Serendipity and the Value of Research

Conceptual thinking is at the cornerstone of my design practice and it can be a long and arduous process sometimes. But, I suppose, it’s the hard work and toil that make it so satisfying when you come up with a clever idea. It’s a way of problem-solving in an abstract way, a process that leads to new ideas and solutions that go beyond conventional thinking. It’s a way of working that works for me and it’s rooted, first of all in ideation and then in research.

Research is crucial in defining problems and finding solutions in graphic design. As designers, we need to be fully informed about the field we are working in and unless you have Christopher Hitchens-like omniscience (oh how I wish!) the only way to do that is through research. Today, it’s never been easier to research with access to the world wide web. But I still like to go to the local library for a nose around. For me, there’s still a thrill in seeing shelves of books and wondering what I’ll find there.

Research should be methodical, there should be a plan, a focus on a particular subject, event or person. But we should also be open to a kind of ‘freestyling’ method of research. If you find something of interest that may not seem relevant, but might have a tenuous link, then go with it, dig deeper. More often than not it will lead nowhere, but maybe, on occasion, you uncover a nugget of wisdom that leads you down a glorious path never expected.

In his wonderful book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, Steven Johnson describes this accidental connection as “Serendipity.” The word is derived from a Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”. The eponymous heroes were “always making discoveries, by accident or sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. As Johnson describes ” Serendipity is built out of happy accidents to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you”.

I had my very own serendipitous experience recently, researching for a new visual identity. The project was a difficult one; to design an identity for a business and technology park that is yet to be built! There are no buildings on the site, no infrastructure, in fact, it’s just a field. The client, however, needed an identity to showcase the park as an exciting location to set up business. The brief stated that the park should be promoted as a hub of scientific, technological and business related innovation. No easy feat when identifying a field!

So I began by researching the location of the park; Enniscorthy, it’s history and it’s people. I learned that Andrew Jameson son of John Jameson, the founder of whiskey distillers, Jameson & Sons, once lived there. He set up home and a distillery at Daphne Castle, Fairfield in the early 19th century. The castle no longer exists but the area is still known locally as ‘The Still’. It was here that his daughter, Annie Jameson was born and spent her formative years. Later in life, she married an Italian Count and had two sons. One of her sons was none other than Guglielmo Marconi! I couldn’t believe my luck.

Marconi was an Italian inventor, electrical engineer and entrepreneur, known for his pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission, his development of Marconi’s law and a radio telegraph system. In 1901 he sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic from Cornwall in England via Clifden Co. Galway to St. Johns, Newfoundland. In 1909 he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics.

With this piece of serendipitous information, I developed a simple concept based on how a radio signal travels through the air; in a wave. I presented this idea to the client as an ode to Marconi’s Enniscorthy heritage and his scientific and entrepreneurial spirit! The client is still deliberating.

The moral of the story is have a plan when you initially start to research, focus on the topic in question. But then don’t be afraid to travel down paths that seem irrelevant or fanciful. Follow that an implausible link, make an obscure connection, be open to the idea of serendipity. Embrace happy accidents and you never know, you might find your own Marconi Wave.

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