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Four Ways to Bypass Inertia

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In: Articles

By Curt Cloninger

Published on April 3, 2007

[Editor’s note: The article below is an abridged version of Chapter Three of “Hot-Wiring Your Creative Process”. Edited for length, the original version includes an interview with famed designer Stefan Sagmeister.]

“Mechanize something idiosyncratic.”–Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt

As you work the creative process, you’re bound to get stuck at various stages. When you come to a standstill, unsure how to proceed, advocates of the creative process advise, “Just keep working the process.” That’s fine advice in theory, but what does it mean practically? Say you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering how to turn your creative brief into a finished design. The next step in the process is sketching. But nothing is coming to mind, and the knowledge that you’re supposed to be working the sketching step of the process doesn’t solve your problem.

In this chapter, we’ll examine four methods you can employ at various stages of the process to get unstuck and bypass the mire of indecision, stagnation, and inertia. One method, exploratory sketching, is for the blank page step at the beginning of the design phase. Another method, time-limited designing, can occur at various stages throughout the design phase. It’s best to use scope plumbing if you’re stuck at the very beginning of the development phase. And oblique strategizing can be used throughout the entire process, from predesign to implementation. If the creative process is a machine, then these methods grease the machine, moving it forward toward a final design solution.

Exploratory Sketching

Exploratory sketching is sketching for yourself to generate ideas. It is entirely different from representational drawing, which is drawing to communicate your ideas to someone else. Yet many graphic designers function as if representational drawing were the only kind of sketching. We know that we have to show our client a mock-up, a form of representational drawing. So we begin our design phase by sketching thumbnails of what the mock-up might look like; then we refine them into polished mock-ups, and we feel we have properly worked the design phase. But such practice completely skips the important step of exploratory sketching.

In exploratory sketching, you are talking to yourself visually, jotting down ideas with images instead of words. You won’t ever show these sketches to your client. Most of them will never figuratively appear in your final mock-up. Exploratory sketching has more to do with thinking than it does with art or graphic design. It is visual thinking, to use art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim’s term.

You are free to draw things that don’t mean anything to anyone but you. You are free to explore dead-ends and abandon them without any obligation to tie them up. You are simply exploring the nature of the problem as you currently understand it. You are sketching in order to extend your own thinking on the matter. You are not drawing to communicate a well-formed idea. You don’t yet have a well-formed idea. You are drawing in order to tease out ideas.

Engineers, inventors, and even mathematicians use exploratory sketching in their research as a form of visual thinking, with little difficulty and to great benefit. Why, then, is it so difficult for graphic designers to sketch this way? One reason is that our final output is also visual, and the two kinds of visual language get confused in our minds. It is difficult for us to disassociate our exploratory sketches from our final output because we are always thinking ahead, trying to shortcut a solution to the final representational design.

Thumbnail sketching, for example, does not count as exploratory sketching. Thumbnailing and storyboarding are looser, prototypical forms of representational sketching; they are still drawn with the final mock-up overtly in mind. In thumbnailing, you keep in mind the proportions of the final space—the composition and layout. Thumbnailing doesn’t help you generate concepts or ideas; it simply leads you toward a representational mock-up. It is less like free-form visual exploration and more like an early stage of representational visual communication.

In his wonderful book Experiences in Visual Thinking, engineer and educator Robert McKim likens exploratory sketching to an idea factory. It’s not a full-blown graphic design factory. It doesn’t supply finished representational solutions, but simply processes ideas in the visual realm.

As long as we are still dealing with ideas, then why not keep using prose? Because at some point, your project is going to have to transition from words to visual space. Exploratory sketching is a sensible way to gradually transition from abstract words to abstract visuals without having to abruptly and awkwardly jump directly from representational prose to representational visuals.

But why sketch at all? Why not just conceive visual solutions in our minds? Sketching, drawing, modeling—what McKim calls externalized thinking—has several advantages over internalized thinking, or seeing the solution in your mind. One is that it releases you from having to keep so many images in your mind simultaneously. When you sketch, you empty your mind, storing its contents in a physical form and freeing it up to conceive other ideas.

Another advantage of externalized thinking is that it encourages contemplation and analysis. With internalized thinking, you must use your mind to do two things—store an image and analyze it. But when you put an image on paper, you can use your full mind to contemplate it, without having to visualize it internally. It’s much easier. The medium of pen and paper becomes an extension of your mind. Once you sketch several things, you can begin grouping them and then analyzing them spatially—something you would be hard-pressed to do if they were all in your mind.

Finally, sketching is advantageous because it allows for happy accidents. In the process of drawing something, you may accidentally discover something else. Such accidental discovery is much less likely to happen by keeping the visual ideas inside your mind.

The following guidelines for exploratory sketching will lead you through the entire process.

Preparation: Purge

How do you prepare your mind for this type of sketching? One school of thought says that your first idea is probably your best idea; another says it’s probably your worst. Those who say you should trust your first instinct are optimistic about the human spirit. Those who say you should doubt your first instinct have probably taught freshman design students. Having seen my share of similar first-try solutions to similar design problems over the years, I tend to believe that your first idea is probably not your strongest. If it fell right into your lap, it probably fell into everybody else’s lap too.

If you agree with this logic, you’ll want to purge your mind of obvious solutions before you start. Simply write down the first few ideas that immediately come to mind and set them aside. If they are actually brilliant and much better than your subsequent ideas, you can always return to them later.

Launch from Words

Our job as graphic designers is to take the technical, specialized language of various businesses and translate it into design. The creative design process is the gradual translation of stated goals into visual solutions. We shouldn’t leap directly from creative brief to finished design.

The first step is to translate the language of the business memo into more sensory and poetic language that can serve as a launching pad for exploratory sketching. New media designer Hillman Curtis suggests a process called targeting the theme. After you’ve researched the project, write down ten words or phrases that best sum up the theme of the project. They can be words like beneficial or phrases like happy go lucky. Then draw a three-ringed target and put one word from your list in the center, one in the second ring, and a third in the outer ring. Just like a pop music lyric, a design project should only be about one theme. The secondary and tertiary themes shed light on the primary theme, but many themes are too divergent.

Building on Curtis’s concept, you can begin exploratory sketching by riffing off of these three words or phrases. As you visually think them, sketch loosely and abstractly—figures, shapes, diagrams, connections. At this stage, feel free to mix words and images. Just make sure that you are not putting down all words.

After you’ve sketched a while from your three key words, try paraphrasing them to generate a new direction. For example, happy go lucky and carefree mean almost the same thing, but each phrase has subtle nuances that can lead down very different visual paths. Happy go lucky may suggest a smile, a four-leaf clover, a cartwheel, or a dance, whereas carefree may suggest sleeping, relaxing, floating, burdens falling away. Change the phrase to devil may care and head down an entirely different path. Get out a thesaurus and explore synonyms. Translate your key words into slang phrases and colloquialisms. Slang is usually much richer with visual overtones.

One of my students was designing a T-shirt for a local music club. He targeted the three themes: sex, drugs, and rock and roll, in that order of importance. I thought he was just being flippant, but he justified his decision by saying that the club was well known for its music (rock and roll), but not known as a place to have a beer (drugs) and socialize (sex). In rebranding the club, he wanted to somehow reverse this order of audience perception. The cliché key words he chose actually became a useful way to approach the design problem. Exploratory sketching that begins with sex, drugs, and rock and roll will probably be more interesting than exploratory sketching that begins with music, beer, and socializing. Then again, maybe not. Explore both.

If you think all this sounds like a bunch of marketers brainstorming a new tagline, you’re missing the point. The phrases are merely points of departure for exploratory sketching. The phrases may seem ridiculous. The sketches themselves may seem ridiculous. But you can evaluate them critically later. In this step, you are simply exploring where your targeted themes lead visually. The more freely you explore, the more raw material you give yourself to work with later.

You can also remix your thematic key words for a new exploratory-sketching launch by turning your original ten words into adjectives. Then come up with ten nouns derived from these adjectives. For instance, if the adjective is playful, you might choose the noun children. If another adjective is solid, you might choose the noun tank. Once you’ve come up with ten corresponding nouns, mix and match the original adjectives with the new nouns, and launch an exploratory-sketching session from each pair. You may wind up with a sketching run that launches from the idea of playful tanks and another that launches from the idea of solid children. The goal of this recombinatory text exercise is to spark promising combinations that may not occur to you otherwise.

Another launch strategy is proposed by cognitive studies expert Edward de Bono in his famous thinking course. (De Bono dares to suggest that thinking is actually a teachable skill.) Simply launch from any random noun. Open a dictionary to any page and scan down until you come to the first noun. Then launch your exploratory sketch from it, keeping the goals of your project in mind as you do. Let’s say your design problem is how to make a hair-spray product seem fresh and invigorating, and the first noun you come to is cactus. In this sketching experiment, you’re trying to explore what a cactus has to do with your invigorating hairspray (an admitted challenge). Everything is related to everything else in some way. Starting from cactus, try to sketch your way home to your original design problem. Your design problem is the control; your random word is the variable. It doesn’t matter what random word you choose—it will always connect to your design problem in some way, providing a back-door into it. This approach may seem bizarre, but it can yield original results. Always starting with and ending with the problem can put you in a mental closed circuit. The random noun strategy pulls random aspects of existence into dialogue with your problem—aspects that can invigorate your understanding of the problem and your current approach to it.

Along the same lines, graphic design innovator Stefan Sagmeister sometimes thumbs through his old sketchbooks looking for previous ideas that he can apply to a current project. His reasoning is similar to de Bono’s: When an idea comes from completely beyond the parameters of a current project, it can spark a novel and interesting approach. In Sagmeister’s strategy, as in de Bono’s, no matter where you begin your exploratory sketching, you can usually relate it to your current project, and often with refreshing results.

Sketch Laterally (But Stay Grounded)

Edward de Bono famously coined the now ubiquitous phrase lateral thinking. It basically means: Don’t fix on a single solution too soon. Early in your design phase, explore wide rather than deep. Come up with several possible solutions to a given problem before fixing on one and developing it vertically into a finished design. The obvious advantage of lateral thinking is that it lets you compare the merits of various solutions before committing to one. A less obvious advantage is that it allows you to synthesize multiple solutions into an even better solution. A third advantage is that one idea can lead to another. When you sketch laterally, you don’t have a specific agenda for where your sketching explorations should lead. The whole sketching process is eventually heading toward order and synthesis, but sometimes the chaos of a system must increase before it can realize its ideal state of balance. So don’t be afraid to get on out there with your sketches—break the rules, be outlandish, reach, drift. Later in the process, when the time does comes to evaluate, it will be much easier to reel in crazy ideas than to extend tame, lame, safe ideas.

The danger of a too-loose approach is that you will fall into rote and unfruitful sketching ruts. If you find your mind regularly wandering toward pineapples, Hawaii, and hula skirts, recognize this as a dead-end and nip it in the bud. To keep these ruts from forming, stay grounded in the goals of the project. Keep them always in the back of your mind. This requires balance. Too much conscious focus on the problem at hand defeats the exploratory purpose of sketching. No focus at all on the problem at hand can lead to repetitive forays into your own idiosyncratic unconscious fixations. Such forays may be psychologically therapeutic for you, but they won’t do your client much good.

Sketch with Intuitive Tools

The specific tools you use for sketching are a matter of personal preference. The goal is to choose tools that are intuitive to you, tools that don’t place a technical barrier between your thinking and your sketching. Don’t use the computer for exploratory sketching. Even with a responsive pen pad, there is currently too much of an interface barrier between your head, your hand, and the digital image that results. Focusing on pressure settings and keystroke shortcuts interferes with the kind of spatial, intuitive thinking that exploratory sketching seeks to promote.

Whatever materials you use, they should be as cheap as reasonably possible. Choose inexpensive newsprint over heavy watercolor paper. Choose good, serviceable pens but not top-of-the-line pens. You are going for quantity, not masterpiece quality. Think of your materials as practical and disposable—simply tools to get the sketching job done. Perhaps you have a fetish for exquisite art supplies. Get over it when it comes to this kind of sketching. Unless you are phenomenally wealthy, expensive materials inhibit risk-taking in exploratory sketching.

Try out a variety of pens and pencils to see which ones suit you best. A nylon-tip art pen draws a more painterly, less exact line than a fine-point fiber-tip pen. A charcoal stick feels different in your hand than a No. 2 pencil and will result in a more loosely drawn line. In other words, the nature of your materials has a bearing on the way you approach your sketching, both formally and psychologically.

I enjoy sketching with a wonderful Chinese calligraphy brush that was a gift from a colleague whose father is a renowned calligraphy artist. The brush radically alters my approach to sketching, making my line—and my thinking—very fluid and abstract. A calligraphy teaching says, “Emancipation of mind and freedom of gesture are in effect identical.” And freedom of gesture is greatly influenced by the tools you use. You could launch the same exploratory-sketching exercise using different drawing media and arrive at radically different results.

Suggested Sketching Materials

For Drawing With:

For Drawing on:

Sketches for Open design studio''s identity

Sketches for Open design studio''s identity

Designer Michal Levy’s sketches for the identity of open graphic design studio, and the final identity applied to business cards. Color should be sketched in conjunction with form whenever color is integral to the overall design direction.

Tracing paper and prismacolor pencils come into play during the evaluation and integration stage, which will be discussed later in this chapter. As a general rule, don’t use color in your initial exploratory sketches. It introduces a level of detail that is too specific for this early stage. As with every rule, there are exceptions. Use of color is applicable in exploratory sketching when color is integral to the concept you are exploring. Even then, you want to use color as an abstract, indicative element, and not fuss over precise Pantone values or even specific hues.

A moleskine notebook is useful for portable and perpetual sketching, which will also be discussed later. A large roll of newsprint is for spatial sketching.

Open design studio business cards

Sketch Spatially

Rather than sketching sequentially, page by page in a notebook, do your exploratory sketching on large rolls of newsprint. This allows you to think spatially rather than linearly. Ideas are able to branch, loop backward, and continue forward in a holistic fashion. During a single sketching run, you will have immediate visual access to all that has gone before, and you will be able to draw inferences and see connections on the fly—something you couldn’t do flipping back and forth through pages of a notebook.

Linguistic thinking tends to be linear because spoken language proceeds linearly, one word after another. Writing reflects this linearity. Words start at the top-left corner of the page and march in sequential rows toward the bottom-right corner of the page. But sketching need not be that way; it is inherently spatial and nonlinear. Sketching on scrolls is a fluid way to explore ideas. It allows unorthodox juxtapositions that can lead to more inventive solutions.

Sketch Fast and Continuously

Limit your exploratory-sketching runs to anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. This will focus you and keep you attentive as you sketch. It will also remove the pressure of having to come up with a good idea. As you sketch, don’t think of yourself as a creator, an ingenious problem solver, or even a great drawer. Those roles place an undue burden on you to come up with something immediately clever. They tempt you to shortcut the exploratory process.

Instead, think of yourself as an explorer. You are striving for many different ideas; you are not striving for quality. Don’t stop to assess the quality of your ideas. Sketch quickly and keep sketching until your time is up.

Transition Between Abstract and Concrete Sketching

In your exploratory sketching, feel free to use abstract forms. Much more than photographers or even illustrators, graphic designers are allowed to venture into the realm of pure abstraction. Abstract lines, shapes, and patterns are particularly appropriate in exploratory sketching when your ultimate goal is something iconic like a logo. It may feel like doodling, but that’s fine as long as you’re doodling with the goals of the project in the back of your mind.

Conversely, don’t shy away from the desire to draw more concretely, as long as such concrete representation is useful in visually exploring your ideas. Transition between concrete and abstract sketching as needed. Different drawing modes result in different kinds of exploration and enforce different kinds of thinking.

Sketch Perpetually

Regardless of how good your drawing skills are, you can always improve them. The better your drawing skills, the more effective you will be at exploratory sketching. I keep a Moleskine sketchbook (5 by 8 inches) of guided drawing exercises, and I try to do one a day.

In his book Conceptual Blockbusting, engineer and educator James Adams suggests another way to improve your improvisational sketching skills. Carry a pocket sketchbook with you everywhere. Instead of explaining your ideas and thoughts verbally (to coworkers, your spouse, your kids), practice explaining your ideas by sketching them. You are allowed to use words but only in conjunction with your sketches. This exercise will eventually drive your friends and loved ones insane, so you may want to practice it for limited periods of time.

Evaluate and Integrate

Once you have completed several exploratory-sketching runs, it’s time to tack them up next to each other, step back, and begin evaluating and integrating them. How many runs should you complete before this step? There is no magic number. You don’t want to sketch forever and do fifty 15-minute sketching runs before integrating them, but this is rarely the problem. The temptation is to complete two or three 5-minute sketching runs and then jump straight into evaluation and integration.

Once you have enough raw sketching to evaluate and integrate, it’s time to switch thinking modes. You are no longer exploring, sketching anything that comes to mind. You are now evaluating, reeling things back in, and synthesizing them. You are not evaluating the aesthetic quality of the sketches—you are evaluating the potential usefulness of the forms and ideas they represent. And you are looking for forms and ideas that can be combined in interesting ways.

Physical Logistics of Evaluation and Integration

What does evaluation and integration literally look like? How do you do it? First, tack or tape all your scrolls onto a wall next to each other. Then cut up your scrolls into smaller pieces and rearrange them based on any number of criteria—complexity, conceptual meaning, formal similarity, ways in which they relate to the design problem. You are looking to make connections between the different parts of your sketches.

As you rearrange things, make notes on the sketches. Use a colored pencil to distinguish your new notes from your original black and grayscale notes. If a single sketch fits into multiple categories, simply copy it on tracing paper or a photocopy machine and distribute the copies.

Use other colors to indicate additional layers of meaningful relationship. One color might highlight similar forms, another might highlight your best ideas, and a third might highlight ideas that challenge your original understanding of the design problem.

To discover and create meaningful relationships, try the following tips:

Synectics—the brainchild of design consultants William J.J. Gordon and George Prince—is a formal method of bringing diverse elements into harmony. In his book Design Synectics, design educator Nicholas Roukes suggests several other ways to group things based on synectic principles:

Once you have evaluated and grouped your sketches, it’s time to integrate them. You are trying to come up with synergies—combinations that are more than merely the sum of their parts.

Roukes suggests several synectic trigger mechanisms or ways of integrating disparate source material in hopes of triggering interesting results: subtract, repeat, combine, add, transfer, empathize, animate, superimpose, change scale, substitute, fragment, isolate, distort, disguise, contradict, parody, prevaricate, analogize, hybridize, metamorphose, symbolize, mythologize, fantasize.

Some of these trigger mechanisms are mechanical. For instance, merely rescaling a sketch and superimposing it onto another sketch can yield suggestive results. Others are more conceptual. Hybridizing a sketch of color bars and traffic signs, for example, might lead to the idea of replacing all traffic sign symbols with abstract color bars.

A related list of trigger mechanisms is called SCAMPERR, an acronym coined by creative-thinking educator Bob Eberle. SCAMPERR stands for: substitute/simplify, combine, adapt, modify/magnify, put to other uses, eliminate, rearrange/reverse.

Open design studio posters

Open design studio posters

Michal Levy’s posters for Open graphic design studio. The posters hybridize the studio’s bold identity colors with the urban landscape, symbolizing Open’s goal of broad reform through quality design.

SCAMPERR and synectic trigger mechanisms are just tools to get you going. You’ll also develop your own methods of integration.

Conceptual Goals of Evaluation and Integration

What are you trying to achieve in the evaluation/integration phase? You are gearing up for a second round of exploratory sketching. You are trying to amass interesting, provocative, and relevant starting points that will lead to even more fruitful sketching explorations. With this goal in mind, the following approaches to evaluation and integration are crucial:

Look for raw potential, not finished perfection. You’re not trying to shred these sketches and dismiss them completely. That would produce nothing. You’re trying to identify the potentially useful elements, reassemble them, and riff off them. Think forward. Don’t evaluate in terms of what works now, but in terms of what might lead somewhere. Several future directions will usually reveal themselves if you are looking from a positive critical perspective.

Look for things that can be combined. The writer of Ecclesiastes famously asserts, “There is nothing new under the sun.” What is new is finding connections between things that previously had no relationship. Indeed, some cognitive scientists define creativity as nothing more than the process of combining ordinary things in novel and transformative ways.

Allow your results to redefine your understanding of the problem. The problem as stated in the creative brief is simply a best guess, given information known by you and your client at that time. You then try to solve the problem as you understand it. At the same time, your exploratory sketching may unearth aspects of the problem you hadn’t thought about before. Don’t be afraid to reformulate the problem, to widen the scope of the project, to establish new goals, and to change your perspective on the project. Just make sure your client agrees with your reassessment.

One of the goals of exploratory sketching is simply to better understand the nature of the project. Frequently the problem posed in the creative brief is too narrow and rigorous in its scope and formulation. Or it may be too broad and vague. If you simply seek to solve the problem as stated, you may miss solving the problem that actually exists.

Iterate

Once you have evaluated and integrated your first round of raw sketches, begin a second round of exploratory sketching based on insights you have gained. Once this second round of sketching is complete, begin a second round of evaluation and integration. How many times should you cycle through this process? It depends on what kind of results you are getting. You don’t want to stop too soon while good ideas are still surfacing, but you don’t want to continue until you’ve run the project into the ground. Two times through may be enough; five times may be too many.

Leave some time in between iterations to chew the cud. Put the project on the back burner and let it simmer for a while. Give your mind time to make its own connections.

Mix It Up

As methodically as I’ve described this process, it can actually be very loose, idiosyncratic, and personal. Don’t feel obliged to proceed cookbook fashion. Mix up your approach, experiment, and observe the results.

Vary the time of each sketching run. Vary the number of sketching runs per cycle. Vary the number of overall cycles. Try different methods of evaluation and integration. Try launching your sketches from different word combinations. Sketch more abstractly. Sketch more concretely. Alter your drawing surface (scroll, notebook, note cards). Alter your drawing tools (brushes, finger paints, ripped construction paper, photographic elements). Subdivide the overall project and explore different aspects of it in turn. Discover what works for you and stick with it. Or better yet, constantly adapt and improve your approach. The goal is to get to the point where you are consistently able to birth and refine a set of intelligent visual ideas.

Time-Limited Designing

Time-limited designing, a technique developed by Stefan Sagmeister, pushes you to transition from creative brief to polished mock-up in a very limited time, rather than easing into the process gradually. In this sense, it may seem the exact opposite of exploratory sketching. But your goal is not to shortcut the creative process and come up with a finished product quickly. Your goal is to design within extreme constraints in order to generate unique results. If you do your best work at the last minute (or, in this case, 30 minutes to 3 hours), this is a way to simulate the deadline experience without putting your project in actual jeopardy.

For most people, time-limited designing is more like a professional growth exercise than an actual tool for coming up with finished work. But you may discover that your time-limited designs are actually usable. Place your three-hour mock-up alongside one that took you much longer to develop, show both to a design critic you trust, and ask her which is better. If she can’t tell the difference (or if she likes the time-limited design better), you may be onto something.

An improvisational boldness and bravura can enter your design when you are faced with strict time limitations. Design becomes less like a problem-solving intellectual exercise and more like a jazz performance. As such, time-limited designing is particularly appropriate for concert posters and CD covers, where the spirit of a performance is visually communicated.

Scope Plumbing

Scope plumbing is a simple project management strategy that you employ at the very beginning of the development phase. It boils down to an equation: breadth + depth = scope. If you know how wide your project is overall and how deep it is at an average point, then you know its scope. Scope plumbing doesn’t really get you unstuck as much as it prevents you from getting very stuck further down the road.

First select a representative segment of your project and develop it until it is completely finished and ready for release. Note how much time this takes and what problems you encounter. Next develop your entire project but only at preproduction depth. Note how much time this takes and what problems you encounter. Now you have a fairly accurate assessment of how long the entire development phase will take and what problems you are likely to encounter. This foreknowledge can be a blessing as you proceed to develop the rest of the project.

Scope plumbing varies from medium to medium. Take video production as an example. Let’s say you have to produce a 30-second commercial spot. You’ve storyboarded it, scripted it, booked your locations, and you’re ready to start shooting. The general wisdom is to shoot all your footage, then edit it, then add visual effects, then add the soundtrack. Scope plumbing says to first choose a representative 5 seconds of the commercial and take it through the entire production phase.

Full-fledged scope plumbing is not always feasible—say, if you’ve got a single day to shoot your footage and your location is 400 miles from your studio. But once you have shot all your footage, you can apply a modified version of scope plumbing even with these limitations.

Scope plumbing makes sense for complex projects like corporate identity, book design, and large-scale Web site design. It is less helpful for producing a small run of 50 T-shirts. Yet even then, it’s common wisdom to do a single test print, observe the results, and modify your design accordingly before you rush headlong into printing all 50 shirts.

Oblique Strategizing

In 1975 musician/producer Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt printed a pack of cards called Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. The word oblique literally means “slanting or inclined—neither parallel nor perpendicular nor right-angular.” On each card was printed a brief creative strategy developed by Eno or Schmidt. The strategies themselves are oblique, and they suggest ways in which an artist may approach the creative process from a more oblique, less direct perspective. There are several ways to use the cards, but the most common is to work on a project until you get stuck, draw a card, and apply that strategy to your current situation.

History and Purpose of the Cards

In his article A Primer on Oblique Strategizing, journalist Gregory Taylor describes how Eno and Schmidt developed a set of basic working principles—best practices discovered through creative experience. These strategies were written down in the form of oblique advice. Some were even devised intentionally for testing, to see whether or not they would prove practically useful. In times of pressure or intense concentration, such as expensive studio recording sessions or all-night painting sessions, Eno and Schmidt tended to forget the strategies. The cards became a practical way to keep the strategies in mind.

In a 1980 radio interview, Eno explained, “If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case—it’s just the most obvious and apparently reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, ‘Don’t forget that you could adopt this [alternative] attitude.’”

The cards themselves are a work in progress. At the time of this writing, five editions have been published, each a bit different. The first three editions included a few blank cards so that users could add their own strategies. With each new edition, some cards were added, others removed, and others reworded.

Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategy cards are not the only creativity cards in existence. Other sets include the Creative Whack Pack, IDEO Method Cards, the ThinkPak, BOFF-O! (Brain On Fast Forward) Cards, and Free the Genie Cards. While other card sets are meant to generate broadly applicable creative ideas, the Oblique Strategy cards are unique because they were made by a musician and a painter with their specific audio/visual media in mind. As such, they are more directly applicable to graphic design, which is concerned with matters of visual form and creative composition. The Oblique Strategies are also less generic and more poetically evocative than other card sets in their idiosyncratic specificity.

Oblique Strategies box and cards

Oblique Strategies box and cards

The fifth edition of oblique strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. Each card contains a different strategy for overcoming your current creative dilemma.

Using the Cards

The cards come with the following instructions from Eno and Schmidt: “[These cards] can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case, the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.”

Used in the latter manner, the cards incorporate an element of chance. Oblique strategizing is not about pure chance, however, because you are encouraged to modify the deck with your own strategies, and you are the one who ultimately interprets the meaning of each card and decides how to apply it to the problem at hand. Unlike I Ching, which is much more elaborate, or Tarot cards, which attempt to be oracular, there is no magic about oblique strategizing. It’s more like prefabricated advice that you can access in the midst of a project and apply as you see fit.

What is the value of oblique strategizing? Edward de Bono’s random word exercise provides an instructive analogy. When you start with a random word and relate it to your project, the word itself is not as important as the insight you gain about your project. Likewise each oblique strategy suggests a fresh approach to your current working situation. No matter what card I draw, I can always find some way of applying it to the problem I’m working on. In so doing, I’m forced to think about the problem from a different perspective.

I use the cards to get unstuck. Until I’m stuck, the cards are just so many vague pieces of advice without any practical application. When I’m stuck, I draw a card and apply it. Some people draw three cards at a time and choose the one that seems most applicable. I don’t do that because it forces me to waste mental energy comparing and selecting. I’d rather focus all my mental energy on the current dilemma.

The Oblique Strategies are only as useful as your ability to apply them. Appropriate interpretation is the key. The cards are oblique for a reason. They are prompts, not detailed instructions. Don’t feel enslaved by them. Simply use them to get unstuck. When you’re stuck, sometimes all you need is the confidence to proceed in a direction. Oblique Strategy cards can give you that confidence.

Analyzing the Cards

I divide Eno/Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies into four main categories: formalist (about structure), procedural (about process), attitudinal (about your mental outlook), and contradictory (about opposite extremes). Here is a sampling of Oblique Strategies subdivided into these four categories.

Formalist

Procedural

Attitudinal

Contradictory

Not all Oblique Strategies fit into these four categories. For example, one of my favorite strategies demands a category of its own: Call your mother and ask her what to do.

Acquiring the Cards

The first four editions of the Oblique Strategy cards are limited, and you can purchase them occasionally on eBay, usually for prohibitive sums of money. As I write this, the fifth edition of the cards is on sale for a very reasonable price. I highly recommend acquiring a set.

There are also several automated online versions that draw a random card for you at the click of your mouse. These versions are forever coming and going. Search “oblique strategies” on Google or visit Gregory Taylor’s definitive web site on the cards: ObliqueStrategies. Among other things, Taylor’s site contains a comprehensive list of the strategies and an admirably obsessive spreadsheet documenting their evolution from edition to edition.

Making your own Cards

The Oblique Strategy cards began as a personal creative aid for two artists. The cards were meant to evolve, improve, and adapt to meet the working needs of the artists over time. In that spirit, I invite you to make your own Oblique Strategy cards, tailor-made to your working process. Print them on tiny cards and call them MicrOblique! Print them oversized and call them MacrOblique! The possibilities are endless.

On the next few pages, I give several of my strategies to use as a springboard. Keep your strategies oblique, open to multiple interpretations. Discard those that don’t work. [Editor’s note: Our abridged version of this article only includes a few examples of the many that are available in the book.]

Oblique Strategies card samples

If you really want to get advanced, designate different cards for different phases of the creative process. Try using attitudinal strategies during predesign and formalist strategies during design. Then switch them around and see what happens.

Starter Strategies

These strategies are simply quotations that inspire me to approach creation from useful perspectives. They are from a variety of sources. I begin with quotations by Eno and Schmidt as a kind of homage. Some of the strategies are slogans of the Situationist art movement that were scrawled throughout the streets of Paris during the riots of May 1968.

Oblique Strategy cards are like stored-up nuggets of provocative wisdom from a centered, thoughtful perspective. Then, when you are engrossed in the minutiae of a project and you can’t see the forest for the trees, you’re able to draw on this wisdom and apply it accordingly. Oblique strategizing is a way of gaining a fresh perspective on your process while still remaining mentally engaged in the nuts and bolts of it.

Don’t Knock It Till you Try It

All of these methods—oblique strategizing, scope plumbing, time-limited designing, and exploratory sketching—take some getting used to. If you try them just once and give up on them, you really haven’t given them a fair shot. New processes and tools can be awkward at first, but once you get past the initial learning curve, they can make you more productive and creative.

Don’t try to evaluate the effectiveness of these methods in the midst of using them. Instead, commit to a method and let it run its course, then look back and assess its effectiveness. All of these methods will need some fine-tuning and customization before they suit your particular media and working practice.

At the same time, if you decide a method isn’t working for you, shelve it. Perhaps you’ll encounter a future project for which it is better suited. The more methods you have at your disposal, the more versatile you are, and the more likely you are to arrive at consistently elegant solutions for a variety of design problems.

Excerpted from Hot-Wiring Your Creative Process: Strategies for print and new media designers by Curt Cloninger. Copyright © 2007. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.

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Curt Cloninger is a writer, teacher, artist, and designer. He is the author of “Hot-Wiring Your Creative Process” (2006) and “Fresh Styles for Web Designers” (2001). His work has been featured in The New York Times and I.D. Magazine, on ABC World News, and at exhibitions from Korea to Brazil. Curt frequently speaks at international art and design conferences, and is a Lecturer of Multimedia Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His sites are lab404.com, playdamage.org, and deepyoung.org.

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