Personal Growth

This 5-Step Approach for Generating Creative Ideas Has Been Used Since 1940

You can't (yet) go out and buy creativity in a can. Until that's possible, you have nothing to rely on but your ol' noggin to stitch together innovative and unique ideas. There are techniques to help you reach that point, however. One way to get yourself churning out million-dollar idea after million-dollar idea is a 5-step method from the 1940s. Have at it; just don't forget about us little guys when you're rich and famous.

Old Stuff, New Ways

James Webb Young was something of a legendary advertising executive. He became First Chairman of The Advertising Council and was inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame. (Get it, Don Draper.) While that's all well and good, Young is certainly best known for his approach to creativity, which he laid out in his straightforwardly titled 1940 book "A Technique for Producing Ideas." Somehow, in the relatively short read, Young covers all the whozits and whatzits of creativity. He writes of two main principles involved in creative thinking:

"The first [principle is] that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements. [...] The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds, each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others, it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts."

Creativity in 5, 4, 3, 2 ...

"[T]he production of ideas is just 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; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool," writes Young. He makes it sound simple, huh? Take a page out of his book (literally) and see where it gets you. His definite process for creative production goes as follows:

  1. Gather raw material, and don't shy away from any subject field.
  2. Digest the material, looking at it in every possible way.
  3. Step away from the task at hand. Here, he stresses the importance of making "no effort of a direct nature."
  4. Let your idea return to you organically. "Out of nowhere the Idea will appear," he writes.
  5. Bring your idea into the real world, and develop it based on feedback. Young calls this stage "the cold, gray dawn of the morning after."

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Ready to conquer the world with your next brainstorm? Grab Young's book "A Technique for Producing Ideas" — which Maria Popova of Brain Pickings insists "will be the best $5 you spend this year." When you purchase the book, you're helping to support Curiosity.

Written by Joanie Faletto September 22, 2017

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