Find the logic of the thing, then the reality of it
Focus has been hard to maintain during pandemic times – with no travel, small people at home and working from home – “at home” being the constant.
So, I started drawing classes with artist Smruthi Garg to sharpen my observation skills (we are all meant to spend 5 hours a week learning a new skill). Serendipity: what I learned about drawing illuminated working principles for social or public health research that I didn’t even realize I abided by. Drawing showed me how we integrate conceptual and granular information elements, and how we can sometimes get it wrong. Here are the two main steps…
1. First, find the logic of the thing you are studying.
If you are drawing this involves breaking the object you are studying into it’s component shapes, mapping out the relationship between the shapes and the sequence of shapes in perspective with a grid or frame to guide you.
In public health research, this means creating or adopting a framework such as the WHO Health System Building Blocks, the Social Ecological Framework, Bloom’s taxonomy, a journey map; or simply creating clear table shells aligning and mapping the components of what you are studying. “Finding the logic of the thing” helps you organise your information to make it more communicable and actionable. It gives you a framework to hang everything else on. Finding a framework that helps explain an amorphous experience makes an important contribution to the knowledge base.
2. Then, observe the reality of the actual thing itself.
In public health research, this means fitting in the information you have into the logical architecture you created, but also letting it overflow a little, to challenge and define the framework you created (because things that are true are rarely in perfect order).
In a drawing this means carefully depicting where light and dark falls, and how this intersects with the pattern and detail of the object. This will often be contradictory to the logic, and so you make a judgement call on which one you adhere to. Ultimately, it needs to be convincing. If something is too logical and structured – it probably won’t seem very human or real, it will lack resonance, it will be too abstract to be convincing. If it’s too messy and there is no order – the component pieces may not come together to depict the subject you want to study.
These two steps may seem obvious but I have been reminded of the importance of both, and the balance required. When we see public health research presented in a way that it too ordered, we know it does not reflect any public health systems context we are familiar with, it is simply not memorable, it has no resonance and reflects a level of abstraction that makes things meaningless. At the same time, if we see disorganised information, it is hard to use it or make it actionable.
There are actually many professional and wellbeing benefits of drawing found in the journal literature:
A 2016 study at Drexel University found significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after 45 minutes of making art.
A 2017 study found that that drawing activates the medial prefrontal cortex, the seat of “executive function”, and improves self-perceptions of problem solving.
A 2019 study found that a mere 10 minutes of drawing improved participants’ moods.