This lesser-known creative process will turn you into an idea machine.

Written by Cole Schafer

I cut my teeth as a copywriter. Assuming you don’t know what the hell that is, a copywriter is somebody that sells shit with words.

This 'shit' can be anything. I’ve written copy for the better part of a decade and I’ve sold everything from software to sneakers to denim to diamonds to pills that make one’s dick as hard as diamonds to cookies to faux meat patties to, well, you get the gist.

Truth be told, there’s a lot about advertising that leaves me feeling like I shook hands with the devil’s plumber. While I do try to only advertise products and services I believe in, I’m not of the notion that I’m doing the Lord’s work nor anything close to it.

However, I’m thankful for advertising because it has allowed me to place a sturdy little roof over my head while igniting my creativity to temperatures I couldn’t have accomplished with a belly full of psychedelics.

That being said, I think all aspiring artists should spend a year or so working in advertising because a quality agency will teach you how to come up with good ideas, quickly.

Advertising, after all, is the business of ideas.

Somebody goes to Home Depot to purchase a product: a charcoal grill or a Milwaukee electric hand drill or fertilizer to send their petunias sprawling through the heavens. However, when somebody knocks on an advertising agency's door, they aren’t looking for something physical but rather something intellectual.

For an advertising agency to stay in business and actually turn a profit, they have to pack their shop full of raw creative talent and teach said talent how to churn out ideas at the same rate and efficiency that Henry Ford shat out automobiles.

That being said, not everybody can sacrifice a year of their lives working under a creative director who thinks he’s the next Don Draper in hopes to become an idea machine. So, I’m going to save you some time.

A technique for producing creative ideas.

I’ve had some good ideas in my career and some not so good ones.

One of my good ideas came to me a few years back after a friend phoned me and said she was having some difficulty selling her new line of emerald rings.

She is one the best jewelry designers in the game, so I knew the difficulty she was having moving her product had nothing to do with its quality and everything to do with her lacking a good, creative idea to promote her emerald rings.

Now, before I tell you about the idea I came up with (and how I came up with it), I need to first tell you about an advertising legend by the name of James Webb Young.

Years ago, Mr. Young wrote a small, pocket-sized guide for producing ideas that would become a bible of sorts for creatives at advertising agencies. This guide was named (not so originally), A Technique for Producing Ideas.

In it, Mr. Young describes a 5-step process for coming up with ideas:

1. Gather
2. Brainstorm
3. Incubate
4. Eureka
5. Shape

So, let’s say somebody pays you a visit and says, “I need you to help me come up with a creative campaign to market my latex-free condoms.”

You’re an advocate for wearing condoms so you say, “Sure, what the hell! Why not?”

If you’re a practitioner of Mr. Young’s technique for producing ideas, here’s how you would hypothetically follow his 5-step process to come up with your “big” creative idea.  

Step One: Gather

An idea is simply connecting two previously unrelated things. So, to come up with more ideas, you have to spend a lot of time learning about different things. Mr. Young calls this “gathering raw material”.

I prefer to just call this step “gathering knowledge” or simply “gather”

Now, because the idea you’re coming up with needs to be focused specifically around latex-free condoms, it’s important that you gather both “specific” knowledge and “general” knowledge.

Specific knowledge, in this hypothetical instance, would be everything you can learn about latex-free condoms and really just condoms in general.

General knowledge, however, would be anything and everything you can learn that is of interest to you (this kind of knowledge doesn’t have to pertain to condoms).

General knowledge is a life-long pursuit.

There’s a reason that David Bowie was a voracious reader. The inspiration for his songs didn’t appear out of thin air. Truly creative individuals are constantly ingesting music, documentaries, television series and books.

In an interview that Bowie did back in 2002 with the media mogul Bob Guccione Jr., the artist discussed his infatuation with books…

“I'm a real self-educated kind of guy. I read voraciously. Every book I ever bought, I have. I can't throw it away. It's physically impossible to leave my hand! Some of them are in warehouses. I've got a library that I keep the ones I really really like. I look around my library some nights and I do these terrible things to myself--I count up the books and think, how long I might have to live and think, 'F@#%k, I can't read two-thirds of these books.' It overwhelms me with sadness.”

Now, let’s say while you’re gathering specific knowledge on latex-free condoms, you remember general knowledge you gleaned once in a book about Victorian medicine. You recall that back in the day, lovers utilized sheep intestines as a means of contraceptive.

You file away this interesting tidbit in the back of your mind and  move onto the next step.

Step two: Brainstorm

Once you’ve learned everything there is to know about latex-free condoms, you come up with as many ideas as you can and as quickly as you can and without judgment. Perfection isn’t the goal here. Imperfection is.

You want these ideas to be wacky, daring, bold, odd, audacious.

Remember, you’re attempting to thread specific knowledge with general knowledge. You’re asking yourself: How can I connect latex-free condoms with Victoria contraceptive?

As you brainstorm your ideas, you want to squeeze about 95% of them out of your noggin.

Think of it like juicing an orange. You leave about 5% of the juice in an orange so that you don’t completely exhaust yourself by gritting your teeth and cursing the heavens as you squeeze the hell out of a dilapidated orange that has little left to give.

In this step, remember this piece of writing advice that Ernest Hemingway shares in his gorgeous memoir, A Moveable Feast

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

Brainstorm as many ideas as you possibly can without exhausting yourself entirely.

Step three: Incubate

Now, you walk away and do something else entirely.

Maybe you read fiction. Maybe you and your significant other hang a cowboy hat outside the door. Maybe you go see a movie at the cinema, midday. There’s something beautiful about seeing a movie at the cinema in the middle of the day.

Whatever you do, you don’t think about the idea. You do whatever you can to not think about the idea. You do whatever you can to not think about latex-free condoms.

Step four: Eureka

A few hours or days or weeks will go by and the idea will magically float to the surface of your mind like a beautiful, vibrant koi.

Because we’re now stuck with this hypothetical example of latex-free condoms, your idea might resemble a thought…

Thank the Gods my great great great great great great grandfather used sheep intestines rather than latex-free condoms as a form of contraceptive because otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be here.

I don’t care what you’re doing. I don’t care if you’re driving 80 mph down the interstate to have lunch with your mother. Stop whatever it is and write the idea down.

This is your idea. Hold it. Cherish it. Protect it.

Step Five: Shape

When Michelangelo carved arguably his greatest masterpiece of all time, David, he did so out of a hunk of marble block that had been badly damaged by an amateur sculptor who bored a hole where the statue’s legs were meant to be.

The city’s mayor begged countless artists to salvage it but nobody would touch it save for Michelangelo who felt he could carve a figure from the marble by changing up his pose.

Reflecting on his creation of David, Michelangelo said…

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

More times than not, your idea will be nothing more than a partially shaped block of marble. Step five is your chance to chisel away at the damn thing until the idea fully emerges.

This process can be exhausting but don’t quit. Stick with it. Keep shaping, editing, polishing and improving.

The hypothetical idea above about the great grandfather is about 60% of the way there.

How can you improve it?

After mulling the idea over in your mind, maybe you come up with the concept of a commercial starring a Victorian couple about to get frisky and the mood being killed because the man has to fetch a sheep intestine from the barn.

Suddenly, a butler appears wielding a silver tray. He lifts the lid and low and behold, a single latex-free condom!

He smirks. She does too. End of commercial.

Now, back to the emeralds.

When my friend reached out to me about writing advertising her emerald rings, I followed Mr. Young’s technique for producing ideas.

I did a bunch of research on emeralds to gather my specific knowledge and then applied my general knowledge I had accumulated over the years. I remembered reading somewhere the Cleopatra had an obsession with emeralds.

Cleopatra was the ancient world’s equivalent to Kim Kardashian. She changed in and out of men constantly. She fucked around with both Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar and had those poor bastards practically falling over themselves to visit her bedchambers.

But, more than this, Cleopatra was smart as hell. She spoke twelve languages and she was deeply educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy. Not to mention, she was a direct descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals and once led several dozen Egyptian warships in a battle against the romans.

Best of all, she had an obsession with emeralds.

She’d litter emeralds around her bed chamber while seducing her lovers. I called up my friend and said, “We’re not going to sell emerald rings, we’re going to sell Cleopatra.”

Together, we wrote a series of three emails that talked about the life and times of this ancient icon and went on to sell something like two hundred thousands dollars worth of Emerald rings.