Someone recently asked me: “What's the future got in store?” If you're a smart designer, the answer is simple: “A whole bunch of research!” There's a whole lotta cool technology coming down the pike, but some designers won't know about it until it's too late because they think they're too busy to keep up with the Joneses.
I know how it is: work schedules are not conducive to free time. What's even worse is the thought of committing some of that well-earned time off to researching new tools and techniques. However, it doesn't have to be a chore; it might even already be a part of your day and you just don't know it. Very much like design inspiration, research opportunities are all around us; all you have to do is keep a half-watchful eye open for them.
One of the most obvious ways to catch up on the immediate innovations of our industry is to plan on getting to the industry trade shows. Manufacturer parties and sales rep — hosted dinners aside, those few trade show days of the year usually offer the best opportunities to get the jump on all the latest and greatest toys. Whether it's some new way of controlling video imagery from the lighting desk or a gadget for attaching truss together in ways not normally possible, you're sure to find it there.
The trouble is that many designers end up with project bookings that conflict with the important lighting industry trade shows — LDI, PLASA, SIB — and simply cast aside this yearly opportunity. This is more often than not a poor decision, because even a quick one — day visit can invoke some truly innovative ideas. I've seen some of the top designers in the world break away from their production rehearsals for four hours on the trade show floor and then head back to pick up their cueing right where they left off.
Print media is always an excellent place to start, and I'm not just talking about trade magazines like the fine example you're reading now. Any magazine that focuses on technology, architecture, or another design industry can be a great way of keeping you in the know and providing you with inspiration. The best part: those types of magazines are usually found at airport newsstands. Killing multiple birds with one stone is the busy designer's dream, and doing your research chores while passing time on flights seems like a no-brainer.
Since we're all smack-dab in the middle of the Information Age, the Internet would seem like the most logical choice for doing research. And yet many people still don't take full advantage of it. That's too bad because it's easily accessible and can provide you with just about anything that you want to research. You'll be hard pressed to find a manufacturer that does not have a website with plenty of product information at your fingertips.
The trick with using the Internet for research is to properly manage your time doing it. Distractions are lurking around every corner, and if you're like me you'll find that all roads on the information superhighway inevitably lead to hampsterdance.com. It's irresistibly hypnotic, I know, but you have to fight the urge!
The other big trick to finding the information you need is to fine-tune your use of search engines. The majority of engines have the ability to do Boolean searches, which are far more precise than just typing in a string of words. Boolean searches incorporate specific characters to search for sites that contain a specific phrase, eliminate sites that may contain certain words, or create a list of sites that contain all of the words that you input to the search line.
For example, let's say that you were interested in researching light-emitting polymers (I know that sounds strange, but it's actually a search that I've done many times over the last few months). Start by going to a good search engine like Google or Alta Vista and then type the words “light-emitting polymer” in the search line. More than likely this will bring up a website listing that contains sites with the words “light-emitting” on them. There will be some other sites that just contain the word “polymer.” Still others will have the words “light” and “polymer” in separate pages within the site. You'll basically get every possible combination of those words but not necessarily any sites that are relevant to the information that you need.
Oy! Too much information, right? A simple rectification to our dilemma is to type in “light-emitting polymer” in quotes to ensure that the engine only searches for sites with that exact phrase of words. How simple is that?
As it happens, light-emitting polymer is an emerging technology with several potential uses, one of which is the ability to mold the polymer into a shape and then send a video signal into it that will texture the surface. It is intended for use not only in the entertainment industries but also in automobiles, boats, traffic signals, etc. With this in mind, a more practical Boolean search would be to type in “light-emitting polymer” + video - vehicles. This would typically produce a listing of websites that only contain “light-emitting polymer” in association with the word “video” excluding any mention of its use with “vehicles,” which is really what we were looking for in the first place. Refining your web searches in this manner can shave a ton of time off your Internet research.
Another great place for research is your boob tube. Don't underestimate the use of television as a legitimate tool; God knows I never do. Once you've snapped yourself out of the hypnotic glaze that buying Diamonique jewelry from your La-Z-Boy can bring about, you'll find that there are actually some educational programs targeted for us. The HGTV channel is chock-full of programs devoted to home and garden design. Fashion programs can introduce you to a world of soft goods that you may not have been aware of. And krikey, mates! — the Discovery Channel has a lot more to offer than just a bunch of crocodile molesters. They might be different industries from ours, but there are products and techniques featured that can most certainly be of use to us.
Research shouldn't be a chore. By nature it is simply an extension of what innovative designers do every day in trying to create something new. It should help you think farther outside the boxes that surround you, and that alone should be incredibly motivating. If it's not, there's always hamsterdance.com.
All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:
Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.