How to have an idea

In Silicon Valley, everyone’s got an idea — for an app, a startup, or some other way to get rich quick. Often, these ideas take the form of “It’s like X but for Y,” such as “It’s like Netflix but for Lego” or “It’s like Uber but for jets.” Following this formula makes it seem so easy you could build an automated tool to help you generate new ideas. But if you’re seeking something less formulaic, I recommend looking into the work of James Webb Young.

I became interesting in Young, of JWT fame, when I read about him in a book by Jeremy Bullmore. “A Technique for Producing Ideas” reads more like an essay than a book. 48 little pages that could easily be reformatted into a 3-page paper. But Young gets his points across clearly (as you’d expect of an advertising copywriter), and I enjoyed the read, including the references and name-dropping throughout.

His process, to remove any suspense, is essentially:

  1. Gather “raw material” (importantly, raw material includes both information specifically relevant to the topic at hand as well as general information gathered throughout life)
  2. “Chew” on the material — think about it systematically
  3. Stop thinking about the problem entirely
  4. Make an unexpected connection (this is the idea)
  5. Refine the idea and share it with others

It’s the “general information” part of step one that makes Young’s point of view so appealing, and far-flung references ranging from an Italian sociologist to Sherlock Holmes prove he practices what he preaches. His stance is that in order to be creative and have good ideas, one must be able to become interested in nearly any topic. This stance is echoed in a more post by modern-day ad man Russell Davies, “how to be interesting” (the secret: by being interested). It’s a license for ad/branding/marketing people to act as sponges, absorbing everything they can — reading seemingly unrelated books, watching movies, listening to music, perusing Wikipedia, and so on.

So, at the very least, there’s a good excuse for reading or watching a movie when you’re supposed to be working.

Heirloom is a brand strategy firm helping entrepreneurs and business leaders build enduring brands. To receive articles, updates, and additional content from Heirloom, sign up for the newsletter.