I’ve been collecting card decks. First I got the Oblique Strategies, Brian Eno’s deck of worthwhile dilemmas. When I’m stuck with something I’m working on I sit completely still for a few moments, holding the problem in mind. Then I take a breath, draw a card and apply what’s written to my problem.
Trying this now I get:
“Make something implied more definite (reinforce, duplicate)”
Other cards say things such as “Remove elements in decreasing order of importance”, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention” or simply “Water”
Often as not this process frees me from the rut I’m in. I don’t always get the answer in a flash, but mentally I get moving again.
The Oblique Strategies work because they use our talent for justification to stimulate invention. Justification is the mental skill of tracing causes to understand a situation. It is closely related to deductive reasoning. Most of us get a lot of practice at justification and deduction. We’re used to tracing causation and necessity down the loops and chicanes of “if-then” rules, used to figuring out what is allowed, forbidden and required. These are useful skills for understanding laws, code and the bureaucracies of advanced industrial society, but it is a mental set for reducing possibility, not for increasing it.
Edward de Bono, the guy who invented the term “lateral thinking”, talks about how this talent we all cultivate for deduction and justification can be hijacked in the service of creativity and invention. Rather than ask of ourselves, with our highly cultivated deduction machinery, “what is the next best move?”, we instead make a blind move in the space of possibilities. We force ourselves, for example, to remove the most important element in our design, or to apply the idea of water. This blind move whatever it is shifts us to asking “how could the world get this way?” We can then use our deduction machinery to build a bridge back from the move we’ve forced ourselves to make, finding reasons why or how this could be the next best move. The results can be so inventive they feel like they come from outside ourselves, but they are really just our ordinary logical machinery thrown into reverse by the need to justify a blind move.
The next deck of cards I bought were Stephen Anderson’s Mental Notes, a set of 50 insights from psychology designed as prompts for web designers. The insights are grouped under categories such as “Persuasion” or “Attention” and each card gives has a short description of a psychological phenomenon and notes on how to create or encourage it.
What I love about the cards is that they capture a huge amount of information from the field of Psychology, but in a completely different way from the ways psychologist usually try and present the information. Experts write textbooks laboriously cataloguing phenomena, enumerating arguments for and against their nuances. The Mental Notes don’t do this – brevity is the soul of their wit. The other thing academic psychologists do, is try and reduce phenomena to their essences, sifting the real and eternal from the incidental, the ephemeral and secondary. The Mental Notes could have done this, but they don’t. To ask why there are separate cards “Scarcity”, “Limited Choice”, “Limited Duration” and “Limited Access” when these are describing essentially the same thing would be to miss the point. The way the cards are they present the information in a form which means it can immediately be taken and thought about in a concrete way and applied to the design problem you are dealing with. Reduction to essences would be counter-productive here.
The third set of cards I’ve bought are Dan Lockton‘s “Design with Intent” toolkit. These cards are an attempt to catalogue patterns in design which influence behaviour, things like “prominence”, “decoys” or “threat of injury”. What’s nice about these cards is that they recognise explicitly that the cards are prompts. The main text of each card is a question: “Can you direct users’ attention to what you want, by making it more prominent, obvious or exaggerated?”, “Can you add ‘decoy’ choices, making the others (which you want people to pick) look better in comparison?”
Collecting information like this in cards recognises that the creative process needs an element of randomness, that making thoughts physical makes it easier for us to play games of invention with ourselves, and that too much organisation can sometimes restrict what we know – the information might be all there in a textbook, but the ends are all tied off, stopping our current state of mind latching onto what is needed. Invention comes naturally from inside ourselves, but sometimes we need a spark to set it off. We need external prompts which ask us questions we didn’t think to ask of ourselves alone, which lift us into seeing more of ourselves than we would on our own.
This is the text of an article I originally wrote for the boys at Rattle, and their newspaper the Rattle Review. It is republished here with their permission