Creative methods for the not so creative

Using creative methods in qualitative research is not a new practice. There is a huge amount of variability in what ‘creative methods’ entails. This can include asking participants to take photos (Croghan et al. 2008), draw (Bagnoli 2009), make timelines (Mazzetti and Blenkinsopp 2012) and even creating scenes using children’s sand-trays (Mannay et al. 2017). Even though creative methods were taught during my Masters degree, the technique still felt intimidating.  I regarded it as being more suited for those with artistic temperaments and my creative speciality tends to be drawing stick figures.

I was also skeptical about using creative methods with my participant group, who were adolescents. It was my fear that asking teenagers to draw pictures or use stickers would seem babyish and patronising. Well, I was wrong.  Using creative methods in research can be very easy to implement, appealing to participants and require little artistic ability. This article is addressed to researchers who are considering using creative methods but are unsure whether to take the plunge.

My experience of creative methods stems from my PhD research project, which explores how employers engage with teachers and pupils in secondary schools. In early interviews with pupils, I found that some participants did not have much to say on this topic, and so I had to think outside of the box to elicit further discussion.

My first creative aid involved photos. I printed pictures in colour of fifteen different occupations and asked the pupils if they had met with people holding these job roles whilst in school. This led to deeper and more natural discussions that touched upon their wider social conceptions of these roles. Participants may be less likely to feel on the spot and compelled to produce ‘correct’ answers because they are not being directly questioned by the researcher (Leonard and McKnight 2015).

Alongside the photos, I used ‘fuzzy felts.’ This is originally a children’s toy, whereby users place felt shapes on a hard board to make a picture.  The pupils were asked to create an image representing how they thought the school could improve its careers provision.

The advantages of using fuzzy felts were threefold. It gave the young people time to reflect and consider the question, leading richer and more detailed data.  In this way, visual and creative tasks are helpful in encouraging non-standard thinking and avoiding clichés (Bagnoli 2009).  Secondly, it is accessible to both participants and student researchers. There is no real skill required from participants in making a fuzzy felt picture and it does not necessitate a great amount of prior preparation, time or resources from researchers.  Some young people may struggle with reading and creative methods can avoid the need for written literacy (Hurworth et al. 2005).

Finally, it can also develop rapport between the interviewer and interviewee. I made a fuzzy felt picture alongside the young people and so we became engaged in the same activity for a short while, providing a break from the artificial question and answer interview format. As a way of putting them at ease, I made self-deprecating jokes about the fuzzy felt pictures I had made and told them a little about my own employer engagement activities as an adolescent.

To conclude, if you are considering implementing creative methods in your qualitative research project, I would encourage you to do so. They can be highly enjoyable for participants and encourage deeper, richer and more natural discussions.



Bagnoli, A. 2009. Beyond the standard interview: the use of graphic elicitation and arts-based methods. Qualitative Research 9(5), pp. 547-570. doi: 10.1177/1468794109343625

Croghan, R. et al. 2008. Young People’s Constructions of Self: Notes on the Use and Analysis of the Photo‐Elicitation Methods. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 11(4), pp. 345-356. doi: 10.1080/13645570701605707

Hurworth, R. et al. 2005. The Use of Photo-interviewing: Three Examples from Health Evaluation and Research. Evaluation Journal of Australasia 4(1-2), pp. 52-62. doi: 10.1177/1035719×05004001-208

Leonard, M. and McKnight, M. 2015. Look and tell: using photo-elicitation methods with teenagers. Children’s Geographies 13(6), pp. 629-642. doi: 10.1080/14733285.2014.887812

Mannay, D. et al. 2017. Visual methodologies, sand and psychoanalysis: employing creative participatory techniques to explore the educational experiences of mature students and children in care. Visual Studies 32(4), pp. 345-358. doi: 10.1080/1472586X.2017.1363636

Mazzetti, A. and Blenkinsopp, J. 2012. Evaluating a visual timeline methodology for appraisal and coping research. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 85(4), pp. 649-665. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8325.2012.02060.x



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About Chloe Reid

Chloe Reid is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, funded by the ESRC and the Welsh Government. She is researching employer engagement with schools, the aspirations of young people and post-16 transitions in Wales.

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