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A Technique for Producing Ideas: by ad man James Webb Young

If you’re using Shooglebox to help you come up with better ideas, you’ll find the perfect user manual in this wonderful little book first published nearly 80 years ago.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas takes less than half an hour to read – but sums up the creative process better than any of the many (much longer) books written since.

The underlying principle is that an idea is just a new combination of things that already exist – and that having ideas depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Young – an American advertising executive – describes the method for producing ideas as a five-stage process:

Stage 1: Gather raw material

That might sound obvious – but as Young says: “It really is amazing to what degree this step is ignored in practice. 

“It is such a terrible chore we are constantly trying to dodge it. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us.”

You need to gather two types of raw material – specific material about your current project in hand and general material … the interesting stuff you come across day to day.

“In advertising, the specific materials are those relating to the product and the people you want to sell it to.”

But Young says most people stop too soon in the process of looking for that specific material. They make quick assumptions and miss the things that might lead to an idea if they dig deeper and further.

Of equal importance is the continuous process of feeding your mind with "general materials".

Young says: “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. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.”

The reason this is important comes back to the principle: 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." 

It’s a principle that applies in any field where creativity and good ideas are valued.

You’ve probably seen this quote from Steve Jobs: “Creativity is just connecting things.”

Steve Jobs on Wired magazine cover

It’s from an interview for Wired in 1996. He said: ”When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

“And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.

“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

James Webb Young had some practical suggestions to help with the material-gathering process.

He recommended writing down each item of specific information on little cards, then after a while classifying them by sections of your subject, until you end up with a whole file box of cards.

And he suggested storing up all the general material you come across in scrapbooks or files – like Sherlock Holmes did with his scrapbooks.

Young says: “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 of ideas.”

Shooglebox is a 21st century store for all this general “grist” to your mill – as well as all the specific material you gather for individual projects.

You create an individual card for each piece of material – and you can keep your cards in one box or separate boxes for different projects. 

It’s easier than in Young’s days to find, grab and store information – but the same health warning remains. Your ability to come up with ideas depends on your curiosity. A quick Google search isn’t going to work. The more and further you dig, the more you will find – and the more you’ll have to play with in the second stage of the creative process.

Stage 2: Digest everything you’ve gathered

This is where you go back over the material you’ve gathered and process it, explore it, and start to look for those relationships that lead to ideas.

Young says: “What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind.

“You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it 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 jigsaw puzzle.”

Young describes this stage of the process as going on inside your head – but here’s where Shooglebox gives you a helping hand.

It’s been designed to give you lots of ways to explore the things you’ve collected. You can switch into different modes to sift, sort and shuffle your cards. And their visual nature helps you spot patterns, relationships and connections.

Sometimes, just shaking up the cards in front of you makes something leap out and help you see a relationship you didn’t see before.

As you do all this, you’ll start asking new questions that lead you back to do more of your raw material gathering.

And you’ll start having “little tentative or partial ideas”.

Don’t mistake these for the real big idea that is to come – but Young says jot them down on a card, no matter how crazy or incomplete they seem.

As with the first stage, Young warns not to give up 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.”

But he said after a while you will hit the hopeless stage.

"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."

Stage 3: Put it out of your mind and do something else

Here's where most people go wrong again. They try to come up with a good idea while concentrating on the problem – staring directly at it.

Instead, Young says: “In this third stage you 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."

Just as Sherlock Holmes would stop right in the middle of a case and drag Watson off to a concert, he advises you turn to whatever stimulates your emotions – listen to music, go to the theatre or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

Stage 4: Out of nowhere the Big Idea will appear

Young says: “If you have really done your part in these stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.

“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 you are half awake. It may waken you in the middle of the night.”

Ideas come when you stop straining for them and have spent time resting and relaxing after the search.

Einstein said: “You get your best ideas when you relax and let your mind wander: Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

Stage 5: Submit your idea to the ‘criticism of the judicious’

This is the stage where you have to take your idea out into the world of reality and share it with others.

Young says you usually find it’s not quite as marvellous as you first thought – but good feedback can make it better.

“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.”

Shooglebox helps with this stage of the process too.

By nature, the first two stages of the creative process are messy and fluid … so the contents of your box might only make sense or be useful to you alone.

When it comes to sharing your idea with others, you can switch to Storyboard Mode and lay out a more structured “story” using some of the cards from your box and creating others to fill in gaps.

You can share the Storyboard with others – and you’ve also got the option to share the whole box of cards that inspired it.

So that’s the five-stage process for producing ideas.

  1. Gather lots of raw material – both specific and general

  2. Think about and explore your material, seeking relationships

  3. Drop the whole subject and put it out of your conscious mind

  4. Out of nowhere the Idea will appear when you're least expecting it

  5. Share your idea with people whose opinions you value and trust

Grab a copy of the book for yourself – it’s the only manual you’ll need for getting the best out of Shooglebox


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