Originally published on the Chameleon blog 07/02/2013
"Is an idea... the final result of a long series of unseen idea-building processes which go on beneath the surface of the conscious mind?"
This is the question posed by James Webb Young in his book A Technique for Producing Ideas, which he attempts to answer through the use of a five step method that is a concise and illuminating description of the creative process.
The book features forewords by Keith Reinhard, (Chairman, DDB Worldwide) and advertising legend William Bernbach (Founder, DDB) and is mentioned by Paul Arden (of Saatchi & Saatchi fame) in his inspirational book It's not how good you are it's how good you want to be - more on that another time perhaps.
But who was James Webb Young, and why have famous admen been singing his praises since the book was published in the 1940s?
Well, he was a copywriter and former Vice President of advertising agency J. Walter Thompson (JWT) and The Advertising Council's first chairman, and the methods described within his book are as relevant and thought-provoking (literally) as they have been at any time over the last 70 years. As Paul Arden points out, it "doesn't give you ideas, but... helps sort out what you want to say and helps you arrive at an original and relevant solution".
How do you get ideas?
Young was once asked the question of how he got his ideas. He wondered whether a formula or technique could be developed to answer the question and came to the conclusion that the production of ideas is like an assembly line, and that the mind follows a technique that can be learned.
As with any art, Young insists that the important things to learn are Principles and Method.
Principles & Method
With regard to the general principles, Young states that there are two that are important:
An idea is a new combination of old elements
The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends on the ability to see relationships between facts
With these two general principles in mind, Young's method by which ideas are produced follows a technique. This technique involves following five steps in a definite order.
Step 1: Gather raw materials
Young's first step is to mentally gather raw materials, a difficult job that is too often avoided. He splits these materials into two kinds: specific and general.
Specific materials are those relating directly to the product and target audience. Young states that striving to find the relationship that exists between every product and consumer can inevitably lead to an idea. A fact that I'm sure every agency and brand, whether above the line, below the line, through the line; online, offline, mobile etc. would agree with.
General materials gathering is important as this is where the previously stated principle of an idea being a new combination of elements comes in: the specific knowledge of products and people with the general knowledge of life and events. The more elements that are stored in the mind, the greater our chances of producing a new and striking combination or idea.
Young suggests that to achieve this we should make use of index cards to record and classify information and to create scrapbooks of interesting material (newspaper clippings, articles, observations etc.) - this was the 1940s remember! Over time, these methods have obviously evolved. Back when I was studying Graphic Design at college (pre-internet) our tutor encouraged us to look at as many magazines (from the Sunday Times supplement and Radio Times to Creative Review and Design Week) as we could and collect materials such as peoples' hands, faces, adverts we liked etc. so that we built up a collection of assets.
In today's digital world, there are now multiple tools available for web and mobile that can replicate all these activities, whether it's "read-later" apps such as Instapaper, Pocket or Readability; photo-sharing sites such as Pinterest, Flickr or Picasa; or social discovery sites such as Delicious, Digg or Stumbleupon. Personally I've recently begun using Evernote, which allows you to make notes, take photos, save links etc.
Despite the emergence of multiple apps and online tools, I still find the humble web browser most useful for bookmarking and organising interesting sites and articles online, and with the arrival of Chrome and Firefox's ability to sync across multiple devices, it means these bookmarks can be taken with you as you move from home to studio, from mobile to laptop, and even from job to job. Firefox also has the ability to tag bookmarks for easy filtering.
The key to all of this is to be looking in a variety of places to gather these general materials that you can then overlay any specific materials gathering on to as the need arises.
This general research can act as a spark and help guide you in specific directions and help narrow your materials gathering e.g. specific design or technology trends.
I use Twitter extensively in keeping abreast of the stuff that inspires me, whether it's industry news (both digital and "tradtional" marketing), design trends, new technology etc. Using carefully administered lists managed through TweetDeck and Hootsuite I'm able to filter anything unwanted or at least irrelevant at the time.
Before this, I would try to visit certain sites regularly e.g. Smashing Magazine, The FWA, NMA (now Econsultancy), nowadays I visit a wider range of sites but only when I see something relevant in their Twitter feed. Current recurring favourites for me are
In my experience it's highly likely that some of that general materials gathering will turn out to be specific material and ALL specific material will become general. For example, material gathered for an agency website redesign project (competitor websites; sites featuring innovative technology, navigation or infographics; sites with inspiring imagery and language) then become general inspiration for future web design projects.
Step 2: The Mental Digestive Process
This part of the process is about feeling over the different bits of material with your mind. It's about bringing these facts together in order to see how they fit and whether a relationship can be found. Young describes this as like listening for the meaning rather than looking for it.
Ideas, whether tentative or partial, will begin to come to you and he suggests getting these down on paper, no matter how crazy or incomplete. This is where notebooks, layout pads, flipcharts, white boards, Sharpies, pens, pencils and all those other "traditional" materials come into play. I have a notebook that I carry around with me and our studio is well stocked with Sharpies and layout pads - you can't beat just dumping every thought, word, doodle or scamp onto paper.
Pulling together moodboards of imagery and colours and taking screenshots of inspiring and/or relevant websites (if it's a website project – which at Chameleon they invariably are) is also a good way of organizing all the material and getting the creative juices flowing.
Whatever approach you take to this stage of the process, eventually you'll reach the point when there are no ideas left. Young insists that when you've truly reached that stage and the mind is a jumble then this is the time to forget the whole thing!
Step 3: Put The Problem Out of Your Mind
I agree with Young's insistence that this stage is just as important as the two previous stages. He suggests turning to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions: music, theatre, film, poetry, novels etc. This will help put the problem out of your mind and stimulate the unconscious, creative process.
An ex-colleague of mine would often go for a wander around the block in order to clear his head and facilitate that next step in the process...
Step 4: Constantly Thinking About It
This is where the ideas will appear out of nowhere, usually when you least expect it. I've experienced this whilst sitting on the train reading a book and listening to my iPod, relaxing in front of the TV, having a shave, cleaning my teeth, even whilst out for a run.
Having a notebook and/or iPhone app to hand is invaluable to record these ideas when they appear unbidden!
As long as you've gone through the first three steps then you're almost certainly guaranteed to experience what Young describes as the "Eureka! I have it" stage.
Step 5: The Final Stage
This stage is described as the cold, grey dawn of the morning after, where you take your newborn idea(s) out into the world and generally discover that it isn't quite the perfect solution you'd believed it to be.
For me, this is where the real work is, making the idea fit into the context by which it will be delivered. For example, you've designed a fantastic home page that fulfills all the client's aesthetic requirements and needs, but you need to get the correct content in there and it doesn't quite fit, or the amazing banner you've created is a few kilobytes too big for the adserver. This is where patience and practicality is required in order to put these ideas to work.
Young also advises not to hold these ideas too close and to submit them to criticism. Us creatives are a sensitive lot and often take critiques of our work personally, but we must ensure that we see the bigger picture and that by doing this we will often find that a good idea has self-expanding qualities and stimulates those who see it. So seek out your fellow designers, account managers, developers - anyone whose opinion you respect, and let them help grow your idea and make it a reality. After all, it's still your idea, in whatever form it eventually takes.
Young finishes his book by insisting that the principle of constantly expanding our experiences matters tremendously in any idea-producing job, which I agree with 100%.
If you work in digital you absolutely have to be up to date with everything that is going on, whether that be latest digital marketing techniques, recent web design trends, latest technologies. You should also, however, be aware of what's going on in the wider world through news, arts, entertainment etc., as Young himself points out the best books about advertising aren't always about advertising.
We never know what our clients' next project may be, or what the next trend in design or technology may be (although we can have a pretty good idea if we're reading the right articles in the right media) and indeed we should always try to be proactive and think about the context in which our website, banner, email etc. may be viewed. In these days of hyper connectivity these things should never be designed in isolation, and James Webb Young's techniques are a fantastic guide to ensuring this isn't the case.