Creative Methods

In our research field, quantitative (statistical) and qualitative research methods are used. For high-standard research, a continuous critical reflection on the methods we use is essential, and we need to engage in developing these methods further. Since Paul Feyerabend’s seminal book ‘Against Method’ (1975), we know that there is no holy grail for using methods to get insights into the phenomena we are interested in. This does not imply that ‘anything goes’. Because there are no general preset standards, the critical reflection on the methods we use is all the more crucial. We can ‘make and break’ the results of our analysis with our methods. Without methods we are blind. If we use methods in a rather unreflected and non-rigorous way, we are visually impaired. And when we critically reflect on the methods we use, we also notice that all our methods also have blind spots. The methods are part of the story we must tell about the world we are investigating and trying to understand. They substantially help us to be convincing and trustworthy. Both, theoretical as well as methodological reflection, make our research scientifically sound.

When studying Placemaking often qualitative methods are used in our analysis. These kinds of methods are often associated with ‘talking to people’ about how they experience places and ‘observing people’ in how they act in specific places or situations.  It is a common misunderstanding, that this is like what we do in our daily life, and therefore this cannot be that difficult, and the outcomes should be easy to understand. Applying qualitative methods rigorously and systematically, so that they can reveal what we would NOT be able to see in daily life, is a skill and art and demands special methods. The words ‘rigorously’ and ‘systematically’ should not be misinterpreted as again referring to universal standard for doing research. Each research situation is different and each research question demands other methods for finding the answers to these questions. Methods always need to be adapted to the specific situation, and the specific research question. We therefore always need to be creative in setting up our research and in defining our specific research strategy.  This also drives the dynamics in developing qualitative methods further. New ways of doing research emerge all the time. It is therefore very timely and fashionable in social scientific research to speak of Creative Methods.

The term ‘creative methods’, however, can be interpreted in three ways. The first and most common meaning of the adjective ‘creative’ is rather banal. It is only an addition with the purpose to suggest that the method is new, different and fashionable, even though, if one looks more precisely, they often are not. Book publishers are very keen on these kinds of positively connotated titles because they sell better and some researchers also use these adjectives to show off and distinguish themselves from others.  It is easy to find many books on methods, with ‘creative’ in the title. Only in a few cases, this adjective can be taken seriously. We also observe that the methods they are talking about already have a longer tradition, and are thus not that new or different. But o.k. let us be generous and let them enjoy these fancy adjectives, as long as we are critical enough to look through them, to what is key when we speak about creative methods.

The second more serious meaning of ‘creative methods’ refers to creativity in developing new methods or new ways of combining or adapting and applying existing methods for new research situations. This is what I was talking about above concerning pacemaking.  Some of the methods discussed in the recent books listed here can indeed be very inspiring in this respect, others seem to be more business as usual.

The third interpretation is about methods which foster the use of creativity. The latter meaning of the word ‘creative methods’ addresses an often neglected element of Placemaking in our geographical research. Creativity in this latter sense means that we come up with new and innovative forms to express ourselves and our knowledge to create better places, situations or events. While in our discipline we regularly teach research methods, these kinds of creative methods are rarely taught. But how do we teach these creative skills, and what methods foster this kind of creativity? Phil Dobson, a psychologist, in the video below, briefly presents some of these methodological steps which foster creativity and innovativeness (click on the image to start the video):

This method for creativity is rather different from applying creative research methods, when we study places. As Human Geographers, we traditionally have a rather analytical perspective on places and the spatiality of human actions. This analytic perspective at best allows us to describe, understand, and possibly predict. The factual and cognitive knowledge we produce in this way may then serve policymakers in defining their measures of intervention in specific places.

But especially when we focus on how people experience places and their doings, we also notice that there is another dimension to places and to placemaking that is not so easily caught with these analytical methods, namely, the affective, and aesthetic aspects of places and placemaking. The language of the ‘forms’ of places. So places which analytically and functionally seem equal may from this other perspective look, feel, smell, sound, etc. totally differently and therefore also have very distinct effects. There is an embodied sensuality to places, which we usually do not sufficiently grasp with our hitherto analytic methods, So, the form of these places and the way these places (and situations) are designed make a big difference. We can, of course, analytically describe and study the sensual forms of a place with the help of more phenomenologically oriented qualitative research methods.  But what consequences do these insights have? If we want to use this knowledge to create better places, we are talking about (re-)designing places. That demands not just analytical research skills, but also creative design skills, and methods which foster our creativity.

We should not just learn how to analyse places but also how to make and design places. The language of spatial forms is traditionally the field of architects who make material spaces, urban designers who create urban spaces, and landscape architects who create landscapes. But also all kinds of artistic expressions and activities may be essential elements of designing places and are part of the vocabulary of spatial forms. For geographers, there is still much to be learned from them concerning methods of creative design. In the same way, there is much to be learned for designers from the more analytically inclined geographers and their research methods. To be successful placemakers we need to be multidisciplinary. For geographers, it would, therefore, be important to include methods for creative design in the geography curriculum. Bringing these different approaches together would also allow us to experiment with research through design.

Here it is important to also make a disclaimer: Trying to canonise design skills within the typical design disciplines, or trying to systematically teach these design skills, is on the one hand useful because it makes us (systematically) aware of the important experiential design dimensions, but on the other hand, it also restricts our creativity and our skills for out-of-the-box thinking and doing. If one is interested in how the dialectics between being a productive designer and being creative, it is worthwhile to have a look at one of the many videos of Prof. Jordan Peterson on Youtube (they are by the way also very entertaining), e.g. watch the conversation between Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, and Dr. Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, which took place March 9, 2017 at the National Gallery of Canada (click on the image to start the video).

He states, that to be creative, on the one hand, we need to get rid of all existing structures.  But on the other hand, we need structural procedures to be effective with our creativity. Being a good place designer therefore also requires the development of a canon of creative skills which allow us to make the best of our creative ideas and designs of future places. How can we create a curriculum and how can we set up our teaching in creative methods in such a way that both aspects come into their own.

Asking students in an assignment for our methodology courses to use creative methods or original forms of presentation results can be very rewarding and inspiring as students indeed can come up with very original solutions. This, however, can not be mistaken for ‘developing creative design skills’ or for thorough ‘research through design’. Sometimes they are at best superficially embellished assignments. As such, they probably are fun to do, and that is a value in itself since studying should be a pleasure if it wants to take hold, but here, in addition, I would like to plea for a more thorough and deeper revision of our teaching of research methods and to include also methods for developing creative design skills and research through design.

In the following short video (in Dutch) it is shown, how e.g. in a city like Leiden the design and aesthetic form of places can determine the quality of a place. It does not always has to to be a spectacular design in a large metropolis but can also be about the beauty of a small town (click on the image to start the video).

And here is another one discussing a few of the basic principles of urban design for building the ‘perfect City’ (click on the image to start the video).

It would be great if our geography students also gain the skills for designing better places.


Baytaş, M.A (2021) Crash Course in Research through Design.

Beghetto, R.A., Kaufman, J.C. & Baer, J. (2015) Teaching for Creativity in the Common Core Classroom. Teachers College Press, New York.

Benzon, N. von, Holton, M., Wilkinson, C. & Wilkinson, S. (2022) Creative Methods for Human Geographers. Sage, London.

Elliott, d. & Culhane, D. (2017) A Different Kind of Ethnography. Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies. University of Toronto Press,  Toronto.

Feyerabend, P. (1975) Against Method. Verso, London.

Kara, H. (2015) Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences. A practical guide.  Policy Press, Bristol.

Mannay, D. (2016) Visual, Narrative and Creative Research Methods. Application, reflection and ethics. Routledge,  Milton Park.

Norman, D. (n.d. 2nd edn.) The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction.