How To Get New Ideas

In the book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, author James Webb Young lays out an ideation method that is “as definite a process as the production of Fords.”

the production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords
 – James Webb Young

A Technique for Getting Ideas, was written by ad-industry creative director James Webb Young, better known for his book Diary of an Ad Man, an excellent play on the title of Gogol’s classic.

Anyway, this is a short book that provides a system for the origination of creative ideas.

It asserts that good ideas don’t just appear magically, as depicted in Mad Men; instead, you take action and get them. Or at least your subconscious mind does.

Young, who I’m guessing was influenced by his (germanic) namesake and contemporary, Jung, published this treatise in 1940 for fellow advertising industry creatives.

But the method and the principles behind it apply to getting any variety of creative ideas, including ones we can use today for digital approaches like user experience design, conversion copywriting, or imaginative SEO strategy.

Usage warnings

At the onset of the book, Young issues caveats about the rigorousness of the method and the type of mindsets that will most benefit from it.

First, he warns that compared to our typical ideation approach, his method is very hard work. We have to scan widely but read deeply, stare at things for longer than they hold our interest, interview our subjects extensively, and process and organize a tremendous amount of information. The research is difficult for a few reasons:

  • It requires total immersion — the kind that may throw your work-life balance off kilter for longer than you like.
  • It involves uncertainty and risk. You don’t know where it will lead you, so you will go astray and waste many hours of work on nothing.
  • It often makes the most sense to go it alone

Young believes this approach will only work for people with brooding, speculative minds who are never satisfied with their solutions and are compelled to constantly rework them. I tend to think of most traits as being learned, not inherent, so I’m not sure I agree. But it’s worth noting that Young feels very strongly that his technique will work much better for some than others.

Try to create something original, you’re in for a surprise

Before setting out the method itself, Young introduces two important motifs. The first is that every new idea is a combination of previous ideas. It may be a new combination or a stale one, but a combination it is. This encourages us to borrow from the ideas others. Many great writers and thinkers have echoed this concept throughout the years, including a well known Nobel laureate:

Most everything is a knockoff of something else. You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down…

But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel…  or something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered.

It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you. It’s as if you were looking at something far off and now you’re standing in the middle of it. Once you get the idea, everything you see, read, taste or smell becomes an allusion to it. It’s the art of transforming things…

Try to create something original, you’re in for a surprise.

~ Bob Dylan

Pattern-Matching is the Mother of Ideation

Young’s second guiding principle, which Bob Dylan also reflects on, is that great ideas often combine seemingly unconnectable and incongruous ideas and facts.

Decades before the term multidisciplinary caught the imagination of academics and civil servants, Young codified a far more transcendental and imaginative approach to problem-solving. For Young, it’s not only helpful but necessary to seek out far-flung subjects and vary our approach to researching them; embrace the irrelevant.

Let’s take an example: say we are looking for a better way to promote a fair-trade tea through digital marketing and commerce. We’ve been given this task by an NGO client who has already initiated a program that brings those teas to the Western market, on behalf of small farmers in the developing world. We begin our task with research, but how? What might Young encourage us to set on a shelf next to each together for examination? In applying this approach to finding digital solutions, it’s important we mix traditional methods with those of the Internet age:

  • Look up the price of tea in China (actually impossible to do, but that’s OK)
  • Do keyword research on fair trade e-commerce, using Google Trends and SEOMoz’s Keyword Explorer
  • Find a study of discretionary spending trends by consumers in the United States versus those in the BRICS nations
  • On the NGO’s website, identify the ratio of visits to the homepage versus to “inside” product pages
  • Watch a documentary about the Monsanto’s monopolization of the tea farming industry in South East Asia
  • Write down the top search terms on the NGO website’s in-site search logs
  • Start a list of the most commonly marketed varieties of fair-trade tea, using more than one source
  • What were total sales of teas over the last two years, broken down by channel: grocery store distributors, coffee & tea houses,, and telephone orders direct to consumer

What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China? Precisely the right question to ask, Young might respond. As the detectives say on TV, you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it.

Who knows, maybe you’ll notice a trend whereby every element you examine has a health component to it. For example, you discover that China subsidizes the price of tea for health reasons and that the most common Google search having to do with tea is “best tea for headaches”  (for the record, as of 2018 it’s actually bubble tea.)

Making far-flung connections like these will better prepare you to formulate critical digital marketing and strategy questions:

  • Is there an opportunity to generate more revenue from tie-in products, like the actual tins themselves?
  • What else do fair trade tea farmers (or anyone else in the supply chain) have to offer that could fit into?
  • Is it worthwhile to investigate a web and email marketing campaign based on a health theme?
  • Should the NGO continue to sell fair trade tea on its primary website, or should it launch an independent, e-commerce site just for that purpose? Or some mixture?

If you follow Young’s method, you’ll look for connections like this; you’ll keep asking yourself, “how does this fit with that?”, and you’ll build a question set that points your client in the direction of a digital strategy.

After a point, though, you’ll stop. Stop asking questions, stop thinking, and sleep on it — and then some. Read on to learn why.


The method

Once he establishes the caveats and principles essential to correctly following the method, he lays it out in 5 steps. This is the actual work of getting ideas.

  • Step 1. Research the subject
  • Step 1x: Research related subjects
  • Step 2: Digest research and brainstorm ideas
  • Step 3: Forget its existence
  • Step 4: Listen for ideas
  • Step 5: Qualify ideas
Step 1. Research the subject

According to Young, this is the most important and arduous step and should proceed as follows:

  • Research your subject by reading everything you can find unique to it, within an appropriate timeframe
  • After casting our broad net, go deep. Young doesn’t stipulate this, and it will depend on the scope and timeline for our project, I think we should read at least one full-length book on the primary subject.
  • Write down every interesting fact, thought, and half-thought as you go.
  • Find answers to each important question that comes up.
  • Organize what you write down systematically.

Whether you utilize index cards or something else, I’m sure Young would insist that we write it down on paper. I think there is a lot to that. Ultimately, you can transfer key information to your computer, but by writing it down, you register it more deeply in your mind, which is the general idea for step 1.

Young didn’t know about the digital world, but if he did he’d embrace the research opportunities it presents.  He’d cull from it as much data as possible; website analytics data,  in-site search logs, SEO data, e-commerce transaction histories, usability studies, and more; he’d get out as much information out of it as possible and write down whatever jumped out with pen and paper.

Step 1x. Research related subjects

After studying the primary subject, we broaden the investigation into related topics and issues, employing the same broad sweep, deep-dive, documentation, and categorization techniques. We started with fair trade tea and that led to:

  • Gourmet beverage e-commerce
  • Dietary Health & Wellness
  • Low-tech outdoor video production
  • Agricultural worker labor issues

Examine any subject in the world in which you see a relationship to your original problem area. The danger is going down the rabbit holes of the trivial and the inconsequential, recognizing that, and knowing when to cut your losses. That’s part of what makes this step so hard.

And then stop. Close the gates of information on this subject. For those of you familiar with the Agile software design and development methodology, you’ll recognize a similarity. In Agile, the “sprint” cycle by definition has not begun until bugs, feedback, feature requests, and any other issues, are completely halted. That frees engineers to completely immerse themselves in solving agreed upon issues during a short “sprint” of development work.

Young doesn’t address when to stop and it’s certainly less clear-cut than in Agile. We have to intuit when it is time to shut down the water hose of new information and ideas; without doing so, the next step is impossible.

Step 2. Digest research and brainstorm ideas

Digesting your research isn’t a passive activity for Young; it’s more like brainstorming. If the key aspect of step 1 is to dive deep, the key to step 2 is to struggle. How thoroughly can you exhaust your attention span and leave your patience and self-discipline in shreds? A deliberate effort is made to churn your mind until it presses out an idea. Can you push yourself to create solutions slightly beyond the point at which they are interesting to you?  I imagine Young upright at his desk, alert, caffeinated, writing notes, reading them aloud in different voices. This is a rigorous mental examination, but it’s not solely an intellectual exercise; as the author puts it:

take the different bits of material you have gathered and feel them, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind.

Young was concerned with producing ideas for mid-20th-century advertising campaigns that lived in newspapers, magazines, and billboards, so like us he needed to find the right words and imagery. But because we’re working with digital canvasses, in addition to the mediums of Young’s era, we want to apply Young’s method and advice to digital techniques. UX design, for example, fits in perfectly here: he’d have us create pen and paper sketches of wireframes, sitemaps, personas, user stories, and the like. And once we digitized that thinking, we’d rework and refine layout and words.

We’d make more customer journeys than we could present back to the client, walking our personas through dozens of digital experiences: Web UI, confirmation emails, the 1-800 support line, the box of tea in the mail with a link to the profile of the farm from which it originated. We’d picture, for example, a customer acquiring our NGO client’s tin of tea, opening it at their table, and making themselves a drink. What happens between that moment and returning to a “commerce channel” to purchase more tea? Or between that moment and making a voluntary donation on the NGO website? How do they make that donation? What time of day is it? What feeling comes over our personas during the transactions — satisfaction, relief, connectedness, guilt? And how do you sell those feeling, assuming we want to? And again, what does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China?

Because Young thinks our minds should be completely exhausted at the end of this step in the process, he’d have us answer questions like these over and over again.

By constantly thinking about it.

 Sir Isaac Newton, when asked how he came up with the theory of gravity.

Step 3. Forget its existence

This is the most interesting parts of Young’s technique. It must have been quite avant-garde in 1940. In this phase, you do digest your research, but in a new way: with the subconscious mind.

“Stop trying” goes beyond just sleeping on it, though I’d be pretty sleepy at this point. Here we are advised to drop the original subject entirely from our consciousness. We don’t read about, talk about, write about, or think about the matter of our investigations. We forget it ever existed. Instead, we might immerse ourselves in a movie, a game, or in activities that involve people, places, or things completely unrelated to the matter of investigation. I picture Young scheduling his weekends to coincide with this step, so he could thoroughly free his mind of his inquiries. With your conscious mind completely off the subject, it can rest, and let the subconscious take over problem-solving duties.

Young provides the perfect illustration – Sherlock Holmes abruptly dragging the befuddled Watson off to a concert, after intense examination of a case. As Young points out, Sherlock’s creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an artist who understood the ideation process; he knew that his character needed to let his subconscious mind consider the problem after his conscious mind had reached a point of exhaustion.

Step 4. Listen for ideas

Unlike the previous steps, you don’t begin this one actively; it starts by itself when ready. As Young says: “Out of nowhere the idea will appear.”

There isn’t much to say on this subject other than, “be prepared to write it down.” For me, good ideas come at the most inconvenient time, like when I’ve just asked a police officer for directions while driving and then want to say, “Hang on a minute; I’ve just had a fabulous idea for this website I’m working on … OK, go ahead!”

Because the author describes this step as akin to blindly groping for needles in a haystack, document each idea casually, without being so invested in one that it crowds out the next.

Step 5. Qualify your ideas

In digital strategic planning, these ideas we come up with may take on the form of questions rather than, say, marketing campaigns. Be they questions or answers, now is the time to sort the wheat from the shaft.

listen for the spontaneous urge to add to the ideas you present

Young enthusiastically suggests that the best way to know whether an idea is good is the extent to which others will immediately add to and improve on it. So ignore the polite endorsements or analyses, and listen for the spontaneous urge to add to the ideas you present to others. Those are the ideas to cultivate.

Which reinforces the original principle of A Technique for Getting Ideas – so-called new ideas are simply combinations or mutations of previous ones. And that’s a fitting conclusion to this summary of Young’s method.

A postscript on digital marketing

75 years after its publication Young’s technique, which has probably existed in some form since the ancient Greeks, remains relevant. I have tried this approach myself and my take is that it’s hard, effective, and works perfectly for solving problems with digital design and technology.

If I have any misgiving about the approach, it’s that it’s hard to reconcile the solitary nature of it with the team-driven discovery workshop and interviews approach that is so common at the onset of a digital project. Discovery planning is useful because it’s inclusive. It delegates the work of collecting different insight to a large group of colleagues. It’s also much easier to get buy-in on new ideas: the more people that contribute to an ideation process, the more yes votes on whatever it yields.

On the other hand, design-by-committee has its well-known drawbacks. My advice to UX specialists, visual designers, technical solutions architects, developers, digital marketers, and anyone else whose work is guided by digital strategy, is to initiate Young’s method alone and only incorporate other people into your work once you completed your research and brainstorming work. That could look something like this:

  • Step 1. Research the subject
  • Step 1x: Research related subjects
  • Step 2: Digest and brainstorm ideas
  • Step 2a: Discovery workshopping & interviews
  • Step 3: Forget its existence
  • Step 4: Listen for the Eureka ideas
  • Step 5: Filter ideas and repeat

You’ll probably scale down the scope of your ideation work if, whatever your job title or project role, you are not the principal solutions owner for a given digital project. What’s important is not how much but how well we honor the technique Young has provided us with.

Honor the subconscious ideation process

Don’t let the always-on norm of the Internet age weaken the “Forget its existence” phase of this process. In the world of web design companies, Drupal and WordPress shops, IT and Communications departments, advertising firms, and digital agencies, we’re even more over-connected than our counterparts in civilian life, so it’s hard to “forget” a project you’re working on. Digital communication is too adept at intruding on and obstructing our work. You’ll face challenges that perhaps our author didn’t have to back in his mid-2oth Century advertising firm, but you either let the subconscious mind do its work, or you don’t.

Digital testing of ideas

While the digital era may encroach on subliminal contemplation, it helps realize other parts of Young’s approach. It goes without saying that the Internet expands research opportunities. And software-based approaches to deliberate brainstorming are there too: wireframing and prototyping tools, visual editors, analytics and keywords research products, and quick-build CMS products. But if there is any part of The Technique for Getting Ideas we can significantly improve on with digital technology, it’s the last step where we qualify ideas.

Whereas Young’s yardstick was whether colleagues’ minds lit up with suggestions, we can also test ideas with techniques like A/B split-testing, in which we evaluate the appeal of a product or service against a variation of itself. For example, version A of a box of fair trade tea will feature the “Fair Trade Certified” logo prominently, but version B fades the logo into the background and superimposes a prominent quote from a doctor about the health benefits of fair trade agricultural products. Using digital commerce and analytics tools, we can quickly test the appeal of version A against that of version B.

the opportunity in digital lies in the ease, rapidity, and affordability of testing ideas

A/B testing has been around since long before the Internet age; the opportunity in digital lies in the ease, rapidity, and affordability of testing ideas. Products and services like Google Webmaster Tools, HotJar, New Egg, Applause, and more, can automate and vastly accelerate the timeframe for testing new concepts. In Young’s day, it wasn’t possible to verify the profitability of an idea before it went into an expensive production cycle; after putting all that hard work into getting ideas, he would have loved digital testing.

In the next episode, we’ll cover more approaches to work that will completely obliterate your work-life balance.