Artefact Cards Blog

Play in the 21st Century

Posted 25 July 2014 by John Willshire

"PLAY is to the 21st century what steam was to the 20th century" - Julian Dibbell

Posted in play, workshops

Me or SuperMe?

Posted 11 July 2014 by John Willshire

Here's a little game to play with Artefact Cards in teams - it's about finding out a little more about each other, and helping people reflect on where they are now, and where they want to be.

Here's the video describing the basic preparation (I use this to send to people in teams I'm working with as the set-up instructions):



Everyone then arrives in the workshop with their four cards ('me' on one side, and the 'superme' they want to become), and you can choose the way that you ask people to share.

Usually, I'll get people to share both their 'me' and 'superme', then other people around the team build on what that person is saying, how they see working with that person from their perspective in the team. It helps people get a real sense, very quickly, of how everyone around them wants to grow, and ambitions they may share.

As a simple exercise like that, it's really useful. There are then more complex builds that you can lay on top, which I'll go into in another post.

I first played it with the guys at Adaptive Lab a few months ago - here's the prep video I made for them, but in this case I actually made the Me & SuperMe based on myself, which as an example probably offers more realistic texture:




Final notes... the name of the game is influenced by various things the excellent Superme stuff that Somethin' Else do for Channel Four

...and the Jonathan Kent speech from Man of Steel, which was the first Superman film I saw as a dad, which is realy interesting.... suddenly all of your empathy switches to lie with Jor-el & Jonathan Kent, as opposed to Superman / Clark Kent - it's about helping someone else grow, as opposed to growing up yourself...




Posted in Artefact Cards, gamestorming, play, visual thinking, workshops

"I write because I don't think we're done"

Posted 9 July 2014 by John Willshire

This brilliant video was sent over by both Ben Ayers & Digby Lewis (it must've popped somewhere yesterday I guess) - it's Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black talking about his creative method, writing all the parts of the film out on individual note cards, then using them all the construct the final framework to write the draft from:

"Each note card should be as pure and singular an idea as possible, because I want to be able to move all the pieces around"



It's the Nabakov method, Burroughs' cut-ups, Bowie's songwriting... a way of working creatively that is both familiar and fresh and new every time I come across it... it's how Artefact works, of course, but I'd be lying if I said I knew that when I made that first set for a workshop.

All the pieces keep moving around, and we find new things. We make, because we don't think we're done.

Posted in Artefact Cards, artefactcards, brainstorms, Dustin Lance Black, visual thinking, workshops, writing

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

How To Design Card Games For Workshops

Posted 17 April 2014 by John Willshire

Using the Artefact Cards during workshops and brainstorms has always been great, but lately I've been trying to push the boundaries a little more on just how playful that can become. 

Specifically, I've been designing activities based on established card games, so that people don't just generate lots of ideas on cards, but continually play with them in new orders and combinations to explore possibilities. 

This helps make the most of all of the ideas generated in a workshop, a lot of which can end up languishing on unloved sticky notes on a wall, or scrawled on a flipchart page.  Rather than trying to make sense of these ideas after the workshop has ended, this approach helps make the most of every asset whilst you're all in the room together.

Here are some principles which have proved helpful in running sessions in this way - hopefully you'll find them useful, and if there are any more you've used or occur to you now, then please do add them in the comments below.


The Importance of Tables

The most obvious place to start is thinking about where you're doing the workshop, what the room is like, who's coming and so on. 

As opposed to standard workshops, in order for the card games you invent to work, you'll need to break people into groups of 4-6, and get them sitting around a table together when it's time to play.

The table becomes really important for groups as a communal space - once ideas are in the middle of tables, just like in card games they become open for anyone to play with, they're less about being the sole property of one person. 

It leads to a more collaborative, fast moving combination of ideas and elements.

It's also worth thinking about keeping those teams together for the duration, rather than mixing and matching.  Together, they'll build up knowledge of what each of the cards means, and any added associations the group develops for the deck they're playing with.  First thing they've got to do is make the deck they'll play with...


Generate, Then Play

Unlike sitting down with a pack of cards and playing a game, there is no pack yet, it has to be created.

Now, this can be done using any idea generation techniques that you're comfortable and familiar with that asks people to write ideas down on small piece of card or paper.  The aim is that in the middle of each table you'll have a stack of ideas that operates as the game deck for each group.

This is not to say that groups can't add to the deck as the session evolves - people can form new ideas that become interesting additions as they play between rounds, and that helps the variation in ideas too.  But as a first step, you'll want a table of four people to be sitting with a pack of 52 cards before playing.

It's also worth making sure you have enough variation with the deck of different sorts of things, and this is where it's handy to think of different ideas and elements as 'suits'...


Making Suits

The combination of different sorts of things will give groups much more chance of finding something interesting from the seemingly unconnected.  You don't have to be hard and fast about having exactly the same number of cards for each of the suits you make, but through the generation stage, you should be thinking about how to ask the groups to come up with different ideas across categories. 

Here are four example ones: Assets, Ideas, Customers & Heroes

- Assets is about the business itself - ask people to pick the three most interesting things they know about that organisation, or the three things that would surprise people the most, or the three stories that are least seldom told.

- Ideas could be the best work that's previously been done, the most compelling things that are on the table now, or the long term dreams that people have always wanted to make happen but haven't as yet.

- Customers is about the people who buy the product or services the company supplies, or even the people who don't yet.  It could be user stories, pen portraits, popular misconceptions held by people, or whatever other people believe the stereotypical user to be like.

- Heroes are the other businesses and brands that the company should learn from, and a specific angle from each - how they run their business, they things they do for customers, they way they create their products, the attitude they convey in communications etc.


These are just examples of course, but they give you an idea of the variety that you'd try to have in one deck. 

In order to generate these suits, take people through one exercise at a time, and once they've created their cards for each suit, ask them to quickly show and tell everyone else around the table their cards.

It doesn't matter if there are overlaps, of course - things that pop up more often could well be more important, so by having more of them in the deck, they get a chance to think about these areas more.

If you do want to find the extreme edges of each 'suit', there is a minigame you can play.  Ask people to make three cards for an area.  Then ask them to lay them down, one at a time. 

They're only allowed to play if the idea they're putting down hasn't been played by someone else.  Then the first person to play all three cards is the winner.  In the past, running through this game twice means you can quickly develop a really broad, nuanced map of a territory.

Once each group has a whole deck in the middle of the table, it's time to play...


Making Games

The games that you're going to make up as part of the workshop aren't going to be exactly like standard card games, of course. 

The cards and suits the teams have created don't have commonly fixed values, for instance. 

But instead, your aim in designing the exercises is to find ways in which people can take and combine different elements that they've generated before, and use them together to form new ideas. 

The way that these ideas are judged against each other can be very subjective, of course - think about the way the winners are picked in Cards Against Humanity for instance, or other similar games where the win condition is quite oblique (I'd like to include a quick thanks to James Wallis here, who first tipped me off to this concept on a sekret projekt we did together).

It's also worth thinking about what 'winning' actually means in your workshop...

Winning in these situations is about discovering previously unexplored ideas and connections as a group.  It's not really about who ends up with the most winning hands at the end of a game, but the ideas you discover together as you play the game.  Though that said, it's amazing to watch the natural, subtle competitiveness of people at play as people push each other into more and more wild ideas...

So, how do you go about designing a game for a workshop like this? 

Here are five useful principles to get you started...


i) Everyone is dealt a hand of ideas

You'll want each person to start with a randomised hand of cards, not just their own ones.  About 6 cards per hand works well.

Because the group have explained what the cards are as they go, there should be knowledge of what they all mean.  What works really nicely is that people are playing with each others' ideas.  Not only are you asked to look at someone else's ideas and build upon them, but by putting your ideas and observations in someone else's hands, it means that when you hear them played back to you in new forms which helps you think afresh.


ii) Design for combinations

What you want to do is create situations where people are asked to take a card from their hand, and combine it with either other cards in their hand, or other cards they can see on the table.  By asking people to make connection between things, they're more likely to come up with interesting new things.

For instance, you can ask people to combine three cards in their hand to describe a new idea for a business, or you could ask them to find the idea in their hand that best fits what has been played by a previous player.

A version that's worked well of this in the past is a turn based game - ask one person to play the 'client', and use three of their cards to define a problem their business has.  Then, ask the other players to solve this buinsees problem by using three of their cards to tell the story of how they'd approach it.  The 'client' then picks the best solution for their problem (and, of course, any useful real world ideas can be noted down, or even turned into additional cards to feed into the deck)


iii) The element of surprise

There are both simple and complex variants you can design around this principle.  At the more engineered end, using the 'hide and reveal' technique from games like Texas Hold 'Em means that players have to think quickly and carefully about the value of the cards that they hold in their hand, reacting to the communal cards on the table as they are revealed.  Think about how you can use cards that have already been created to let people play with the cards in their hands and react to circumstances.

Alternatively, a simple idea is to play 'pairs' (this can be done as groups, or on your own too) - turn all the cards upside down, then turn over two at a time.  Ask each player to come up with an idea based on those two cards.  The player who comes up with the best idea (according to the group) gets to win those cards.


iv) Taking Tricks

Tricks in card games are when a round is played, and somebody picks up those cards as marker for a 'point' won.  In this scenario, think about whather you want these cards to be removed from the game at this stage - if there is a winning idea each round, do you want to preserve it to refer back to later?

Alternatively, you can design games where people win the cards played on the table, and so have a greater hand from which to draw ideas in subsequent rounds.  This may not be as beneficial as it first seems, as once a player gets too many cards, they start to be swamped with possibilities, and can be tempted to stick to the same seemingly powerful cards which soon seem tired as ideas to other players who're judging.



v) Fishing for Ideas

You may well have played games like Go Fish or Happy Families before, where the aim is to ask question of the other players in order to get cards from their hand, in order to complete a set that you have.

With a deck cards such as these though, a straight copy of these games would be difficult, but the principle of asking something of another player, and recieving a card in return is interesting to play with.

Towards the end of the workshop session, get players to each put together a six card set that to them would represent the strongest idea the group has come up with.  Now let people choose one card from each other's hand blind, and go round the table once so that everyone has a slightly tweaked idea they have to present back to the group.

What will be interesting here is not just if the alien card improves the idea as set out (it may well not), but which component cards of the idea are strongest - through discussion, the group will discover which cards are the aces in the pack.



Hopefully this gives you some helpful ways to start thinking about using simple card game principles in workshops to play with ideas.  As I said before, would love to hear of any other builds and ideas, whether you've used Artefact Cards before or not - just drop them in to the comments section below.

Happy playing... and good luck.




If you want a good place to go for inspiration on card game rules, why not try here at Pagat.



Posted in Artefact Cards, artefactcards, boxes, brainstorms, card games, card sorting, cards, gamestorming, workshops

1 2 3 10 Next »