Start your engines! How research can supercharge your creativity - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

Research is at the heart of continuous creativity and is, itself, creative. Yes, you read that right: Research is creative! It’s a crucial tool for anyone in the Creative Industries.

Research comes in many forms, and can fill your imagination with ideas and inspiration, which you can then employ in your own creative work. It doesn’t have to be a matter of cutting-and-pasting Wikipedia pages, or living in libraries and reading books no-one has checked-out in decades.

It also involves you, as a creative person, immersing yourself in as much creative stimuli as possible. Go to art galleries, watch movies, read books, meet people – do whatever you can to keep that engine in your head ticking over.

Some might say that research, for a Creative, is just a matter of finding something to copy, but – done properly – it isn’t copying; it’s absorbing and synthesising, it’s adopting and adapting, it’s turning raw material into great new creations.

Research can also give you the initial push, when you’re faced with the blank screen at the start of a new project.

Inspiration is for amateurs

There is a belief that Creativity is made of Mad Men Moments (like they’ve seen on the TV show, Mad Men). It’s all about gazing out of the window, smoking, and waiting for award-winning inspiration to strike.

The author, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) once gave an appropriately inspiring TedTalk on the subject of inspiration, and where it comes from. She discusses the fact that the ancient Greeks and Romans both believed that inspiration came to creative people in the form of supernatural spirits.

Wouldn’t that be nice. But, while you’re all waiting for the Inspiration Fairy to sprinkle some Genius Dust on your noggin, you’ve got a deadline to work to. So, what do you do?

Chuck Close (an American painter, famed for his huge self-portraits) says that “Inspiration is for amateurs”. The horror-writer, Stephen King (you may have heard of him, he’s sold a book or two) says something similar: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work”.

What they mean by this, is that a pro doesn’t wait for the inspiration to visit them, a pro just gets stuck in and hopes the inspiration will help them along.

Try to think of your creativity as a sleek Italian race-car. Your talent, hard-work, luck and research are all cans of different fuels, each of which is poured into your mind’s tank – helping to propel that creative engine in your head towards inspiration.

Talent and hard-work, they’re all down to you. Luck, not so much. As for the research … Let’s look at the process –

Step 1: The brief

Whatever your area of expertise, whether you’re a Designer, a Developer, a Writer, Producer, Artist … It doesn’t make much difference – if you have a new brief, a new project to work on, this will very likely mean the same thing: a series of problems to solve.

It’s a time-honoured maxim that what the client wants is rarely what the client needs – but you, as The Creative trying to provide both – won’t know what they want, or need, without research.

Step 2: Ask the client

Talk to your client. Ask lots of questions.

Find out about their business – its history and ambitions. If it’s an SME or a family-run business, get to know the people in charge. Get a feel for their personality – because a company is often a physical manifestation of the personality of its boss.

Discover their vision.

Then find out about their customers. Who are they? What motivates them?

This isn’t a matter of guesswork, and it isn’t boring data for data’s sake, it’s crucial for Creatives to understand who they are creating their work for.

If you’re creating something for your client to use themselves – that’s one thing; if you’re creating something for their customers to use – that’s quite another. Your creativity can’t be effective, if you don’t know the identity of the end-user.

To know this, with the greatest certainty, you need some Market Research.

Step 3: Market research

You need to know your client’s marketplace as well (or better) than they know it themselves. Understand the opportunities the other businesses in that sector have, be aware of the threats they face. This will give you a widescreen view of the market sector.

You then need to zoom in for a close-up.

You probably work with ‘keywords’, ‘insights’ and ‘analytics’. These are all indices which measure trends and consumer behaviour within the marketplace.

Research improves Consumer Insight and gives you a more precise view of who, exactly, you are dealing with. It can also delve into Consumer Psychology, Cognition and Anthropology, to offer insights into the arcane mysteries of consumer behaviour.

It’s important, mind you, for Creatives to not get too bogged-down in the depths of this data. You need to approach it with specific goals in mind.

Ask questions like: Who is the end-user? What are their interests? Their habits?  What are their values? What are their problems? How do I solve those problems for them?

The most valuable Market Research – for Creatives – can often be simply talking to the end-users directly. Good old-fashioned Qualitative Research (in-depth interviews with a few key people) can tell a perceptive creative person more than reams and reams of precisely tabulated Quantitative Research (shallow answers from a huge number of people).

Step 4: Check out the competition

Very few businesses operate in a splendid vacuum of isolation. Most clients will be one business in a crowded sector of businesses. So, it’s important for Creatives to have an idea what the competition is doing.

Competition Content Analysis doesn’t need to be underhanded, nor is it a matter of spy-cameras, listening devices and humming the Bond theme to yourself on stakeout … It’s simply a matter of doing what sensible consumers do: shopping around.

If you’re into Game Design – you must play the other guys’ games (yes, really). Web Designers need to keep up with the latest innovations in web design. Marketeers need to keep an eye on successful trends in social media and advertising.

A simple way to do this is to subscribe to relevant magazines and Facebook pages. They bring all the latest trends and innovations to you.

All of this research should, by now, have taken you well past the blank screen stage. You should have a plethora of objectives and ideas to work with, which takes us neatly to the final stage.

Step 5: Creation

One final bit of research: liaise with the people who will be turning your creation into a reality – be they Engineers, Designers, Film-makers or Pastry Chefs. You need to know that your creation is feasible, otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time!

Then, it’s time to translate.

You take the client’s wants, the end-user’s needs, the producer’s abilities, the deadline’s limitations and the budget’s inevitable inadequacy – and translate all of that into an elegant, effective, creative solution!

Sometimes this can require a unique and eccentric approach to the results of the research; it can require you to take a position – have an opinion – discriminate.

The research you’ve done will, very often, be neutral in its nature – flatly factual. Cleaving too closely to the entirety of a body of research will almost certainly lead to weak, unfocussed and unsatisfying creative work.

Your job is not to be democratic – it isn’t to fairly represent every fact your research threw up. Your job is to cherry-pick the facts and ideas that push you towards the best solution.

This is where Creatives need instinct.

The Mad Men moment

Let’s not discount The Mad Men Moment. That flash of inspiration which stabs through the dark clouds of research data and half-formed possibilities, to light up one truly great idea.

Organisations which lean too heavily on empirical data, will very likely resist this ‘leap of faith’ approach; but that could be a mistake. But the opposite side of that same coin is the throwing out of random non-sequitur ideas, simply because they’re ‘fun’ or ‘disruptive’, irrespective of whether they’re right for this client’s customers.

The best creativity comes about when research and inspiration work together. They strengthen each other.

Inspiration for professionals

Inspiration doesn’t always spring immediately from research in some melodramatic “Hallelujah” moment – like a final piece dropping into place on a jigsaw. More often, inspiration is an accumulation of small changes, half-formed ideas and gut-instincts, all working in concert.

But this won’t happen if you don’t, as Stephen King put it, just get up and go to work.

This process isn’t always conscious. It’s often the case that a Creative doesn’t know quite what they’ve done, until they’ve finished it and can look back at it. This is the magic that drives the engine of a creative person’s imagination.

Research exposes you to new, relevant stimuli. Through your reading and your questioning, you are storing up notions and questions and details and emotions; pouring them all into the tank of your subconscious. They’ll mix together, ready for your next brief – when you’ll press the red button and inject them into the V8 of your imagination.

The richer the mix in your tank, the further and faster you’ll be able to drive your creativity.


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