Thinking Creatively 101: James Webb Young



For all the talk of creative thinking as a part of a pedagogical paradigm (teaching strategy and theory), creative thinking and critical reasoning are skills that are rarely, if ever, dissected and addressed. The concepts are paid lip service and theorized around, but to my recollection, I was never provided with a blueprint or strategy or even satisfactory definitions.


However, while the actual practice of teaching may fall short in making these practices understandable and applicable to students, there have been numerous scholars attempting to elucidate how we think creatively or critically. In the 1940s, James Webb Young, an executive tasked with rethinking advertising at his company, came up with a simple, but rather crudely brilliant workflow outline for thinking creatively1. He then translated this into a widely popular and influential book.


According to Webb there were five key steps to thinking creatively. The first involved gathering new material and learning as much as possible that specifically relates to your task. The next step was to consider the new material, to think about it actively and come up with ideas you’ve formulated yourself about the material to further your understanding of it.


However, the third step might be a surprise: get some distance from the problem. According to Webb doing something that stimulates you (that is unrelated to your problem) allows you to passively consider it without taxing yourself by its consideration. Eventually the fourth step happens, which is that your idea “returns” to you, as Webb says. It is at this point you reconsider it again. You are constantly thinking about it, trying to apply the knowledge you’ve obtained and evaluated. This usually leads to a “Eureka” moment.


The fifth and final step was what Young called “The cold, grey dawn of the morning after.” It is in this step where you take the ideas you’ve generated for feedback and see how well they “live in the world.” You may find your ideas are satisfactory and you’ve come up with a solution, but also you may find that your ideas need restructuring and revision, at which point the process begins again.



Written by Jeremiah Ockunzzi, courtesy of Dr. Bart Rademaker MD.







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