So how do you actually get ideas?
The worst thing you can do is to just sit and wait for an idea to come to you.
If your job depends on have a steady stream of ideas, you cannot wait for inspiration to hit you, you really don’t have time for that; you’re getting paid after all.
Most people believe that ideas are something that appear of their own will and that some people are naturally gifted at getting ideas. WRONG.
There is a scientific formula to getting ideas and contrary to how you would imagine – it’s pretty easy to follow.
To look at how to create ideas you first have to know what an idea is. An idea is a new combination of old components.
Ok, that’s all good and well, but how to you achieve a new combination of old components?
The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.
Young believed that the ability to see relationships between facts is the key element when coming up with ideas. The ability to see relationships IS something that can be learned. And anything that can be learned can be turned into a habit.
How do you develop that ability? By living; taking an interest in your colleagues, the news, spending more time at the library, better observing your world.
I said that there was a scientific formula for creating ideas, so what is the formula? Young outlined in his book “A Technique For Producing Ideas” that it is a 5 step process. However, since he wrote that book in the 1940s, I have observed 2 additional steps which will allow you to create a feedback loop to hone your creativity. This is my:
Seven-Step Formula for Idea Generation
Step 1 – Gather information
To produce ideas, you need information. It is the main ingredient from which you make your ideas. There are 2 types of information which are relevant to this process: general and specific.
As you can guess, general information is everything you ever hear or see or read. It is the information you have collected about the world and people since you were born. This information can be referred to as general knowledge and naturally can be built upon by reading and focusing on the world you live in. Your friends, family and colleagues are the best source of general information. You will find it easy to observes their habits, how they think, behave and live.
Specific information is directly relevant to the topic about which you want an idea. This is the part that most people skip, out of boredom or whatever, but it is the most crucial part. You need to go out to the library and read all the books you can on the subject, search the internet, ask any experts you can find. If you are working for a company and they are providing you with information, that is a good start, but ALWAYS do your own research. If you are advertising a product for example, spend 1 week using that product and you will probably have all the information you need to write about it.
If you’re writing an article for a blog or magazine, you will need to collect your information from much further afield. The internet is a fantastic source of information, but be careful not to collect TOO much information otherwise step 2 will be needlessly tiring.
Step 2 – Think About It
The most common mistake people make when trying to come up with ideas is starting with step 2 instead of step 1. Step 2 is simple; think about it. Every waking second, think about how you can get all the elements from the information you have to fit together. Will a piece of specific information fit together with some general knowledge to produce a new idea? Try many different combinations using all the information you have gathered.
You will produce lots of tiny ideas, which on their own seem pretty useless. Any ideas you get, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem, write them down in a notepad. This notepad will be an archive of ideas and a wonderful reference for future projects.
Twist and turn it in your mind until you are sick to death decide you never want to hear any word that even vaguely reminds you of the subject. Now you are ready for the third step. You’ll like this one, trust me.
Step 3 – Have Fun
The third stage is to simply not think about it anymore. Let your unconscious mind work on it for a time. Go and see a film, read a good fiction book, listen to music, go for a walk, go for drinks with your friends. Do something that allows you to relax and forget the intense thinking session you just had.
The reason good ideas tend to come to people in the shower, or while shaving, are because you’re simply not thinking about it anymore. You’re concentrating on not cutting your face or washing and your subconscious mind is free to wander.
Step 4 – Eureka!
Step 4 is the stage where ideas will start to spring out of nowhere. People who you see having good ideas all the time, are just the ones that have their eureka moments in public, they have already been through the previous 3 steps.
This is the exciting time where idea will jump out at you; remembering to write them all down! The average human memory is not really that brilliant.
OK what if the brilliant ideas just don’t appear? Don’t worry, just write down any ideas you do get. Keep going, 2 of these smaller ideas might fit together nicely to make a big idea.
Step 5 – Shape and develop your idea
Now you have your basic idea, it needs to be formed, built into something real. This where your own talent is key, considering how best to present your idea – in writing, a presentation, a video etc.
Step 6 – Share your idea
Sharing your idea with your friends and colleagues will illuminate any holes in your idea and probably provide the solution in the same breath. Their comments may spark more ideas which help you further develop your idea or they may have great ideas of their own and were inspired by your original idea.
Step 7 – Rinse and repeat
Once you have your feedback, go back to step 2; using all the new information you’ve just received and add it to the information you gathered in step 1. Repeat step 2, sifting the new information with the existing. Then repeat steps 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Keep following this cycle until you have an idea you are happy with or until you hit your deadline, and have to use whatever you have created so far.
To summarise the process:
- Gather the information
- Think about it
- Let the ideas flow
- Shape the ideas
- Share your ideas
- Use the feedback to better improve your idea
You may not believe me, but not the easy part is over. You have to find something to DO with your idea and that is where your talents, skills and profession come into play.
I’d love your feedback on this process and I hope it helps you as much as it has aided me!
- This post was inspired by ad man, James Webb Young’s book A Technique for Producing Ideas and I highly recommend it.
- If you’re interested in joining the advertising industry then Ogilvy on Advertising, written by the godfather of modern advertising, David Ogilvy, is a must-read
- And if you’re reading Ogilvy on Advertising, then you also have to get your hands on his other books; Confessions of an Advertising Man and The Unpublished David Ogilvy
- In his book, Creative Mischief, copywriter Dave Trott explores the creative process.