The Lost Art of Research (Digitally Rediscovered)

As a theatre artist, research is central to my work –particularly visual research. As a teacher, I can also say that it isn’t always the easiest thing to teach. Substantive text-based research itself seems to be a dying skill. Looking for that perfect image that communicates information about color, texture, or emotional response – well there aren’t many research classes that teach that skill. After seeing many of my own students turning in undersized, pixilated, non-evocative images, I decided that it was an important topic worth addressing.

In researching this topic for my own classes, I discovered some highly sophisticated internet-based tools for locating imagery that just couldn’t be replicated in the traditional library. The best such collection of tools I found housed in a singular website, Tineye Labs (formerly called Idée labs) has a simple goal – to make images more searchable. While this may sound similar to traditional search engines, it has two great toolsets particularly useful to design research.

Multicolor Engine is an interface that searches for images specifically within a selected range of color. It is connected to the Creative Commons images from FLIKR, giving you literally millions of image possibilities. The interface is user-friendly, allowing you to choose up to 5 colors to generate the response. The Multicolor Engine searches FLIKR archives for images displaying the selected color palette. For more saturated colored images, only select one hue. In the example below, I clicked on the same yellow hue three times to create a color composition of 77% yellow and 23% red. My lighting design students have found this to be a particularly useful tool.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 12.29.09 PMThe second toolset, Tineye, is a combination of a image upload / URL-based image search. It is a simple tool with remarkable results. If you upload your own image or image URL, it will find visually similar results.  This is most useful in finding images of similar colors and contrast, not similar theme content. I have found this particular tool useful when you find that one image that’s close to what you want, but not a perfect fit. The website is online at or it can be added as a plugin for your Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, or Opera web browser

Though there is no replacement for the library, the internet offers up many options to supplement traditional research methods. Online toolsets, such as these offered by Tineye Labs, are certainly making the job of visual research a more manageable task for everyone.


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