A Technique for Producing Ideas

Written by Dave Rothacker on Sept 8, 2023

James Webb Young, a 20th-century advertising man, wrote the book, A Technique for Producing Ideas. Originally published in 1940, this 46-page book was a roadmap designed to help advertising professionals with the creative process. Why would someone write a book that would help their competitors?

Young’s answer is classic. It’s exactly why consultants stay in business.

It is also the primary reason why people and businesses do not grow. The answer is a lack of implementation. In Young’s words

"First, the formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it. Second, while simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it."

- James Webb

I’m going to explain James's five-step method for producing ideas here. I’ll be leaving out a couple of foundational principles. Why? Because you need to buy the book (the price makes it simply irresistible).

One - Gather specific and general material. The specific material is the nuts and bolts information that you will need for an article, book or project. James suggests capturing this information on 3 X 5 index cards, classifying them by subject.

Collecting general material is a lifelong process. As you go through the day, observe life and your surroundings, take pictures, clip magazines, print out online material, record a conversation snippet, or insert a page from a coloring book. Along with anything else that resonates with your human senses, put this together in a notebook.

Two - The mental digestive process. This is where you take in the gathered material and observe it, digesting it from all angles. You'll combine specific with general material. You are looking for a relationship, a connection. James suggests scanning your material quickly and not taking its meaning too literally. As ideas from the process pop into your head, write them down. You'll get to a point where you feel too tired to go on. Go on anyhow. Push yourself to capture more ideas. Soon, however, everything runs together. Your brain turns to spaghetti. You’re now ready for step three.

Three - Put your notebook down and walk away. Go do something physical. This is when many creative types take walks. Stephen King is famous for it. I like to think of this stage as letting ideas brew in your subconscious.

Four - This step is where the idea that you've been in search of suddenly appears. It will come to you after you've done the hard stuff and have had a chance to rest and relax. It might be while in the shower, at the grocery store or at a youth ballgame. I suggest always carrying around something to record your idea. A small notebook, a piece of paper or your cell phone. Always be prepared to capture your notions. My notebook of choice is Field Notes.

Five - Show the world your idea. Put it out there for all to see, hear, feel and taste. James believes this is the stage where many ideas go to the idea graveyard. Mostly this is due to the owner’s lack of patience in adapting them to the world. Pay attention to what others have to say about your idea. Various opinions can present a new vista, stimulating additional possibilities.

That's it. Ninety-eight percent of those who read this will never bother, supporting Young’s position regarding his competitors. You’ve got the ball. Will you stand still with it or will you run with it?

James Webb Young believed that an increased emphasis should be placed on one step in this process. It's in the accumulation of grist for your mill. It's in the collection of general material. Live. Observe. Record.

Get the book here: A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. As of this writing, the Amazon price is $4.99. Heck, buy a few cases. Give them to your team, customers and or the community.

It’s Go-Time!