Games of Invention

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.


Oblique Strategies
Anderson’s Mental Notes
Dan Lockton’s website

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

12 thoughts on “Games of Invention”

  1. … LOL! ‘My “boss” has become a pack of cards’!!! But it’s cool, at least I don’t have to work to the bone so that he can make a profit… LOL!!!!

  2. These tools seem very similar to Tarot, I Ching and other forms of divination. Each of these things casts one or more images against our concerns. Exposure to these new images helps us broaden our conceptualization of the issues at hand.

    Some divination tools are simple and provide simple images “growth” or “change” or “restriction”. Others, like the Tarot, provide a deeply ramified set of symbols. For example a Tarot card carries symbols in terms of colors, numerology, astrological accordances, qabalistic associations, as well as the obvious illustrations. To a dedicated practitioner a single card provides a feast of symbols. A particular card layout will multiply and modulate that banquet to create a strikingly complex symbolic interplay. This symbolic richness provides amazing fodder for our “justifier”.

    There is an elegance in the semiotically sparse systems that should not be ignored when compared with dense, Tarot-like tools. By providing a single symbol or simple symbol set in response to a query, they cast a sharper shadow on the issues at hand.

    Both approaches can be immensely rewarding.

    I’ve observed modern psychology rediscovering the tools of the shaman or magician. Recent discoveries about the power of priming expose the kernel of the power in sympathetic magic. The not too recent study about distorted reflections in a dark mirror hints at scrying (IME, scrying combines priming with subconscious image-distortion/projection).

    It seems to me that practicing magicians (in the esoteric sense) have at least as many interesting discoveries built up over hundreds of years of tradition as have stage magicians. Yet there seems to be a hesitancy to probe this area of knowledge.

    I believe that seeking that answer to the question “What is a shaman doing when he invokes a spirit?” from a scientific perspective will yield surprising insights to the mind and its inner workings.

  3. I appreciate this post – letting us in on your own mental processes and the unusual strategies you’ve experimented with to enhance creativity. Thought-provoking (like the cards).

  4. Thanks for this – I’m going to buy Eno’s cards immediately!

    A quick note – I’m notified of your blog posts by the first sentence being alerted via twitter. Often, the first sentence doesn’t summarize the content of the post so I can’t tell whether I want to come here and read it or not. I’m worried I might be missing out on some good posts! šŸ™‚

  5. Have you tried the Ideo Method Cards too? They use Eno’s cards as inspiration for the Ideo way of approaching life as a design problem – there’s an app for Itunes if you wanted to check out. Also, Michael Bungay Stanier also uses Eno’s cards as a prompt to his flip-book Get Unstuck and Get Going.

  6. Methinks you’d be interested in the deleuzian concepts of territorialization, deterritorialization and lines of flight. Deleuze himself mentioned the Pink Panther as a case study in deterritorialization, escape across a line of flight and reterritorialization somewhere else, or as someone else, but someone on a podcast used Bugs Bunny: rabbit’s being chased by the hunter, so instead he comes back dressed like a girl.

    But back to oblique strategies, lines of flight are about opposing dichotomies, getting away from dichotomies. Alexander the Great is properly taught in a hierarchical structure of thought and reality by master Aristotle. Then he encounters the legendary knot that guards Asia and instead of untying it or marching back, he cuts it.

    This is sometimes called “lateral thinking”, but that’s much too vague. Yes, thinking about the box, but what next? Keep the box and remember to think about it next time the need arises? When will the need arise? Grossly put, “deterritorialization” is about leaving the box altogether, escaping via the line of flight and getting to a new territory, a new patch of land.

    Because you’re never sitting in place thinking of an abstract object for its own sake. You’re invading Asia. And even if you are an academic philosopher or self-taught meditator, you’re still trying to get somewhere. And this is the whole point: finding a dichotomy usually means you’re getting to the wrong place and must escape. Escaping may mean “you know what? Screw the identification problem, I’m doing a Fourier transform on this”. Escaping may mean escaping rational thought altogether, though this leads to insanity and is generally frowned upon.

    Alas, you can’t learn much about Deleuze about the web because there’s so many critical theory university departments trying so much to make this about a critique of capitalism, Foucault 2.0. Deleuze is never a critique of anything — it is all about immanence, the plane of open possibilities and some tips & tricks of how to navigate it.

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