Books We Love: A Technique For Producing Ideas

By swimcreative
Scott Mylin began his advertising career in Duluth. He eventually moved to Ohio and worked at SBC Advertising, rising to the rank of VP + Executive Creative Director. After an 8-year stint, Scott left his agency gig to partner with Swim and hone his FaceTime skills.

Years ago, when I was just starting out in advertising, I remember watching my creative director and trying to imagine how on God’s green earth he came up with ideas so quickly. I would stare at a blank piece of paper, with my red pen in hand (I went through this phase where I only wrote with a red pen. I know, I know…), my brain just basically a TV with white noise on every channel.

What I didn’t know then, but have since come to understand, was that I was cheating. Or attempting to, anyway. The process for coming up with an idea starts, way, way before the moment you sit down and try to create something. You’ve got to put in the work. I wasn’t.

Probably about that same time, during one of my frequent raids of that creative director’s bookshelf, I came across a small little book that peeled open my brain.

It was titled, aptly enough, “A Technique for Producing Ideas.” It’s only 28 pages (or about two poops) long, and is written in the style of a speech, as that’s the way its author, an old ad man named James Webb Young, originally presented it—to a room of advertising grad students at the University of Chicago.

The book was written in 1940. That’s 74 years ago. But what Young outlines is still the surest, and most reliable, way that I have ever seen for codifying what it takes to actually produce an idea. It’s prevalent to television, print, digital—even advertising itself. Instead, the book is an invaluable resource for helping train your mind to creatively solve problems.

Young makes a lot of great points along the way. One of my favorites: not every idea is a good idea. How good an idea is still a bit of alchemy of personality, experience, acumen and (if you’re like me) luck. But actually producing ideas? This book is your ticket.

I have recommended this book to students in copywriting classes I have taught, I have given it as a gift to young creatives, and I have had several copies go missing from my own bookshelf. The copyright on the book was never renewed, so now it is public domain. I bought my latest copy on Amazon for, I think, 4 dollars.

I’ll preserve a little mystery and not reveal Young’s method, but like they say, “It ain’t rocket science.” Literally anyone can benefit from this technique, even grade school kids (which is a whole separate rant. Why don’t they teach this kind of stuff in school? This is way more practical and applicable to everyday life than the geometry class I almost failed). Do yourself a favor and grab a copy. It might just change the way you think about, well, thinking.

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