I am at the beginning of a new research project, and have been thinking about note taking. Not the note taking that you do once you are in the process of collecting data, whether primary or secondary, but rather the notes that you make before.
There is a very early phase of your research, sort of initial research, when you are finding your focus and honing your ideas into one clear question – a very exciting stage because at the moment there are lots of things this research could turn into.
For me this was always the stage where notes can be found all over the place. Filling up old envelopes is a favourite of mine, maybe because there seem to be some coming through my letterbox a few times a week and once they are emptied of their initial message they almost cry out for a new one. Of course the problem with old envelopes is that they also like to get lost. Be it in piles of documents or as impromptu bookmarks, they seem good at hiding – until they turn up again months or maybe years later and a by then forgotten thought says hello again. Not great when you potentially want to use this idea next week!
Then there are post-its, great to catch an idea in a few words or a sketch, but easily found at the bottom of a bag during the next spring cleaning.
The other way of taking these types of notes for me is in notebooks, of which I usually have a few on the go. With little rhyme of reason behind which one I choose to have with me, could be because one lives in a particular bag or maybe it is just the first one I grab. Here these notes are interspersed with notes relating to other projects, past and future, from world-changing idea to grocery shopping list. This way of taking notes is good to grab onto the ideas in the first place, using a little bit of time when inspiration strikes (for me that is often when I’m on a train), but ultimately this is not a very effective way of managing these ideas.
Clearly what I needed was a practical (but also inspirational) way of ‘decanting’ this information. A purposeful place where I can hold onto them, but also maybe order them – not in the order they come to me, but by issue or aspect or perspective (depending on what is appropriate to the project itself). This is quite obvious and I have tried to do this before – start a dedicated notebook for a project – but so far these have never been successful. What got in the way, I think, was the fear of not getting it right – what if the order was wrong? And really what would be the best way to order this? How much space should I leave for each theme I have come across?
For my new project I have decided on a for me new way of working. My new dedicated notebook was purchased and the first thing I did was put random colour washes on each spread. And when I say random, I mean random. Using acrylic inks (because I had them but hadn’t used them for a while) and lots of water I was experimenting with different lines and shapes, and really whatever felt right in the moment (see some of the result on the images on this page).
Once this had all dried (and this took a while as I could only do one spread at a time), I flicked through this book with my ideas of the themes I am collecting information and ideas about, and whenever one seemed to ‘fit’ with a spread, this became the one I used for that idea. These ‘visual clues’ probably only make sense to me, but to me they are meaningful – and fun. I have found the right spread for all the themes I have for now and started collating and collecting my notes in this way, making little pictures with the words – no point in writing in rigid lines, when there are shapes in the background to be followed! This means that I am not filling up the spreads in the order that they appear in the notebook – and I’m not sure if that is at all significant. And so far I still have lots of space, but I figure once a spread is all filled-up, I will find another one for the follow-up information. Because the backgrounds were all done pretty randomly, in the spirit of experimentation some of them are a bit rubbish – which is great, because I am not afraid to keep working on the pages. In a way I think the information will make the pages better – which really is what you want from a notebook, isn’t it? And also this is all pre-information, this is pre-structure – I am after all still figuring out what exact questions there could be and which ones of these I will choose to work on. But all the information is now in one place – a notebook that I am not afraid to add things to, but look forward to filling up.
This notebook doesn’t come on adventures with me, it is not for catching ideas on the go. It is for ordering these caught ideas into, to hold onto them in one place, organised but not structured for research yet – and the process of adding new ideas from other notebooks, post-its and envelopes into it has already sparked more ideas.
I will definitely continue to experiment with this – and yes, I will probably share some of the filled-up pages once they are ready to put out there!