Posted by: Liz Massey | September 26, 2010

Stacking the Deck: Using Cards and Toys to Enhance Creativity

Can commercially produced or self-made creativity cards spark new ideas? (Photo courtesy of Andy Eklund.)

Today, I’ve assembled a “virtual” panel discussion on the use of creativity-focused card decks and toys to enhance creativity. The four experts who participated have varied experiences with card decks and toys, and bring interesting insights into how to use them to nurture new ideas and innovative approaches to creative projects or business issues.

My virtual panel line-up consists of:

  • Marcy Nelson-Garrison, a certified professional co-active coach and president of Coaching Toys Inc.
  • Andy Eklund, a communications trainer, owner of the Australian consultancy AQUS and author of the blog Creative Streak.
  • Peter Wachtel, a professional toy/product designer and head of KID Toyology.
  • Quinn McDonald, an artist, writer, trainer, certified creativity coach, and author of the blog QuinnCreative.

Tell us about your work with creativity and your experiences with creativity-centric card decks and toys.

Nelson-Garrison: My work in this area is two fold.  I am an advocate of creative tools and toys through my online store I also work as a creativity coach and product mentor helping heart-centered solopreneurs create transformational products and programs.

Marcy Nelson-Garrison

Eklund: I’ve worked in public relations and communications training for 26 years, starting in Chicago.  My first real work in creativity began in 1996 when I was hired as creative director for Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations agency. My work with Burson took me to New York, then to Sydney, Australia. A few years ago, I set up my own creative consultancy called Aqus.

I’ve always used creativity decks and toys, generally in brainstorm sessions.  Once I joined the creative team at Burson, I began incorporating them more often simply because I had more clients (and thus, more brainstorms).

To me, creativity decks are one of the most adaptable and flexible creative techniques.  In plain old English, they stimulate the brain to make ideas …. Another thing I like about creativity cards:  they’re infinitely adaptable.  It’s easy to create games and exercises around the images, and I’ve seem them in lots of different formats.

Andy Eklund

Watchel: I have been a toy designer, inventor and teacher for over 15 years, and have worked with some of the best toy companies and design education institutions around. I have worked on and designed every kind of toy from boys to girls to preschool, as well as video games.

Peter A. Wachtel

McDonald: Creativity happens all the time if we let it, so my job as a training designer and instructor is to let creativity happen. I teach adults writing and public speaking, and most people fear both because if they don’t do it right, they will fail in public. Games, toys and cards help a lot in learning skills in ways that are fun. As adults, we learn best when we are having fun.

Quinn McDonald

Name and describe briefly 2 or 3 of your favorite toys or card decks.

Nelson-Garrison: I divide creativity toys & card decks into two kinds of stimulus – cognitive and visual. One of my favorite in the cognitive camp is Roger Von Oechs Creative Whack Pack.  Each card offers a new way to think about the problem you are trying to solve or the project you are working on.

I also like KnowBrainer by SolutionPeople. This tool walks you through steps to investigate your problem, generate ideas, evaluate ideas and implement ideas – definitely a full-service tool.

Eklund: At the moment, I’m using several different types.

From magazines, I’ve created informal creativity cards using photographs and images. I keep them in a large file in my desk drawer, and I usually have between 200-250 images at a time.  I pull them out whenever I need some easy stimulus, sitting alone and brainstorming at my desk.  I also take them to brainstorm sessions for creativity games and techniques, or at least, as decoration on walls or the tables.   A few days ago, I used them to create a mood board for a client brainstorm.

I’ve also developed “electronic cards” – one of our staff scanned a bunch of the more interesting and provocative images.  Now we have an electronic version of the image file in my desk drawer.  I can play them as a slide show on my laptop during a brainstorm – sometimes as part of a specific exercise, other times nothing more than wallpaper during a break or over lunch.

Postcards: I’m big into collecting postcards.  There isn’t a coffee shop in Sydney – or probably all of Australia, for that matter – which doesn’t have a big rack full of postcards advertising a wide variety of companies, non-profit events, theater showings, arts events and community activities.

Andy Eklund's Australian postcard collection helps spark new creative inisghts.

Wachtel: My favorite toys are Spider-Man action figures and the PS2 gaming system.

McDonald: My favorite deck for learning is one that shows diagrams for old patent applications. I use the cards in several ways:

  • Teamwork: each group of three people get one card and have to decide what it is and how it can be used in their lives today.
  • Technical writing: Each person gets a card and has to describe what it is, what it is used for and how it works.
  • Copywriting, persuasive writing: Working individually, each person has to write an ad or a marketing campaign persuading people to buy the device.
  • Explanatory writing: Two people each get a card. Each person has to write instructions to allow the other person to draw the device.

Another favorite card pack is Roger van Oech’s Whack Pack, a companion piece to his book, A Whack on the Side of the Head. The pack has 64 cards, each focusing on a different creative path. These cards represent four roles: Explorer, Artist, Judge and Warrior – all to force new thinking.

In public speaking classes, people are assigned a card and told their audience is now filled with these people. How does that change the approach, the choice of examples, and their vocabulary? I use it early on to show presenters how important it is to a successful presentation to know your audience.

As a creativity coach, I often use these cards (or versions people make in my workshop, Playing with a Full Deck) for perspective work—helping creative people see their work in a new way. For example, there is a card in the van Oech’s pack called “Change the Name.” If an artist is working with the visual image of a door, it might represent one thing, but calling it a passageway, entry, exit, or cross-ventilation sparks new ideas.

How do these favorite decks/toys promote creative thinking or action?

Nelson-Garrison: The Whack Pack offers cognitive exercises that challenge assumptions, shift perspectives and help you put things together in new ways. Cards that are imagery based bypass that inner critic, tap into the field of intuition and open new vistas.

Eklund: Any image is a great way to spark ideas because it helps makes connections between random thoughts to create a unique third idea.  And because everyone seems an image differently – either figuratively or literally – they’re great for people to personalize to their own thoughts and emotions.

Wachtel: Toys enable the user to pretend, think, imagine, create and play what they cannot be in real life. They are able to act out new ways of being and build new worlds.

Are any downsides to using cards or toys to facilitate the creative process?

Nelson-Garrison: I don’t see a downside at all. Creativity toys and tools are one way to introduce stimulus to get the mind moving in new directions.

Almost anything can act as a stimulus. You could pull out your spice rack and let that be the stimulus. For example: choose a spice that represents a strength you have. Pepper, lemon zest, sage, parsley – could each send you in a different direction.

Eklund: Creativity cards don’t work as well for “left-brained people.”  For people who prefer or default to a more rational thought pattern, it’s hard for them to look at a picture of an eagle and see anything other than an eagle.

Sometimes I have a client whose organizational culture just doesn’t fit with toys, so creativity cards are a nice springboard to other games.

Wachtel: I see no downsides, as long as you have imagination and not get too caught up in the toy.

McDonald: There are always downsides, even to chocolate. Cards or toys are tools, not answers. The game is not an end in itself, but a beginning of a new way of learning.

Most businesses are very competitive, so winning can easily become the goal, instead of learning. I have to spend some time in each class managing the concepts of “winning” and the “winning team,” who often assume they are the “best” because of speed – not because of the depth of learning, or application of the learning.

Do you think having clients/students/etc. design their own card decks or toys would be equally useful?

Nelson-Garrison: Making your own cards could be a really fun way to get students or clients thinking about metaphors and different kinds of stimulus. I think it would make creativity fun and easy and they would have a sense of ownership over the process.

Eklund: Absolutely.  At Burson, one year all of the creative directors got involved making our own proprietary creativity decks – even creating our own logo to put on the backside of the individual cards.  We used Burson’s advertising and design team to create the cards, using stylish graphics, photographs and typography art – some of which we purchased, some of which we designed ourselves.

We made about 500 sets of 60 cards each, and gave a set to each office at the time.  They’re a beautiful set of cards, but the one thing I don’t like about them is how I treat them with too much reverence.  I much prefer to use images or post-cards because they’re more informal.

Wachtel: Yes, it is all about knowledge – if you design something you will find out first-hand how to overcome obstacles, learn and apply creativity in life.

McDonald: I do believe it’s a good idea. I teach a class called Playing with a Full Deck, in which participants design a deck of cards. Creativity comes from the act of creation, so making your own cards allows for individual design decisions, experimentation, adaptation, and problem solving.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this topic that we haven’t covered?

Nelson-Garrison: Yes. I feel that creativity needs permission and stimulus. Permission is really important. You could have the best tool in the world, but if you don’t give yourself permission to play, experiment, and withhold judgment during the creative process, you won’t get very far.

McDonald: Creativity is something we all have. Creativity comes with responsibility—in our culture, that responsibility is often mistakenly translated to monetizing success. “Can you sell that? For how much?” is the question that scares creativity away because the creator wasn’t focused on selling a product. The creator might have just wanted to play with an idea, a process.

Creativity is about meaning making. We don’t find meaning in life, we make meaning in life. And meaning-making is not necessarily connected to selling.


  1. […] Stacking the Deck: Using Cards and Toys to Enhance Creativity […]

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