A five-step process to generate ideas

Summary of “A Technique for Getting Ideas” by James Webb Young


Follow these steps to generate creative ideas: 1) Gather raw materials; 2) Digest materials; 3) Do something else that stimulates your emotions; 4) The idea appears; 5) Develop and test the idea.

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements. — James Wood Young

With less than twenty pages, A Technique for Getting Ideas is a quick, actionable read of the science-backed four stages of creativity theory.

The book is based on this premise: a new idea is simply a combination of existing ideas. Creativity is cultivated by building a habit of seeing relationships between concepts.

The five-step process below describes how anyone can train their mind to discover relationships between concepts.

Step 1: Gather raw materials

The method of producing ideas starts with researching.

There are two types of materials to gather:

  • Specific: these are the information directly related to the project, such as design brief, user persona, competitor analysis…
  • General: these are knowledge about life, events, and any areas that can spark inspiration

The author suggests using a card-index system to store general materials. Basically, whenever you come across useful information, write or sketch them down in little 3 x 5 ruled white cards. After a while, you can classify and organized the cards in a scrapbook as your book of ideas.

Image from Bobby Powers’s The Lost Art of Commonplacing

Personally, I’ve found the index-card system greatly helpful. I used to save design inspiration digitally but rarely look back at them. The process of sketching ideas down and organizing them force me to think through and memorize the idea better.

The next step is to immerse your mind in these materials.

Step 2: Digest materials

Force connections between different facts. Altering perspectives. Brainstorm and write down any ideas that come up.

Try to stay with this step until you cannot come up with any other thought (and possibly feeling hopeless).

The goal of this step is not to come up with the solution but to prepare your mind for making creative connections. Continue this step even if you have found some good ideas.

Then, walk away.

Step 3: Do something else that stimulates your emotions

Here comes the incubation stage.

You need to stop thinking about the problem. Find something else to do, ideally something that stimulates your emotions. Let your unconscious mind work on your problem at the background.

This has two implications for designers:

1) Even if you can deliver a solution in a short period of time, plan a few additional days for the incubation period to allow the best ideas to happen.

2) Get started on ideation early so that the problem has plenty of time to sit in your unconscious mind.

And soon enough…

Step 4: The idea appears

Eureka! The idea comes out of nowhere.

Visual ideas might be harder to experience inspiration flash naturally. After a day of not thinking about the problem, proactive come back to it and try brainstorming again. Most of the times, you will come up with new insights. If you still feel stuck, walk away from the problem again and allow more incubation time.

Step 5: Develop and test the idea

Once you have found the idea, the next step is executing it.

Mold the idea into the practical conditions and circumstances. Think of ways you can improve the idea. And, as product designers know better than anyone, test the ideas early and often.

This article is one of a series of book summary on the creativity topic. Check out the rest of the series if you want to learn more about developing creativity:




Summaries of useful books for UX/UI Designers and other creatives

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Taylor Nguyen

Taylor Nguyen

Squarespace website designer at taylornguyen.ca. Previously UX Researcher at RBC.

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