Creative Qual Provides Fuel, Not The Chequered Flag

Jonah Lehrer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME
I think this is actually from the Thomas Dolby video for "She Blinded Me With Science". Magnus Pike is hiding behind the big peppy disc. (Jonah Lehrer at Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME. Photo credit: poptech)

Start The Week: Creativity, with Jonah Lehrer and others

A fascinating Start The Week this morning dealt with the subject of creativity, with that prolific interpreter of science for the masses, Jonah Lehrer discussing his new book. (OK, my bookshelf is now officially going to collapse with all these tomes I need to read). Above is a link to the Start The Week site, the programme will be available on the iPlayer for people in the UK via this link shortly. Or you can catch the repeat (abridged) tonight on Radio 4.

I was relieved to hear him explain he doesn’t believe in empirical science somehow “explaining” creativity on its own – at least not at the moment. Our understanding of what goes on in the brain may be growing fast but is still in its infancy. What it can do though is identify those parts of old / current theorising about creativity that chime with what is being discovered about how the brain physically works.

A lot of Lehrer’s exposition of creativity is what you would expect: it’s much more about perspiration than inspiration; ingesting disparate information and letting it marinate is a better way of generating something new than trying to bludgeon your way to understanding. Sorry, I’ve just conjured up the image of half-digested food festering in stomach juices there. And now I’ve made it worse. I think I’ll stop.

We qualitative researchers work with creative processes all the time – from “ideation” (or idea generation, if you prefer), to floating new ideas to people and getting them to play around with them, to working with designers to “co-create” with product users, to helping advertising agencies understand how their creative ideas connect or otherwise with their audiences. But I learnt a lot too from the process I went through myself, to come up with the name Shore for my freelance business. Here’s what happened:

1. I made a list of names. This was top of the head stuff but came from all sorts of sources, inspired by things in my own life, other agencies I admired, abstract ideas, punchy ideas, anything. This list grew like topsy.  I had several waves of just writing down names, usually at bedtime. I ended up with about 60 possibles. They included names like Interzone, which might have limited appeal, mainly to Joy Division fans; and Listening For Britain, which made me sound like a 50s Russian spy.

2. So I weeded the worst ones out. I came at this with a different hat on, thinking as coldly as possible from the point of view of a potential user of my services. This only got rid of about half.

3. I then started having casual conversations about names, mainly with colleagues (I was still at my old agency but was working out my notice by this point) and freelance friends. This was done half-jokingly, letting them in on my dilemma, sharing some of the outliers as a “joke” and seeing reactions.

4. I thought a bit more, but now with an eye to market-scanning. I started to think about which names had most potential to stretch into the various areas I might want to cover and which had been used before (looking at the AQR Handbook). I also looked at conventions of naming, is a quasi-semiotic kind of way, to see which sorts of names “sound like” qual business names (and therefore invite acceptance from clients and peers) and conversely, how to cut against that in order to stand out (to show I’m not a drone). I’m not saying I managed this, by the way.

5. By now, I had the list down to single figures. Three or four of them were starting to hook themselves into me. I started digging around and researching these names specifically. I thought very seriously about the name Seam (I liked the image of a seam of rock under the surface in which the rich material is buried; and that Seam was a homophone for “seem”, suggesting the importance of perceptions in qual research). I looked for images of seams – it’s interesting just putting the word into Google Images and seeing what comes up. I’d been thinking of rock substrata but of course images from the fashion industry popped up too. Hmm, maybe not what I was after. Shore was here too at this stage.

6. I then selected a few people I knew pretty well, a heterogenous bunch but all good at associative thinking and highly visually and verbally aware. It was important I knew them, so I would understand the nuance of their replies and was able to take their tastes, habits and backgrounds into account. I asked them to comment on just three or four names, so they would give really in depth responses to each one. I did this individually, by email and followed up with phone calls with them.

7. This didn’t produce a “winner” in the sense of one they all had as favourite – but it did produce a clear winner in my mind. I has already been veering towards Shore as a name – mainly because I always liked the idea of qual researchers as in-betweeners and the shore is the ultimate in-between place. It also had pleasant associations with being connected with nature, refreshing yourself and doing serious thinking through imbibing that environment. I didn’t get this exactly played back by my interlocutors; but I did get something of it and a lot of other helpful associations I hadn’t thought much of – the shore as safety, for example. And it didn’t ring alarm bells in anyone’s head.

So at what point did I “make up my mind”? The truth is, I don’t know. It was somewhere in the process of selecting the shortlist, reading the comments, talking to them and musing upon it afterwards. I tend to think I made up my mind before the shortlist and the rest was perhaps finding a rational structure to justify it. I felt better because I had submitted myself to a “rational” decision-making process. But I know this process had not “produced” the result, nor had that the result come rationally at all.

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951, Fitzwilli...
After a tough creative day, you need a good lie down. Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what did I learn from this creative business decision I had to take, that could help clients?

This: see creative qual research as something that will help you come to the right decision. It will play around with your ideas, it will expose them to the right people and you’ll see – and I’ll analyse – people responding to them. But don’t look to the audience to make that decision for you; not even to the process to produce a “result”. The process rather, at its best, produces all that vital raw material that needs to sit in your head. That is its value. It helps you think creatively when making a big creative decision.

Some might be tempted to think a creative development process that does not tell you the answer is a waste of time and money. Why bother with research at all then?

But this is to misunderstand what research does for a decision-maker: it is there to improve their decision-making, not to tie their hands. The creativity that is needed in the process – whether it’s naming a qual start-up, coming up with a new packaging idea for beer or relaunching a tired brand – should not begin and end with the research. Good qual research liberates and inspires decision-makers, developers and creatives. It generates a creative resource: a fuel tank for the next stages of development. The chequered flag comes much, much later.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: