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Why research is not boring.

You’re at art school: that means you’re creative. You’re more likely to be what educators call ‘kinaesthetic learners’, which means you’re happiest and most focused when you’re physically busy: when you’re making stuff. You might not be looking forward to the research aspect of your course or the writing bit. You may be dyslexic, or it may just bring back the horrors of exams or hours spent in school listening to teachers drone on about subjects that don’t interest you.

I’m here to explain that even if you’re an active, creative person, research can be something to enjoy, even depend on, rather than be fearful of. That you can develop your own means of building research that doesn’t depend on sitting still at a desk, reading pages and pages of Wikipedia. That all art students go to college in order to learn how to look at the world in their own way, and that discovering how you personally ‘do research’ is a lifelong skill that will inform and enhance what you make with your hands.

What is contextual studies anyway? Contextual studies is about putting your creative work, be it costume design, prop making, illustration, textile design, architecture or fine art, in context of the world around us.

  • It means looking at the history of art, relating to your own discipline and others
  • It means thinking about the cultural contexts of your work: the political climate at home or overseas; popular culture; subcultures; the environment; the society in which we live; and endless others
  • It means familiarising yourself with the the language of semiotics: visual signs and symbols that bind all art and design disciplines together
  • It means looking at the materials we use to create work: those used historically, and those in development now for use in the future


Are you a fan of a particular art movement or aesthetic already? Have you been to a great exhibitions or performances lately? Do you really enjoy the work of a particular designer or artist? Make a note of your favourites to share with the group.

The difference between school research and creative research at university and beyond. Throughout your time at school you have been researching topics. You already know how to read books, surf the internet, visit museums or art galleries, and find out information for your studies. What you will probably be less familiar with, is how to develop a body of research that is rooted in your own personal interests. This is the sort of research we do at university, and the sort of research you will do without thinking when you leave university. Research that inspires, explores and explains the type of work you want to make in your art and design practice.


Do you cover your bedroom walls in postcards, photographs, ticket stubs? Do you have boxes and drawers at home brimming with objects that you can’t part with because you love the look or feel of them? If you do, then you are already a creative researcher.

Think about the sorts of objects or visuals you hoard at home and make a list in your notebooks. Are there any popular themes or genres that arise? How do you like to dress up? If you associate with a particular youth ‘tribe’ like punk, list this as well. If you particularly enjoy certain genres of film, theatre or book, list these too.

When you have your list, find an image online; a photo on your phone; an object from your desk perhaps; or a picture in a book that represents the most prominent theme. We will then talk about these pictures as a group.

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