If you’re a Creative person, you probably love the actual creative part of your job, and can’t wait to get to it. But, for a lot of Creatives, the actual moment when you can fire-up your Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, Dreamweaver or WordPress, comes after a lengthy period of research and preparation.
We’ve written before about why good research can benefit the Creative Process, both for the person doing the work, and the end-user. Here we’ll look at how you can do it well – showcasing some of the techniques you can employ to make the actual research a creative process too.
The art of research
Research can, itself, be creative – it is, after all, a matter of finding elegant and accurate solutions to elaborate problems – just like answering any kind of Creative Brief is.
After all, when it comes to being a Creative, you can’t have that Lightbulb Moment if there’s nothing to power the lightbulb! So, let’s shed a little light on the Creative research process.
Effective research is a process. It doesn’t have to be painful, it can be enlightening and inspiring, if you give yourself a good head-start. The preferred and appropriate method will arise from the nature of the task being undertaken, but, whichever avenue you pursue, you need to start by giving yourself a great plan.
Take some time to think through what you need to do, and give yourself a structure to work to.
At college, one of the most useful things a teacher could tell a student was “write the introduction last”. This cunning piece of advice was simply a way of saving you time, heartache and rewrites – by encouraging you to plan your workload cleverly and logically in advance.
Any creative research project you undertake now, can benefit from a bit of that advance cunning. So, plan what you are going to do and when you’re going to do it. Give yourself a structure to work to.
There are various ways you can arrange your thoughts – simply writing a list is the most obvious. Mindmaps, Spidergrams, Flow-charts; these are all good ways of getting your thoughts down and connecting them together.
This will give you a good idea of the range of headings, and subheadings, you need to be researching. Start with the one that seems to be the most useful – or interesting – and off you go!
If you’re researching a broad subject – such as a period in history, a genre in media or an artistic movement, say – break it down into bite-size bits.
If you were writing Content for a website, you’d look for the ‘Keywords’ in your chosen subject – the significant words that most easily describe the subject you’re researching. Use the same approach to any research project.
In this way, you can focus your attention of very specific aspects of your subject. Where the whole subject might seem intimidatingly complex, focusing on one small part of it, might seem eminently more achievable.
In doing this, breaking your subject down to almost the granular level, your targets are closer and easier to hit.
This is when you could apply a Time Management System, like Pomodoro, to help focus your mind, and your time, on hitting that close-up target.
Searching for the info and the inspiration you need, needn’t be a slog.
Chunk your subject down into manageable smaller subjects and settle on a few keywords for your search. This will save you more time than a watch manufacturer.
Quality Control. Does the article you’re looking at make specific claims, and back them up with evidence? Good, that’s what you’re looking for. On the other hand, is it vague, unfocused and offering unsupported generalisations? If so, it isn’t written by people who actually understand their subject.
Typos are another good indication of info to avoid. Ask yourself: does the article contain ‘facts’ you know to be untrue?
If any of this is the case, move on.
Choose the best. If you’re looking into a subject for which there is a recognised industry leader, or an advisory body, start your research there. Both .gov and .edu are good domain extensions to look for! They might put you straight on to the subject areas and Keywords you need.
Similarly, if you’re researching something that’s been in the news recently, go to credible news sources – magazines or newspapers. The sort of places that employ trained journalists, with expert knowledge. The kind of place that actually checks its facts!
If it’s been in the news in the past, Google offers you its News Archive, which contains newspapers going back to the 1880s.
4. Don’t just go Google
Other search engines are available. The second busiest search engine in the world, after Google, is YouTube.
But, in the multimedia landscape we now inhabit, people are just as likely to create a vlog on a subject, as a blog. A lot of good mini-documentaries and interviews can be found on there. It isn’t all just Swedish Hipsters talking about themselves.
Microsoft’s Bing has built itself up to be the second biggest traditional search engine, partly by powering Yahoo’s searches, too. It offers little that Google doesn’t, but there are less adverts and paid-for results jostling for your attention.
DuckDuckGo offers ‘Semantic Search’, where it considers the exact meaning of the phrase you type in. This can help reduce irrelevant results. It’s key USP is that it doesn’t track your searches but we’ll assume that, for your needs, that isn’t a consideration.
If you’re writing code (or someone in your team is) you could cut corners and find something you need has already been created. Searchcode is the search engine for open source code.
5. Advanced Googling
Search engines pride themselves on offering you links to everything you might need. But, if you want to be a bit more precise, get away from that paid-for content, and have fewer irrelevant options, you can use Advanced Search.
Google Images. You, presumably, know about Google’s image search function – because there is a link to it right there on the top right of Google’s home page. Not sure what an image is, or who it’s by? Google Images has the answer.
Quotation Marks. Use “quotation marks” to search for an exact phrase. This means that Google will search for the whole phrase, rather than just parts of it. Such as: “How many Creatives does it take to change a lightbulb?”
Asterisk. One variation on this is if you’re searching for a phrase you’re not entirely sure of – replace any sketchy words with an asterisk, and Google will offer you the variations of the phrase with the likeliest words in place of the asterisk. Such as “How many * does it take to change a lightbulb?”.
Define. If you encounter terms you don’t understand, Google can help you out with that – use quotation marks and DEFINE: to get dictionary definitions – like this “DEFINE: lightbulb”
Boolean. If you want your searches to achieve full Jedi level of proficiency – step up to Boolean Searches. This is a highfalutin’ way of saying “use AND/OR/NOT commands”.
So, if you search for Creatives AND Lightbulbs, it will only find pages that refer to both. You will, therefore, get far more results if you search for Creatives OR Lightbulbs. If, on the other hand, you were sick of bad Lightbulb jokes and just wanted to search for Creatives – you could use NOT – Creatives NOT Lightbulbs – and you’ll definitely get no jokes.
Shedding a little light
So, to sum up:
- Give yourself a structure to follow
- Nail your Keywords
- Apply a little common sense
- Don’t just Google it
- Use advanced research methods
Then you’ll find a wide world of wonderfully informative information lighting up your screen, ready to fill your next Creative job with white hot illumination.