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Manipulative Verbs as a Research Tool

DOI: | Issue 1 | March 2019

Author: Jane Yarnall, Bath Spa University


This Issues in Creative Practice Research blog reflects on the author’s own experience of using the manipulative verb technique to stimulate divergent thinking in ceramic practice. It explores the benefits and challenges of applying this technique, and reflects on the creative blocks which prevented it from being fully exploited.

Working in ceramics, I am always fascinated by how the clay takes on a life of its own and you find yourself intuitively twisting or joining pieces to create new forms. I take an immersive approach to my making, using an inductive method which draws on experimental evidence and experience as I progress with a project. With a rather eclectic background, having also been awarded a MSc in Bioinformatics and Systems Biology and a PhD in Organisational Psychology, my ambition is to bring all three disciplines together in ceramic form. My way into this, reflection in action, itself first described by Schön (1983), suggests that it is only through ‘doing’ that the possibilities and limitations of a particular approach start to reveal themselves; and this has certainly been the case for me.

However, on a recent project I decided to adopt a more rigorous creative process, by drawing on the use of a technique called ‘manipulative verbs’ (Koberg and Bagnall, 1981). This technique uses different verbs to stimulate new experiments. I was hoping that this would help to eliminate any research biases I have and expand my thinking.

Starting with a newly created extruder die I had designed and had laser cut, I began by creating the simplest form of the extrusion.

Jane Yarnall
Photographs by Yarnall, J (2019), ‘Extruder die’ and ‘Extrusion’, Bath.

I then chose from a list of manipulative verbs; how could I……

Accessorise it? Elevate it? Divide it? Melt it? Stretch it?

Bend it? Twist it? Simplify it? Shrink it? Reverse it?

Widen it? Rearrange it? Rotate it? Combine it? Substitute it?

It all started rather well. I drew a few sketches of how things might work with each verb and started off with my favourites. As with all practice-led research, things did not quite turn out as intended, as clay has a bit of a mind of its own when it is extruded, but that was all part of the learning. I had great fun squashing extrusions to shrink them and bending them in all sorts of ways.

Jane Yarnall
Photographs by Yarnall, J (2019), ‘Bend’ and ‘Twist’, Porcelain and Stoneware, Bath.

However, I would like to say that I had the self-discipline to work through each of the verbs, but I need to confess that it did not happen that way. Indeed, I started off as planned, with some simple modifications, such as the bend and twist pieces shown here. However, two things began to happen. Firstly, the process of extruding clay with such a large die uses a lot of clay, so I felt a little scared by how much clay I was using. Secondly, when I started working with ‘combine’ as a verb, a multitude of options opened out to me and these seemed to be more fruitful lines of enquiry than moving onto a different verb. In other words, I became seduced into pursuing my intuition.

As someone who has worked in the sciences, this lack of rigour in my working process was slightly concerning. What opportunities had I missed by following my instinct and digging down deeper into one option before exploring them all?

I am struck by the fact that creativity and generating ideas comes from divergent thinking. There is a need to broaden out your possible options as wide as possible before honing in. Thomas Edison famously wrote that ‘creativity is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration’. In my case, I had rushed on to convergent thinking in a desire to focus on combining forms. Did I spend long enough diverging? Had inspiration already come? Or was I just wanting to move on quickly, feeling a pressure to produce something more sophisticated?

I have been reflecting on some of the literature around blocks to creativity (Goller and Bessant, 2017; Gurteen 1998; Zimmerman, 2009), and how, aside from the organisational barriers, there are often perceptual or emotional blocks in ourselves. I am particularly guilty of judging my ideas as I go along, rather than just generating them. My anxieties over wasting materials lead me to discard or recycle trials before I have really allowed them to simmer and incubate in my mind. I think I have what Gurteen describes as a ‘deep rooted belief’ that other people will perceive this approach as play and unproductive. I definitely need to let go of that kind of thinking if I am to stay in the divergent zone for longer.

More fundamentally, I think there is a real need to recognise with this method that there is a requirement to progress slowly, trusting in the value of the process. The fact that it appears to be taking time is not something to be concerned with, if you have a belief that it will save you time in the long run. Go slow to speed up. I think I will write that on the front of my notebook.

Would I recommend the manipulative verb technique as a methodology of creative research? Most definitely. It was a fun way in to making, one that led to some interesting work that I could not have predicted. My advice would be to stick with it and trust in the process.

Jane Yarnall
Photograph by Yarnall, J (2019), ‘Combine no. 1’, Stoneware with crawl glaze, Bath.


  • Gurteen, D (1998) ‘Knowledge, Creativity and Innovation’, Journal of Knowledge Management 2(1), 5-13.

  • Goller, I and Bessant, J (2017) Creativity for Innovation Management. London: Routledge.

  • Koberg, D and Bagnall, J (1981) The All New Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide To Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc.

  • Schön, DA (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith.

  • Zimmerman, E (2009) ‘Reconceptualising the Role of Creativity in Art Education Theory and Practice’, Studies in Art Education 50(4), 382-399.

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