The arts: creating new connections – with yourself and others

It is not uncommon for people to turn to the arts as a form of release from the day to day stresses of life. What’s the relevance of this for the social services?  That’s what we at IRISS are exploring.

For example, a recent Guardian article, “Music therapy helps children who have witnessed domestic violence”  highlighted research from a Housing Association in England into the use of a therapeutic music studio for young children who have witnessed and experienced domestic abuse. The article states, “not only have we found that music instils a sense of achievement and confidence, but it boosts children’s key skills in communication, listening and technology”. The Housing Association also creatively supports the women attending the refuge; setting up a choir, for example, was particularly effective in building self esteem and confidence.

IRISS is similarly interested in the power of music to connect us with our own experiences, as well as connecting us with those around us. So much so, that we’ve designed an event (Tuning in: the social power of music) to bring social services practitioners and artists together to explore these issues. The event is open for bookings and will be run by Jane Bently (whose current work involves developing music in mental health, from secure units to community settings) and will cover the following:

  • THEORY: the foundations of our innate musical potential and how it engages both social and communicative development

  • PRACTICE: case studies of exemplary music projects in mental health, dementia care and social services

  • RESEARCH: examining the broader evidence base

  • DEVELOPMENT: practical group work that can be adapted for a variety of health and social care settings – and used by ‘non-musicians’!

  • DISCUSSION: where do we go from here?

So, sign up to come along and hear about how music can be a potent tool for developing both bonding and bridging social capital, particularly for those whom communication and social engagement can be challenging.

But music is just one art form that can help people. Health research has shown that creative interventions for people who have suffered physical or emotional trauma can reduce the psychological impact of that and aid healing. A while back, Trevor Hopkins informed me of a study (over three decades of research) by Dr James Pennebaker on creative writing and immune response/healing (here is a link to a BBC Radio 4 programme that features this work: )

The main gist of the intervention is that people with various illnesses were given the task of creatively/expressively and writing down their feelings for four consecutive days. The individuals were given free reign to write about whatever they wanted – related or unrelated to their condition. The results of the research found that writing about painful experiences could enhance immune response, reduce recovery times, and promote physical, psychological, and social well-being.

Interestingly, the research highlighted that it wasn’t the act of documenting experiences that was the therapeutic element (in fact, often people didn’t write about themselves at all!), but it was the expression in a creative form that helped the healing process. Dr Pennebaker says, “People who are able to construct a story, to build some kind of narrative over the course of their writing seem to benefit more than those who don’t.”

These are just two examples out of countless creative endeavors that are relevant to social services. To understand better what is happening in Scotland we have set up a survey to find out from you how you are using the arts and creative interventions to support people better – if you haven’t completed it already, there is still time:

Creative in Residence

When we start a project how much effort do we put into thinking about how we will communicate the results?  Often the answer is ‘very little’.  Will a research report, laden with jargon, engage the readers and encourage them to adopt and apply the findings in practice?  Usually not.  Yet getting the message across, or explaining why your results are important, is a vital part of a project, otherwise why do it?

At IRISS we have been studying and, we hope, applying the art of explanation, masterfully demonstrated by Commoncraft’s Plain English series of animations.  The Commoncraft approach focuses on explaining why the topic is important rather than going into details about how to do it: that is a separate exercise.  Commoncraft emphasises the importance of creating a script that tells the story simply and clearly, before deciding which media to use for dissemination. The advent of inexpensive video cameras and smartphones along with free distribution channels such as Youtube, opens exciting possibilities for communicating in ways that are more engaging than a report. This is good and bad. That we have more tools at our disposal is good, but indiscriminate or inexpert use of these tools may deliver poor results.

At IRISS, we are always experimenting with how to tell the story of our work using various methods and tools (e.g. documenting process through blogs, using creative storyboards to explain key research messages, recording conversations and disseminating through IRISSfm). But, we know we can always do better. So we came up with the idea of Creative in Residence, someone with a background in communication or information design who could add to and develop our strengths in visual communication. We had an open mind about the kind of person and the kind of skills we needed. We see it as a partnership in which both sides learn from each other, much like the Geeks in Residence programme in which arts organisations learn from technologists.

Creative in Residence Andy

Andy Archer joined us in June for three months. With a background in advertising and copywriting in the commercial and the public sector he immediately inspired us to think more thoroughly and creatively about what our projects were trying to achieve. His message, in short, is to think about who you want to talk to, what you want them to hear and what you want them to do.  This discipline will help keep the project focused and avoid mission creep. Answering these three questions is not as simple as it sounds and we have learned that it pays to devote time and effort to this process: it’s not an add-on, it’s the very foundation of the project.

The creative arts are widely used in social services – for example singing and dementia, drumming to develop co-operative skills, performance to develop self confidence and so on. We already had an idea for a project – working title Create! – to encourage the workforce to unlock their creative potential, because everyone has some creative skills.

After some brainstorming sessions on Who? What? What?, Andy came back to us with some ideas including Creative Quarter, a name that offered lots of scope to bring various playful and creative dimensions to the project. For example we could think about different was of using the brand:

Creative Quarter wall


  • Creative quarterly
  • Creative Quartet
  • ART is in quARTer




We also felt it was versatile:

A creative quarter


  • A quarter hour is 15 minutes, and that’s not a long time
  • A quarter can be a physical place, as in the Latin Quarter of a city, or part of a room.

This versatility would widen its appeal.





So far, Creative in Residence has made a positive contribution to our creative thinking. We are learning that designing messages and copywriting are skills you have to work at. Think about what you want to say and hone it down until you can say it simply. There are simple rules that will help you write clearly. See, for example, The Economist style guide.

We are also learning that although being ‘creative’ means different things to different people, we can all be creative. Sometimes, it is the simple step of bringing together people with a mix of skills and knowledge that can inject creativity into a project or process – this is exactly what Andy has helped us to do.

We’ll be applying this learning into our organisation – but also into the sector, as we hope that Creative Quarter will inspire others to see themselves as creative – and to get their creative hats on! More on that project soon.