Art, Science, and Blurred Lines

Research is not as “objective” as many of its practitioners, and buyers, would like to believe. Certainly this holds true in terms of market research. We construct complex statistical models, fret over the dreaded “leading question” and cloak ourselves in the guise of science, but in doing so we sometimes miss the bigger point – we’re here to discover, innovate and develop real insights. Good research doesn’t exist to validate our worth by positioning ourselves as simple, detached observers of the rational. It isn’t about regurgitating facts (which are not the same things as insights). We often seem to forget that while we strive toward objectivity, the whole enterprise is subject to larger political, economic, and social forces. Paradigms dominate thought and research practices until new paradigms develop. The result is that many opportunities are lost because they simply don’t fit the accepted way of doing things. Hence our propensity for embracing rational, seemingly objective science and dismissing art. But art often includes elements of commentary, irony and critique missing from “serious” research. What if we step back and start to think about how they two can and should influence each other?

First, the arts can fill a critical role as an independent zone of research, of experimentation and of learning. Rather than focusing on standardization and outcomes, the focus is in the act of creating. This is a significantly different way of thinking because the focus is on the interdependence of symbols and looking for new modes of expression that may well run counter to the hypothesis from which we work. It is holistic and concerned less with constructing norms than it is with viewing norms from an angle, so to speak.

This isn’t to suggest throwing out using systematic investigative processes to uncover behavior and meaning. It is suggesting that we broaden the definition of how we “know” what we know and expand the options both the researcher and the participant have in the field. Using painting or sculpting as a means of articulating an idea, practice or belief engages the participant with the concept in question rather than the researcher or question itself. The interaction is, at the beginning, focused on the interaction between person, concept and medium. As the artwork unfolds, the researcher is in a position to develop new questions, comment on the ideas expressed and explore concepts that 1) might not normally be discussed or 2) might be too sensitive for the participant to normally address honestly. By using art as a means of expression and exploration, both researcher and participant become part of a shared exchange rather than a negotiated one.

But art is more than free expression. It isn’t as simple as putting clay or paint brush in hand. Several traditions of the arts uniquely equip participants and it’s helpful to construct assignments with these in mind:

  • Whimsy: Focusing on radical symbolism, the participant-artist is encouraged to incorporate criteria such as celebration, fantasy and wonder into mundane objects and services.
  • The Outcast Approach: Artistic traditions of iconoclasm allow the participant-artist to take up lines of inquiry and expression that are often devalued by others.
  • The Exalted: The positivist approach and valuing of social commentary means the participant-artist is likely to integrate cultural issues in their work that reflect broader concepts.
  • Steam Punk Wonder: Casting the participant-artist as outside utopian/dystopian discussion around technology and change, means the participant-artist can bring the scientific and technological possibilities to a wider expression unbound by “logical” constraints.


There are of course other approaches to how the stage is set, but the point is simple. Artistic valuing of creativity and innovation means new perspectives can possibilities can be revealed in very evocative ways. That leads to new ways of thinking about what we sell and how we sell it.


Second, because the results are something that requires depth and explanation of a symbolic nature, the artwork produced, it by definition communicates research findings in provocative ways that are often far more effective than a the traditional bar graph or interview snippet. The people we conduct research with approach messages, products and problems in ways quite different than those of the people who make and sell things. Artwork serves as a powerful tool in helping consumers and users articulate meaning in a way that businesses can’t ignore.

Of course there are the skeptics who often wonder what contribution artists, both internally and as research subjects, can make to serious research (funny the tables are rarely turned with the artist asking what an MBA or a research guru can contribute to the creative experience). It’s all too subjective, after all, and can’t be readily defined in metrics. But the truth is, art can augment research and its outcomes in numerous ways. First, and perhaps the most obvious, artwork produced by participants can define new questions while conducting the research. This leads to uncovering unorthodox interpretations of products and messages, articulating wide opportunities and perspectives. Valuable lines of inquiry die from lack of support because they are not within favor of particular scientific disciplines. New technologies with fascinating potential are abandoned because they are judged not marketable. I am worried that the invisible hand of the marketplace might not be so wise as many would like to believe. The judgments that make short term sense for stockholders do not make sense for the culture.

I am not suggesting that an objectivist approach be thrown out and that art and science should attempt to become on and the same. However, I am suggesting that the two need not be so separated from each other when we’re looking for insights and information. Research is, or can be, a creative act. The more we separate the two, the less likely we are to make any unique contributions to a business. Just as science strives toward objectivity, art cultivates metaphor, subjectivity and deviation from the rules that govern the day to day existence. The research and insights produced from this way of learning look decidedly different from the deliverables produced by traditional researchers, but therein lies the advantage. The findings provoke and move audiences.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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