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When words fail you … turn to art

Using art from within to gain insight

They say a picture paints a thousand words, so if members of your research group aren’t talking, maybe try art instead.

When research needs to delve into sensitive or potentially embarrassing territory you might find people are reluctant to really open up about the matter in hand.

Whether knowingly, or subconsciously, research subjects may choose to hold back, as Partners in Creation’s John Isitt explained: “We find that people want to appear cooperative, but equally they don’t want to reveal their secret thoughts. At other times, participants haven’t had the chance to form an opinion or relate to their emotions on the subject.”

Whatever is driving this evasion, non-verbal techniques are often more successful in drawing out a deeper understanding of a person’s attitudes, beliefs and feelings. At times like this, Art from Within can be a powerful technique to reach for to help people articulate their response to a tricky question.

Art from Within has its roots in the world of psychotherapy and was translated into market research by ground-breaking qualitative researchers such as Roy Langmaid. Instead of asking people to describe their feelings it invites them to pick up a pastel and draw!

The technique can be met with surprise or scepticism at first but this doubt quickly melts away as people make their first mark on the page. In most cases it’s the first chance people have had to draw since primary school and their reluctance is often replaced by … pure delight.

The numerous benefits of using Art from Within include:

Removing inhibitions

For many people art is an unfamiliar form of expression, so a lot of their attention is concentrated on their drawing. Distracted by the process, their usual social filters come down allowing them to really articulate their feelings.

Delving deeper

Art from Within can help people go inward to connect with the research challenge at a different level. The process can be surprising for the participants as they discover things about themselves and how they relate to the challenge.

Unique stimulus

The resulting pictures are personal to the individual, providing the facilitator with a uniquely personal stimulus they can use to further explore that person’s relationship to the subject matter.

A democratic process

Whatever your background and confidence with the English language, Art from Within is a leveller; a process where everyone is equal, whether scientist, receptionist or poet. After the exercise is complete participants tend to behave in a less hierarchical manner for the rest of the session.

Don’t expect artistic masterpieces – that’s not the point – what you will get is a wealth of detail revealing what people really think about the challenge you’ve put in front of them.

Case study:

How Art from Within delivered a detailed prototype for an alcohol intervention among young people

Art from within - Lambeth

Partners in Creation have used Art from Within on sensitive and complex topics including mental and sexual health, changes to primary care, experiences of lower back pain and, particularly successfully, around alcohol consumption.

Getting 20-somethings to want to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink was never going to be an easy ask. As part of an action based co-creation process in Lambeth, we used Art from Within to help our target group identify what might encourage them to engage with behaviour-change. Through art they produced a surprisingly detailed prototype of what worked for them, individually and as a group. From the detail in their pictures we were actually able to develop a live pilot, which was piloted in the streets of Lambeth and Morden in record time.

Lambeth behaviour change intervention - The London Challenge

Find out more at

#Alcohol #Cocreation #PeopleLedChange #Qualitativeresearch

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