ObservationLiz Cormack

A Technique for Producing Ideas

ObservationLiz Cormack

In the newspaper that I mentioned in my last post, Oldham quotes a book that he recommends to his readers. The book is called A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. The book is essentially lessons and techniques for producing strong original ideas, and the quote that Oldham uses is as follows: First, the gathering of raw materials --both of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the idea --the "Eureka. I have it." stage.

And Fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea into practical usefulness.

Now I made it clear in my last post that I really enjoyed reading Oldham's advice but this quote --and his argument in support of it --bothered me. Kind of a lot.

I don't know what kind of strange dream world James Webb Young lives in, but when approaching a project that demands a truly good idea and presents you with an 'immediate problem' (First stage) there is really no time for an 'incubating stage,' and rarely, if ever, does the Fourth stage ever grace you with its presence. In the past week I've tried to turn and face multiple design projects by collecting raw materials (fonts, research about the client, inspiration I dug up) and combining them with prior knowledge that I could connect to the issue. But the fact is that is that I'm working on more than one project at a time and deadlines loom not so far in the distance.

I should have started this by saying that I am biased about the concept of a book that teaches you to produce ideas. I have never found concrete steps instructing people on how to think particularly helpful, and it bothers me when people try to simplify things like "having ideas" by turning them into a 5-step process. But advice on how to produce ideas could be inspiring, if nothing else. These 'stages,' however, seem to me like an insult. The first two stages are obvious, and you can't do much without them. But if I did need help with producing good ideas --which I do, without a doubt --I would be desperate for someone to fill in the gap between stages Three and Four. What do you do when you're sitting around 'incubating' like a god damn egg and Eureka never hits you? That's where I need help!

After reading the quote I was hoping Oldham's argument would make it all make sense, but it didn't. He did back up the Third stage (a concept which I've heard support for before, and wish I could embrace more, but still kind of find unattainable) but his only concrete example just solidified my frustration. He described a time when his boss, while at a football game, came up with a wonderful project idea (some sort of design solution) for the way the stadium named seating sections based on players. Organize the seats like pixels to form the player's face! Brilliant! But he wasn't in the process of DOING that project while he came up with the idea. Producing ideas in order to solve problems is so much harder, and you have to face the issue head on in order to come up with anything productive. Someone give me advice on how to do that!

Graduated with a B.A. in Communication Design from Emerson College. Studied Product Design in Startup Insitute Boston's inaugural class. Marketing Manager at The Tap Lab, a mobile gaming startup focused on location & augmented reality. Founder of Colab Boston, an AIGA Design for Good partner. Raised overseas, uncomfortable with familiarity, lover of live music, skiing, Bourbon Ales, black coffee and weird food. Current favorite topics: The Internet of Things, serious games, data visualization and epic burgers.