Great ideas are currency in the agency world. But unfortunately, they don’t always just hit you like bolts of lightning. Some days are just about churning through as many ok, decent, and bad ideas as possible so you know what you don’t think will work. Which got me wondering:
Where do ideas come from? Is there a principle, formula, technique, or process that can get me closer to on-demand idea generation?
In my search for answers and strategies to build my creative, idea-making muscle, I turned to a classic book by ad-world legend James Webb Young. In his slim but potent offering from 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas, gives us a roadmap.
Young lays the foundation with two principles:
• An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.
• To make new combinations, you need to see relationships between old elements.
Young isn’t the only person to see idea creation in this way. Einstein referred to the way he thought as “combinatory play.” Creative Director William Bernbach simply stated, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
Joining existing ideas appears to be an essential feature in productive thought. So, building the habit of looking for patterns and connections between existing ideas or concepts is fundamental to creative thinking and generating new ideas.
Franz Johannsen calls it “Intersection Hunting.” I like the term “Smart Recombinations.” Whatever we call it, it’s the unexpected BANG that happens when we take an established idea and drop it in a new place, combine ideas in a new way, make the new familiar somehow, or take the familiar and make it new. (A great example of that last one is how Hamilton took a Broadway musical and combined historical figures with hip-hop.)
Five Steps to Generate Ideas
With these two principles in place, let’s look at Young’s 5-Step Method for producing new ideas:
1. Gather Raw Material
5. Refine & Rework
Step 1: Gather Raw Material
This is the hunter and gatherer stage. Research. Look for stimuli. Collect insights and wisdom. Source material is everywhere. These will be your renewable resources you can return to for inspiration.
Young makes the distinction between specific and general raw material.
• Specific material is anything that addresses your immediate situation. In marketing, this is all about understanding a product or service and the people you’re selling to.
• General material is a lifelong pursuit. This is about drinking deep from the river of knowledge and experience. Books, articles, blogs, podcasts, art — all of it. Seek inputs that are outside your area of expertise — that’s how you might start making unexpected connections.
Three important habits that are helpful to cultivate in this stage:
• Be curious. Curiosity is the gap between what you know and what you want to know.
• Be attentive. Keep your senses active if you want better ideas.
• Build a second brain. Short-term memory lasts 15-30 seconds. My mother-in-law says an idea is like a slippery fish. If you don’t catch it on the end of a pencil, it’ll get away. So, if you come across an interesting idea, fact, or story, capture it.
Of course, everything is vying for your attention so be judicious. Your outputs are related to your inputs, and not every resource is created equal. So, try to drink in the best stuff. At some point, these different disciplines will begin to overlap and things will start talking to each other.
Step 2: The Digestive Process
This is when you start working the material over in your mind, bringing the raw material inputs together to see how they fit. Let them mingle and see what you notice.
Put curiosity to work by asking questions. Here are a few to get you going:
• Is there an analogy or metaphor lurking at the intersection of two seemingly disparate ideas?
• Is there an ingredient from one idea that can be added to the other, creating a new recipe?
• Is there a new lens or perspective that can be taken?
• Can I arrange these elements into a narrative?
• What happens if I start from the end and work backward?
• What happens when I change genre? Or change the context?
• Is there a similar problem that’s been solved in another industry?
• Is there a new way of telling an old story?
• Is there a paradox to be explored?
Look at the familiar and see it for the first time. Take on the mindset of a child or a traveler. See the problem, concept, or idea through someone else’s eye.
Step 3: Incubation
After you’ve labored with focus, walk away. Both artists and scientists alike have described the mysterious work of the unconscious synthesizing ideas in the background, while on a walk, in the shower, listening to music, and so on.
In The Courage to Create, psychologist Rollo May describes this experience this way: “Unconscious insights or answers to problems … may indeed occur at times of relaxation, or in fantasy, or at other times when we alternate play with work.”
May goes on to say, “We cannot will to have insights. We cannot will creativity. But we can will to give ourselves to the encounter with intensity of dedication and commitment.”
The neurological processes of making and forming continue even when we’re not consciously working on them.
Step 4: Eureka! The Birth of the Idea
This is the moment where lightning strikes and the raw materials collide to form a completely new thing: Your idea.
Step 5: Refine & Rework
When your new idea takes on flesh and bone, it changes. Young calls this the “cold gray dawn of the morning after.”
It’s easy to get taken in by the seduction of fantasy or perfection when your idea resides in your head. As soon as you start putting constraints and limitations on it, it’s not uncommon to feel disappointment.
Describing the discrepancy between conceptual vision and objective reality, writer James Lord said, “To achieve this was of course impossible because what is essentially abstract can never be made concrete without altering its essence.”
In other words, this is the moment to stay strong. As Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good.”
As you develop and refine your idea, get input and feedback from others. Possibilities you overlooked will come to light.
Take Your Ideas Out to Play
James Young left us with a great template for idea generation. It’s one I often turn to in work and personal projects. It’s one I encourage you to play around with and adapt for your own purposes. Build on it, be inspired by it, and transform it into your own creative idea generation process.
Let’s get out there and find those new combinations!
And for more info on the creative process, I recommend the following:
• A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young
• The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry
• The Laws of Creativity by Joey Cofone
• Everything Is A Remix video series by Kirby Ferguson
• The Creative Self essay by Oliver Sacks
• The Courage to Create by Rollo May
• The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
Connect with Matt on LinkedIn for more insights on creativity and hot tips for your reading list!