a scrapbook or file is useful. You will remember, the famous scrapbooks which appear throughout Sherlock Holmes stories, and how the famous detective spent his spare time indexing and cross-indexing, the odd bits of material he gathered there. We run across an enormous amount of fugitive material which can be grist to the idea-producer's mill-newspaper clippings, publication articles, and original- observations. Out of such material it is possible to build a useful source book of ideas. Once I jotted in a book the question: "Why does every man hope his first child will be a boy?" Five years later it became the headline and idea for one of the most successful advertisements I ever produced.