I love doing research as a creativity tool. With the internet this is so much easier than it used to be.
When I was young research for any type of project meant a trek to the library. Our high school library was nice but it had nothing on the State Library of NSW downtown in Sydney with its subterranean stacks and endless card catalog. Plus the building was very impressive with its sandstone dignity, stained glass skylights and traditional wood decor.
What’s a “card catalog”? the whippersnappers ask. It was where research began – looking for an author or book mentioned in a bibliography, or going to a subject index and starting there. I was being my own Google.
Card Catalogue at State Library of NSW – just one of several cabinets
While a tremendous number of books are available on the reading room shelves, many more are kept in stacks.Having found the reference book I wanted, the process was to fill out a request form and hand it (possibly after standing in line) to the assistant librarian on stacks duty, and then wait while they used the mysterious series of numbers that are the Dewey Decimal System to find the location of the copy, send some even more junior person to walk the stacks, and return with the book.
Reference books could not be borrowed, only read in the adjacent reading room. Long heavy wood desks, hard wood desk chairs, art deco style reading lamps.
I’m not really nostalgic for that process at all – it was time consuming and dependent on the assiduousness of the people creating the cross reference notations. A whole trip to the library could be taken up just with formulating the reading list.
But I do still like the visceral elements of this process. Hand typed cards, with faintly yellowed edges and even hand written added notations – sometimes with actual ink pens. The decor. Silence as a palpable thing, reinforced by the sound deadening architecture. The smell of old books.
Every time I designed costumes for a new show, I reinforced my own personal library with a trip to downtown. I liked to immerse myself in period information, making copious notes, sketches, and – get this – having a few select pages photocopied by the librarian! We weren’t permitted to make our own copies with those new fangled and supposedly temperamental Xerox machines.
How Research Stimulates Creativity
Sometimes it only takes a little bit of research – priming the pump – to get my thoughts, ideas, lists and sketches flowing. It’s always good to pause the research and make notes, mind storm some of the ideas, and go where your thought journeys take you. Personally I find if I don’t grab the moment and jot down ideas immediately, they sometimes get engulfed by the ongoing information input. You can pick up where you left off with your reading and notes, but not always with your idea flow.
At other times, I have been at a loss, and found I needed more comprehensive information before anything useful arose in my mind. I might have been looking for a hook, or a way in to my story. I might have been looking for the right visual motif.
Sometimes I found the theme of my vision adjacent to my mainstream research. For example once I was looking at wartime young people’s clothing, but what really helped me capture my design was looking at school uniforms from 10 years earlier.
Research might mean refreshing the memory – revisiting facts and ideas somewhat known – or it might mean finding information wholly new to you. It’s a stirring stick. It’s new ingredients thrown in. You don’t have to rely entirely on what is already in your head.
Research might be goal oriented and directed. The question is “How do I achieve this”. It generally has been so for me when I am designing something, or need to understand particular techniques to achieve a predetermined result – such as my webpage.
Or it might be experimental and exploratory – following threads until something sparks. The question is “Where will this take me?” If you are stuck, research might be the key. It could be a simple as going to the paint department and looking at the new paint colors, looking at a catalog, going to a different section at the Natural History Museum, or following a repin trail on Pinterest.
The Dark Side of Research
Research can be a time sucker and productivity killer. It’s all very well to follow the rabbit hole and surf the endless links for new connections, when you have plenty of time or no deadline. But sometimes it’s time to stop and actually do some creative work.
“We’re All Mad Here”
Some people, and I have certainly been guilty of this myself, will use research as the ultimate procrastination tool. I think we know when we are putting off getting started, and when we are genuinely stuck or need a bit more information. It can take self discipline to stop following the tantalizing tangents, especially now with so much information so easily available. In the old days at the library I was conscious of definite consequences if I decided I needed another tome, and sometimes a look at the clock decided the matter for me.
I know the feeling when I am using research to procrastinate. I start shifting around in my chair, and feeling twitchy inside. Better just to stop then – put in a bookmark – and instead move on the next step of collating my notes.
You can’t know everything about a topic – even if you are an expert. The old joke is that experts are people who know “more and more about less and less” – and that is great. But for creative work, you only need to hold in your head and notes, as much as you need to move forward. There will always be more and new information to find – some of it may be what you contribute.
Let research be a tool that you use, not a barrier to action.
- Written published material – whether on line or in hard copy
- Spoken word, oral histories – ditto – but the web makes access so much easier
- Video material – documentaries, histories, how-to videos on You Tube
- Memory – interviewing people, finding instructors
- Trial and error, and exploring materials, as I mentioned in my prior theme.
- Museums, galleries, and Aunty Mabel’s attic – places with visual artifacts.
Here’s my latest Infographic – about intentional research:
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