Artefact Cards Blog

Writing By Hand = Better Learning, More Ideas

Posted 8 July 2014 by John Willshire

There's a fascinating article in the New York Times, about the power of writing by hand rather than by keyboard (via Dougald Hine - thanks Dougald)

The whole thing's worth reading, but two things to pull out... firstly, writing by hand specifically helps with teh writing process:

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”

So as those fine folks over at Field Notes put it:


Secondly, it's not just about the learning aspect which 

In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product.

When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.

And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.


I see this all the time in workshops using the Artefact Cards. Give people a sharpie and a pack of cards, and the ideas just keep on coming. With teams we've worked with over an extended duration, as the method becomes more familiar, the ideas come quicker too. It doesn't take long to end up with a table of crunchy, useful, mapped out ideas.

I do wonder how much productivity and opportunity we lose in organisations by endlessly bashing away on keyboards, writing emails and PowerPoint decks. It's not just children that need to write by hand, as the article points out:

"For adults, typing may be a fast and efficient alternative to longhand, but that very efficiency may diminish our ability to process new information."

As with all things, it's a question of balance. Fittingly, you could perhaps steal a leaf from Austin Kleon's excellent Steal Like An Artist in which he describes how he's set up an analogue desk (paper, pen, cards, scissors etc) where he creates ideas, and a digital desk (devices, laptops etc) where he edits and 'publishes' those ideas to push out into the world.

You can read the whole article here. Then grab a pen, and write down the first ideas that come to you...

Posted in Artefact Cards, brainstorms, cards, drawing, visual thinking, workshops

Global Grid Testing: Argentina & Brazil

Posted 1 July 2014 by John Willshire

We launched the Artefact Cards Global Grids last week, a set that was initially inspired by the World Cup, but then morphed (as these things tend to around these parts) into an exploration of how the different grid and pattern styles common in the idea creation stages of different cultures can change how we think, and make, ideas.

As always, though, I don't think you can really know what something is truly for, or how it works, until you play around with it. Thinking with your fingers, let's say. So I took delivery of the first boxes off the line at the weekend, and all this week (and possibly next) I'll be testing them out, and recording what happens here. It's hard, of course, to objectively evaluate your own working method, but I can heartily recommend trying.

Yesterday, I was using two different sets in a series of client interviews, to note down and describe different things as they occurred in conversation.

I've always used drawing to help explain what I mean (the major benefit of a background in Economics perhaps), and nowadays with the cards that's just easier to make these little drawings come to life in conversations; they become commmunal things on the table, rather than things jotted in one person's notebook.

Anyway, to the grids; how did these two packs influence the way I worked?

First up, Brazil:

The design on these is quite left-field (which is what happens when you design them with someone who's four and three-quarters - see the product page for more on that). The yellow side is more subtle, but when you see them in real life, it looks like you're staring down on the top of a pyramid.

Because it's quite subtle, I found that I could just use it as a standard card whenever I wanted too, but in doing that it seemed to 'pop' a bit more. I don't know if it's the three-dimensional aspect lending it more presence, or just the feeling that it feels more 'designed', but it's really pleasing either which way.

I also found myself occasionally going with the lines, rather than ignoring them, to explore the relationship between two different things. For future designs though, it feels that for this to work properly, I'd need to replicate the top left corner in the bottom right.


The green side of the cards are different, more leading. Based on the Brazilian flag, the card is neatly segmented into a centre and four corners. You can of course use it as a normal card, and it just acts as a background to the words and pictures again. It's a little less subtle and pleasing than using the yellow side for that though.

Where the green side really comes into its own is as a directional device to separate central themes into four sections, or group four ideas under one heading. I found myself sweating ideas a little bit harder, trying to work out what the fourth part might be, or what things might be brought under one banner. It's a devious little nudge (and an unintended one, I have to admit), but it just pushes your brain a little more.

Of course, you have to wath out you're not just forcing it for the sake of it, but all in all, I'm really pleased with what it seem to do.It seems to work having a subtler, 'all-purpose' side, and a more pronounced side with might be for something. Will wait for feedback from other users to see if they find the same.

The second pack I tried out was Argentina:

Now, the blue side was a reprise of the Ice Blue Grid pattern from Winter 2013, but this time around it's a slightly darker blue, for two reasons.

Firstly, it's more in keeping with the Argentian colours (a lovely blue in its own right). Secondly, we've established (in making cards for the last two-plus years) that how much ink you put on them makes a structural difference to the cards. If a colour is too light, it needs less ink to guide it away from the white card, and so the card feels flimsier. Just, but enough. Tina spotted this first; thanks Tina.

Anyway, it turns out I really like the new blue. The black sharpie still punches out nicely on it, and the thin white graph offers even more guidance than before (by increased contrast). Looking back at other cards I've made recently, I can instantly see not just the effect that the graph has on the drawings, but also on the sizing and spacing of letters and words.

Things just tend to end up the same size, equally balanced with each other. I guess it'd really help people who're less usre about drawing and writing well on the cards. It also makes you feel that you're working in a way that is a bit more scientific; on the one hand, that's a bit daft and irrational, but on the other to be completely expected I guess, as we're all a bit daft and irrational.

As much as I like the blue side though, I'm in love with the orange graph, inspired by Argentinian papel milimitrado.


Using a light coloured graph on a white background is something we've not done before, and if anything it produces more punch than the blue cards. I ended up using blue graph for headers, and orange graph for content, as I could still write and draw relatively small, yet retain stand-out. Additionally, every small box is a millimetre long, and thus every larger box is a centimetre. So it's a nice impromptu ruler as well, should you need it.

Another lovely aspect was the effect of the pen on the card as I drew lines across it. I could feel the pattern of the graph under the pen, which I hadn't expected at all; imagine a tiny version of drawing on corrugrated card as a kid.

It was funny how the sensation connected me more to the cards, I'm struggling to fully explain it perhaps, but there was more of a sense of 'thereness'. Perhaps will live too much of our working lives on smooth glass surfaces now? Dunno, again it's one to see what other people feel when using them.

One added benefit of using graph became apparent; it makes you more likely to idly play with the cards, and move them around, as you start lining up the graph boxes on different cards at different angles and positions (especially, if like me, you can find yourself prone to idle pattern making or what might even be mild OCD).

The graph makes you move the cards around, but in doing so, inadvertently brings you to new combinations of the ideas on the cards. The abilty to continually move around and play with cards is fast becoming the most popular reason people reference when i ask what they love about them.

Anyway, that's it so far. The Global Grid boxes start shipping this week, and if you've already ordered or plan to, I'd love to hear from you (email here) on how you find the cards make your work differently, either in comparison to normal Artefact Cards or just in general for your working practice.

More testing results later this week.

Posted in Artefact, Artefact Cards, artefactcards, blank cards, brainstorms, cards, design, drawing, gamestorming, Interview, play, thinking, UX, UXcafe, visu, visual thinking, vizthinking, We Are Aqueduct, wireframing, workshops

Artefact Interview - John Maeda

Posted 20 May 2014 by John Willshire

I'm utterly thrilled to kick off our next series of Artefact Interviews with John Maeda

John is a Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and previously served as the 16th President of the Rhode Island School of Design from 2008 to 2013. He was Professor and Associate Director of Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory from 1996 to 2008, and a researcher and software engineer at the International Media Research Foundation from 1990 to 1996. He serves on the Board of Directors of Sonos, Inc. and Wieden+Kennedy, and he chairs the eBay Design Advisory Council. Dr. Maeda received a B.S. and an M.S. from MIT, an M.B.A. from Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. in Design Science from the University of Tsukuba Institute of Arts and Design in Japan. 


Hi John. In preparation this interview, I reread your 2006 book The Laws Of Simplicity. Is "achieving simplicity in the digital age" still a personal mission for you?

As with all things in life, it’s changed. At the time I wrote LOS, it was just at the moment when digital technology was outpacing our needs for what it can do. Yahoo! had fallen behind Google, but Google hadn’t completely won yet. The Apple iPod had just begun to take off, but the iPhone hadn’t arrived yet. And as one reader pointed out to me recently, I refer to using DVDs to watch movies – which is becoming an increasingly irrelevant reference. So with all the changes that have happened, my personal mission has changed. Quite frankly, I’m trying to figure out what that mission is right now, but what I’m certain of is that it isn’t just about simplicity.

So you've been off exploring in different directions?

Yes. I wrote a subsequent book to LOS entitled Redesigning Leadership. In 2008 after becoming a college president, I started to wonder about how large organizations are managed and led. LOS assumed the frame of the designer/maker who is able to control most or all aspects of his or her creative practice. A leader doesn’t design a product, but instead designs (and re-designs) a community – which is never a simple task. So I guess I now prefer complexity (= people).

As I went through the first three laws (Reduce, Organize, Time), I realised that these arguably form the basis of what I think makes Artefact Cards work. Perhaps this what drew you to the Artefact Cards, subconsciously or otherwise?

Starting a few years ago, I was already using cards because I felt that post-it notes were too constraining. I would buy packs of playing cards and stick post-it notes on their faces to draw on them. They were naturally pleasurable to shuffle, and I could use them to Organize content quickly. I was happy to find Artefact Cards as they were what I was really looking for.

Can you recall what train of thought took you there?

It was primarily because I needed to slide information around a table easier, and post-it notes didn’t do the job. Also, a post-it note is flimsy and over time becomes unusable due to wear.

My interest was specifically piqued by the SLIP method you describe (Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritise).  Working hard at organising ideas properly once they're out is more than half the battle; paying attention to the way elements relate to others around then.  The SLIP method demands you work at things once they're out.  Do you still use it?

Yes, all the time. And now I can do it with Artefact Cards!

You highlight the importance of that which may be lost in the design process; the peripheral stuff that falls by the wayside at an early stage, and doesn't return. By having everything out on the table, your eye can be caught by something at the other side, you get that 'aha' moment as you connect two things together. I don't feel digital does peripheral vision very well, not yet at any rate.  Have you seen anything in the digital space that tries to address this?

I like that thought – that working with all the Artefact Cards at once allows for the periphery sense to be engaged. In my opinion, on-screen experiences can’t do this because the screen size is bounded. There’s always an edge to your peripheral vision. Yes, I know you can use scroll bars and zoomable spaces, etc. But there’s nothing like having a card slip off the edge of a table to remind you that there’s an entire floor to work on too, in addition to the table (smile).

Finally, it's 2014, and we still use a lot of paper, pens, sticky notes, Artefact Cards... can you see a time when other technologies replace these things.

I think that as long as we have a head attached to our bodies, we’ll always be able to use physical space – and want to live in it. Paper, pens, sticky notes are all artifacts of life. Or maybe they are all important artefacts, to use your word.


A million thanks to John for his time and thoughts. You can follow him here on twitter, and his Creative Leadership blog is currently one of my top reads every week. Currently, John's rocking the Mixed Colour set of Artefact Cards for Desk:



Posted in Artefact Cards, brainstorms, Design, drawing, gamestorming, John Maeda, play, visual thinking, Workshops

Superheroes, Origin Stories and Artefact Cards

Posted 3 October 2013 by John Willshire

My talk today from Best of Britannia, a show of the finest in British Design and Manufacturing.  It's about Origin Stories, both from the perspective of the retelling of Superhero stories, and the power of making things in Britain:


Superheroes, Origin Stories & Artefact Cards - Best Of Britannia 2013 from John V Willshire
We're also running a wee Artefact stall there over Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so if you're in the area (four minutes from Farringdon Station) then please pop in and say hello (we're on the second floor):

Posted in Artefact, Artefact Cards, artefactcards, batman, batman begins, blank cards, brainstorms, cards, design, drawing, man of steel, superhero, superman, visual thinking, workshops

New Box - our final prototype

Posted 19 August 2013 by John Willshire

After what must be nearly three months of work, we've cracked the new box prototype. 

To say we're delighted would be an understatement.

Into production very soon, expect them in September...

Posted in Artefact, Artefact Cards, artefactcards, blank cards, brainstorms, cards, design, drawing, play, UX, UXcafe, visual thinking, wireframing, workshops

Artefact Cards - 10 minute talk at UXCafe

Posted 16 August 2013 by John Willshire

Continue Reading →

Posted in Artefact, Artefact Cards, artefactcards, blank cards, brainstorms, cards, design, drawing, UX, UXcafe, visual thinking, vizthinking, wireframing, workshops

A Vision of the Future

Posted 27 July 2013 by John Willshire

The guys over at Imperica ran a wee competition over the last month of so to draw a vision of the future - the prize for which was a Deluxe Box of Artefact Cards.  The winner was Tiana Sinclair, who drew this stunning piece here:

That box of Artefact Cards is winging it's way to you, Tiana, so don't worry, the future won't be all screen-based if we can do anything about it.

Posted in Artefact, Artefact Cards, artefactcards, design, drawing, imperica