Five Creativity Lessons from A Technique for Producing Ideas

On the flight to Seattle for the festive period I read A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young.

The author, one of the original ad men of the 50s and 60s and contemporary of David Ogilvy, shares the processes he employed to create ideas throughout his glittering career. As its name suggests the book contains techniques readers can follow, regardless of their role, title or industry to become more creative.

While the book is an engaging read, its origins are noteworthy too. The book initially started out as notes Webb Young prepared for a class at the University of Chicago. The talk was well received by the students, then some advertising practitioners and as word spread of its insightful content, it was published as a book for others to learn from - which they continue to do to this day.

The key theme, which remains controversial, is that ideas can be produced. Indeed, Webb Young distills the creative process into the following steps:

  1. Gathering of raw materials

  2. Working over of these materials in your mind

  3. Incubation stage

  4. Actual birth of the idea

  5. Final shaping and development of the idea

The book contains many thought provoking ideas and five creativity lessons stood out:

1. Ideas can be engineered
Webb Young makes the case that ideas can be produced - if you construct the right environment for them to flourish. He says, “The production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled.” For many this may contrast with their quasi-mythical view of creativity, but the fact remains ideas can and should be engineered.

2. There are no new ideas (just new combinations of old elements)
One of the central themes of the book is that there are no new ideas - just new combinations of old elements. Webb Young argues, “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” However, the skill (and it’s a difficult one to hone) lies in being able to mix old elements and understand how they should fit together.

3. Importance of ability to see and understand relationships
To successfully combine old elements into something new, marketers must be able to see relationships between disparate elements and understand when to bring them into the mix. This is crucial to the production of ideas and according to the author can be cultivated by studying the relationships between facts. Webb Young describes it best when he says, “The construction of an advertisement is the construction of a new pattern in this kaleidoscopic world in which we live.”

4. Feedback is crucial
Regardless of the type of work you’re doing, feedback is crucial. Webb Young says, “Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest.” He advises you, “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.” Constructive feedback is a gift and submitting your ideas for feedback from knowledgeable people is the most effective way to improve them.

5. Value of lifelong learnteing and curiosity
The book espouses the value of lifetime learning and having a curious nature, and how these two elements lead to experience, which in turn fuels new ideas. Webb Young says, “There are some advertisement you just can’t write until you have lived long enough – until, say, you have lived through certain experiences as a spouse, a parent, a businessman, or what not.”

What resonated most is that while the practice of creativity may have changed, the principles have not. Many of the ideas Webb Young shares are timeless and are just as applicable today as they ever were. If you want to learn more about the creative process and how to engineer the right environment for more ideas, then read A Technique for Producing Ideas. Webb Young’s framework will help you create more ideas and strengthen existing ones.