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A Technique for Producing Ideas

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A step-by-step technique for sparking breakthrough creativity in advertising--or any field

Since its publication in 1965, A Technique for Producing Ideas has helped thousands of advertising copywriters smash through internal barriers to unleash their creativity. Professionals from poets and painters to scientists and engineers have also used the techniques in this concise, powerful book to generate exciting ideas on demand, at any time, on any subject. Now let James Webb Young's unique insights help you look inside yourself to find that big, elusive idea--and once and for all lift the veil of mystery from the creative process.

"James Webb Young is in the tradition of some of our greatest thinkers when he describes the workings of the creative process. The results of many years in advertising have proved to him that the key element in communications success is the production of relevant and dramatic ideas. He not only makes this point vividly for us but shows us the road to that goal."
--William Bernbach, Former Chairman and CEO, Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc.

64 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1940

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About the author

James Webb Young

21 books20 followers
James Webb Young (1886-1973) was an American advertising executive who became First Chairman of The Advertising Council.

He was inducted in the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame.

Young received many honors and awards including the Advertising Man of the Year Award in 1946.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 257 reviews
Profile Image for John.
170 reviews8 followers
February 23, 2013
The basic argument of this book is very simple: "ideas" are new combinations of old elements— facts, images, etc.— and that a creative person is one who is readily able to see relationships between such elements and so find new ways of combining them. The "technique" Young describes is also very simple, and rather common-sense: learn as much as you can, both about the specific thing you are working on and the world in general (because more facts in your head equals more possible relationships and combinations); think about all of it for a while, then take your mind off of it completely and do something else, and an idea will probably emerge as if out of nowhere; and finally, edit— revise, sharpen, and develop the idea until it works for the purpose at hand. The simplicity of that is, I guess, a good thing, but it also doesn't strike me so much as a "technique" as, well, being in the world. Young does suggest the use of index cards (or, presumably, an electronic equivalent) for recording facts and keeping them straight, which is probably a useful reminder of the importance of notes. I also very much liked his emphasis, reiterated at the end of the book, on the importance of general knowledge and a broad range of interests; you can't limit yourself to learning only what is practically useful for you, because you don't actually have any idea of what that will be. But I did wish for something just a little more concrete for putting all of this into practice.

That said, there are also a lot of books out there of this kind these days, and this one is rare in that it never gives you that icky feeling that comes with reading a self-help book. There's no pseudo-spiritual language, no attempt to boost your self esteem, and in general no BS; it's just "here is what is going on in your brain anyway, and here are some things you can do to make that happen more often."
Profile Image for Graeme Roberts.
505 reviews37 followers
August 10, 2021
Do you wish that authors would stop padding their stories and ideas with unnecessary bumpf? That lovely word originated in WWII when English soldiers were overwhelmed with unnecessary printed materials, and used them as toilet paper or "bum fodder." Even excellent and important books would be unarguably better in a slim volume, rather than a massive tome.

A Technique for Producing Ideas, supremely bumpf-free, is just such a volume, elegant and beautiful in its simplicity, and profoundly true. James Webb Young, an ad man of the 1940s, put some thoughts about creativity together on a Sunday afternoon for a Monday advertising class at the University of Chicago. Retired to New Mexico by 1960 (because his name was unsuitable for go-go era ad men*), he turned those thoughts into a book. It became a McGraw Hill Advertising Classic, enduring forewords by two great ad men of later eras, Bill Bernbach and Keith Reinhard (whose names were suitable), and it remains proudly in-print to this day.

Even now, when ideas are associated with tech entrepreneurs rather than ad men, and everything is tested ad nauseam by Google and Facebook, the truth of his five simple steps is more valuable than ever. For months now, I have been stuck on an article about consciousness in artificial intelligence. I started writing it on Medium, but stopped. Reading about step three of the technique, I jumped up from the kitchen table, found some 3 x 5 index cards, as Mr. Webb suggested, and distilled the very powerful essence of my article in thirty minutes.

This book may change my life. Let it change yours!

* I made that up about his name, but I stand by it.
Profile Image for James.
36 reviews1 follower
March 9, 2013
A short book with a big idea--that's it's possible to follow a step by step process in generating and developing ideas. Young is an advertiser, and the book is aimed primarily at advertisers, but it's useful for anyone in a creative field who wants to focus on the process of coming up with ideas.

The process is five-step: 1)gather material for ideas; 2) chew on the material to look at relationships; 3)put everything aside to let the material percolate; 4) wait for the idea to come up; 5) fit the idea to the real-world circumstances.

This technique is simple but effective, and is worthwhile for anyone struggling to get ideas. It's like a checklist you can use to put the idea back on track--have you researched enough material? examined the idea from all angles? put things aside for a while for the subconscious to work?

If you're stuck, read this nice little book, and try the technique.
Profile Image for Aleeda.
180 reviews4 followers
August 11, 2011
I don't believe you could spend thirty more productive minutes if you lived to be 100 years old. This book was initially developed for and by advertising minds who often believe they have sole claim to practical creativity. This method is applicable to creativity and problem solving in virtually every situation. Describing five simple steps, James Webb Young has crafted an easy-to learn, simple process that you can apply to spark creativity. You will have to put in some effort, and some of that work is mind numbing. One of the important points in the book is the case Mr. Webb makes for continuing your education. That education can be highly structured, like continuing education, or loosely structured, as in travel or simply stepping away from your computer to observe what is going on around you. What makes this book so very special is its brevity and simplicity. Einstein said "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler." You can find no better illustration of this than this book.
Profile Image for Olivier Goetgeluck.
138 reviews51 followers
March 20, 2014
"An idea is nothing more than a new combination of old elements."

Five steps to producing ideas:
1. read/watch/absorb wide variety of subjects (both general and specific to your subject)
2. think about the stuff you read about
3. stop thinking about it all for a while; let it all marinate subconsciously
4. idea! (write em all down, even if you think they're shit or too abstract)
5. do work

Don't read about advertising, read about social sciences/psychology.
Profile Image for Imaculate Mosha.
107 reviews11 followers
July 19, 2020
Love that it is short and to the point.

The central tenet is that ideas are just combinations of elements. From adverstising Bernbach extracts the following universal steps to generating ideas:
1. Research: Specific research on the topic and general subjects research
2. Actively think about what you absorbed and how it can be combined
3. Step away. Let your subconscious do the work while you engage in other activities.
4. Idea! Eureka!
5. Get to work, ask for feedback, build on it.
Profile Image for Vedant Kaushik.
Author 1 book182 followers
April 25, 2021
Everyone knows what the book tells you, but only a few can really execute.
Profile Image for Magdalene Lim.
269 reviews12 followers
September 4, 2012
Good to have/read.

My favourite part of the book or booklet (because it's so short) is the suggestion to get "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."

I also liked his likening of ideas to atolls (works for icebergs too but atolls sound cuter), where you only see only the brilliant idea at the top but not the strategy, planning and other idea-building processes beneath it.

That's it.

Edit: Reading this article on Brainpickings about Young's book should suffice. It's (almost) as good as reading the book itself.
Profile Image for LauraBee.
52 reviews32 followers
July 13, 2015
Short and incredibly to the point. Loved it. I took a course in creativity at UCLA which was 10 weeks long and frankly, this book encapsulated the 10-week course well.

I've posted on amazon a review but basically where I think people have issues with this is in the incubation phase - we have a hard time just letting go and "allowing" good ideas to come to us. I know I struggle with this part, and I know I'm not alone.

But when I can let go, I'm amazed and it's always a situation of taking the shower, or traveling somewhere, or doing something repetitious or mundane - when the "a ha!" will arrive, almost fully formed and ready to be acted on.

Profile Image for Mubarak Dawood.
10 reviews
August 30, 2018
it was a fun quick read .. it helped me figure out the process of finding ideas .. and ever since my creativity process is much faster
Profile Image for Amir-massoud.
23 reviews13 followers
August 3, 2013
A very short and concise book on how to produce ideas. One can even consider it as a long article.
The author talks about two main principles behind generating new ideas ( (a) an idea is a combination of old components, and (b) the capacity to bring old elements to a new one depends on the ability to see relationships) and introduces five methods to achieve that.
Those methods are not surprising. You probably heard about them and may even perform some of them regularly. What *might* be different from your usual practice is that he gives a specific 5-step procedure to do so. And he claims that it works.

Does it? You should know that this is not a scientific book. James Webb Young did not conduct any scientific study on how creativity works. There is no experiments, there is no randomized trial, no statistical significance, nothing. He wrote the book based on his own experiences and introspection. You should keep that in mind.

Does his method work for everyone? I don't know. Does it make sense? Based on my experience, I am inclined to say so. This is again not a proof, but I would suggest you to take a look at the book. Reading it takes less than an hour of your time. It might be worth it.
2 reviews1 follower
November 18, 2018
It's pretty rare for a book to combine exactly the right length with exactly the right amount of elaboration. This does just that. It's short, precise and to the point, without skipping any necessary details. It's also written in that earlier U.S. style that has since been abandoned, but combines the modern crispness of writing with a more sophisticated breadth of references than you'll find in some boring modern business book which inevitably includes stories about Steve Jobs and implausible comparisons between Napoleon and a modern CEO. But I digress...

As for the technique for producing ideas that the book is about, it actually works!
Profile Image for محمد حمزة.
305 reviews136 followers
February 26, 2019
*Idea: a new combination of old elements*

Five PRACTICAL steps:

1) Gathering of raw materials - both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

2) Working over of these materials in your mind.

3) Incubating stage, let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

4) The actual birth of the idea, "I have it" stage.

5) Final shaping and development of this idea to practical usefulness.

A practical classic book that I highly recommend you to read.
Profile Image for Diogo Nascimento.
36 reviews2 followers
February 25, 2020
Livro pequeno, mas com conteúdo riquíssimo sobre a produção de ideias. É muito bom saber que a criatividade não é restrita a alguns talentosos. Se seguir os 5 passos em ordem, certamente algo de muito útil vai nascer.
9 reviews
August 1, 2022
Short and sweet. A prescriptive approach to digesting and synthesizing information to come up with new and creative ideas. Worth a read.
Profile Image for Javier Lorenzana.
101 reviews28 followers
April 19, 2023
the best books synthesize what you've already thought about in a great way. this one did that.

the notion that ideas are combinations and relationships of previous facts and elements was something i picked up in the book 'how to take smart notes'.

this formalized the definition and gave an abstract (yet practical) method to generate ideas.

this book explains the principles and method of idea generation in a direct, concise way.

good vibes
March 25, 2022
Concise book. Pleasant in its simplicity. Could be read in an hour or two. Seems like a method that holds up.
Profile Image for Prateek.
20 reviews3 followers
January 15, 2023
Can tell from my experience so far, this "technique" makes a lot of sense and could work. Using it consciously, for my field, will be challenging.
Profile Image for Rhoda.
78 reviews
July 7, 2020
A very short book but not a quick read although easily read multiple times. It is a book for creatives, specifically advertising professionals, on how to generate ideas, but I say it is a book for problem solvers to generate solutions. The process is boiled down to 5 steps and going through the steps I thought to multiple times that "yes, that's exactly how I got the idea to . . .".

One of my favorite quotes in the book in Chapter 10:
Of course, if you consider that your education was finished when you left college, and wouldn't be caught dead with a copy of say, one of Jane Austen's novels under your pillow, go no farther. . ..
But the principle of constantly expanding your experience, both personally and vicariously, does matter tremendously in any idea-producing job. Make no mistake about it.
Profile Image for Meda.
10 reviews1 follower
May 17, 2020
It was a very nice quick read. I really enjoyed it. The book has some nice and interesting points which will definitely be useful.

Profile Image for Sunny.
738 reviews36 followers
February 5, 2021
Pound for pound and page for page this has got to be probably one of the best books I've ever read in terms of insights and ideas that it's generated for me. I often mark with a dot on the top right of the top left corner of a page an interesting point which I read on that page. And although this is a very small book this book was practically littered with dots and underlined sections. The book is essentially about the process with which we can go about producing ideas. In a nutshell James Webb young talks about having a very diverse universe with which too collide and contrast and compare and crunch ideas together , another book calls it the Medici effect, but essentially a platform where you're able to hold desperate ideas and let those ideas brew together in a juicy hot Stew. Once you give those ideas time it's important to be able to set up a system that allows you to capture the key insights from them but also be able to go back to those key insights with ease and start to make correlations. The next bit is interesting in that it suggests and encourages us to step away from the idea and let our subconscious take over. One thing I've always found absolutely fascinating is the tendency I have to generate ideas when I'm reading some boring book which doesn't really interest me and my subconscious starts working away and starts to create connections and starts to ferment the ideas. Once that Eureka moment happens and those connections are made you essentially have the idea in principle and then it's about activating and really bringing that idea to life with some sort of pragmatic and practical implementation of it. One of the truly fascinating realizations in the book is the example of the kaleidoscope which James Webb young introduces. He simply says that a kaleidoscope is like this hothouse of idea production. You put a kaleidoscope spoke to your eyes and twist a couple of times and the different colored chips of see through plastic and glass inside form beautiful new patterns. Essentially that's what new ideas are. A re framing and a re formatting of previously existing patterns of chips but see now through a different point of view and a different lens. I thought this is an absolutely astonishing and beautiful analogy to describe the production of ideas. Anyway enough talking for me here are some of the best bits from the book:

The speculator is the speculative type of person. And the distinguishing characteristic of this type according to pereto, is that he is constantly preoccupied with the possibilities of new combinations.

Particular bits of knowledge or nothing. They are made up of what doctor Robert Hutchins once called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

To a mind which is quick to see relationships several ideas will occur, fruitful for advertising, about this use of words as symbols. Is this then, why the change of one word in a headline can make as much as 50% difference in advertising response?

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

That by no possibility can one of them be taken before the proceeding was completed, if an idea is to be produced. The first of these steps is for the mind to gather its raw material.

In advertising an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events.

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.

And her a strange element comes in . This is that fact sometimes yield up there meaning quicker when you do not scan them to directly, too literally, . You remember the winged Messenger whose wings could only be seen when glanced at obliquely? It is like that. In fact it is almost like listening for the meaning instead of looking at it. When creative people are in this stage of the process they get their reputation for absent mindedness. As you go through this part of the process two things will happen. First little tentative or partial ideas will come to. Put these down on paper immediately. The mind to has a second wind.

In the third stage you make absolutely no effort of any direct nature. You drop the whole subject and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can.

And it was while I was folding up that copy of the eagle and putting it away for later reading that something came into my mind. I have had this happen before: I can puzzle over a thing until I am in a state of utter confusion, give it up and then suddenly have the answer leap into my mind without any apparent reason at all.

In summary here the five stages of the book. First the gathering of the raw materials both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge. Second the working over of these materials in your mind. Third the incubating stage where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis. 4th the actual birth of the idea, the eureka I have at stage. And finally 5th the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.

but you can also enormously expand your experience vicariously. It was the author of Saad Harker I believe who had never been to South America yet wrote a good adventure book about it. I'm convinced however that you gather this vicarious experience best not when you are boning up for it for an immediate purpose, but when you're pursuing it as an end in itself.

still another point I might elaborate on a little is about words. We tend to forget that words are themselves ideas. They might be called ideas in a state of suspended animation. When the words are mastered the ideas tend to come alive again.
Profile Image for Dan Martin.
Author 1 book49 followers
June 10, 2010
I have now read this book twice (not that hard as it's about a thirty minute read). Like Paul Arden's book "It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be", I found this book to be incredibly inspiring for the creative process. Also, I find it serendipitous that in this week that I've devoted to "Filling The Well" (something I do quite often in my quest for inspiration via the spark that museums, movies, books, galleries, etc. almost always provide) I stumble upon a book that is exactly about that!

Anyway, highly recommended!
Profile Image for Pierre Stanley.
Author 1 book2 followers
January 4, 2018
Short and Practical

An easy read that teaches the art of coming up with ideas. It takes some mental work to dive fully into the concepts and not just read the words. The Index-card method is my favorite. I’ve heard that Robert Green and Ryan Holiday use it for generating ideas for their books.
Profile Image for Rasha Alduwisi.
2 reviews33 followers
October 27, 2012
A simple 5 step plan to generate new ideas. It's nice to believe that there's a method to finding the perfect solution to any creative problem, and although it's not that simple, but this method is tried and tested and proven to be the best.
Profile Image for Erin.
544 reviews
January 31, 2015
Quick, simple, and short read. I suggest everyone take half an hour to an hour to read through this book, especially if you're interested in the creative minds' process. Challenging yourself to think like this could create some really unique ideas.
Profile Image for két con.
99 reviews123 followers
November 22, 2015
You remember how Sherlock Holmes used to stop right in the middle of it case, and drag Watson off to a concert?
That was a very irritating procedure to the practical and literal-minded Watson.
But Conan Doyle was a creator and knew the creative process.
Profile Image for Rick.
Author 6 books73 followers
July 14, 2013
The advertising classic. You can read it in an hour. It is still insanely useful and valuable. A must read for all creatives.
Profile Image for J Rudden.
64 reviews
October 15, 2020
Stupidly vague with one or two fair observations. Would not refer to this as a technique, but rather just a weird half description of how the subconscious mind works away in the background.
345 reviews3,030 followers
August 21, 2018
In his last year as an advertising agency executive, James Webb Young was taking an apparently urgent meeting with a client at a well-known magazine. It turned out that the magazine had decided that their future strategy should be to “sell ideas”. However, after that they got stuck and now they turned to Webb with the question: “You have produced a lot of advertising ideas. Just how do you get them? The boys are waiting for me to come back to tell them.” Totally unprepared for the topic at hand and with no formula to share Webb had to disappoint the client, but even though he at the time thought the question funny and naïve it stuck and over time Webb realized that there actually is a technique for producing ideas. The resulting formula was later on presented for graduate students in advertising at the University of Chicago and for advertising practitioners. The presentations subsequently became this book published in 1965.

According to Webb there are two principles that are the source of ideas and then a method by which ideas are produced. The first principle is that an idea is a new combination of old elements. The second is that a person’s capacity to create these new combinations of old elements depends on his ability to see relationships – making the habit of mind to search for relationships between facts an important and trainable aspect in the production of new ideas.

Further, the technique to generate ideas follows five distinct steps in a definite order. 1) The first step is to gather the information that makes up the raw material for the idea. The material is of two kinds, the specific and the general. The specific material concerns the particular facts on the topic at hand. In advertising it could be facts on the product, the target customers etc. The general material is the vast databank of information on the world that is needed to come up with the elements that combined produce a new idea. To be able to generate creative ideas a person needs to be curious of the world and constantly browse and make the cumbersome effort to add interesting concepts of life and events to his databank. The more facts of seemingly little practical use that are stored the more new combinations are possible and the easier to generate ideas. A person should always try to enrich his store of general knowledge.

2) The next step is to chew the material, analyze it, break it down into pieces, look at it from different angles and try to understand the problem you are going to solve. In this stage you are seeking a synthesis to make up that new combination that will be your idea. It’s important to be open-minded and take notes of all the partial thoughts and ideas that come up. 3) The next stage is counter- intuitively to drop the issue and turn the problem over to your unconscious. A tired mind under stress will not be as creative as one that is relaxed and stimulated. Hence, listen to music, take a walk with your wife, go to the movies and let the mind digest the issue you are trying to solve.
4) Hopefully, but not inevitably as people differ in creative ability, in the forth step an idea will appear as from nowhere perhaps when in the shower, when you are half awake in the morning etc. Be sure to write it down immediately. 5) In the last stage the idea has to be tested with other persons. Submit it to criticism and let others improve on it and add qualities that might have been overlooked. This will develop the idea to be of practical use.

This is the whole method and according to the reactions Webb has received from readers over the years it works. Now, Webb’s book is very short and as such adds almost no additional depth to the method beyond what’s been included in this review. On the one hand the book delivers on its aim in a believable and persuasive way. It also interestingly ties in to Charlie Munger’s concept of storing a number of “mental models” of the world. On the other hand its contents could easily be summarized on one power-point slide without missing much level of detail.

Save your money and simply print this review.
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