Great Moments in Card Deck History (and what they teach us about Visual Thinking)

This article was originally written for XBLOG - the original visual thinking blog by XPLANE.

What do the Table of Elements, the first IBM computer, and the novel Lolita have in common? Before they were icons of human achievement, they were card decks.

What gives card decks this unique power to create new meaning in the world? The basis of visual thinking is the analysis (i.e. disaggregation) of a complex idea into “nodes”, followed by the synthesis (i.e. reintegration) of those “nodes” through “links” into a new meaningful whole. At the most basic level, cards are “nodes” in search of “links”. Card decks as a problem-solving tool are powerful because we often know the parts of a problem or solution, but we don’t yet know how they fit together in an insightful way.

Dmitri Mendeleev was the first scientist to order the elements by atomic mass, resulting in what is now the periodic table. Mendeleev carried a deck of cards – each with an element and some of its known properties – using time on train rides to play “chemical solitaire” and look for patterns. 

Dmitri Mendeleev was the first scientist to order the elements by atomic mass, resulting in what is now the periodic table. Mendeleev carried a deck of cards – each with an element and some of its known properties – using time on train rides to play “chemical solitaire” and look for patterns. 

Visual Thinking Tip: When looking for a pattern or structure to bring meaning to complex information, break information into movable nodes and seek multiple possible configurations until the relationships within the system comes into focus.

Herman Hollerith developed a machine that could tabulate statistics by reading information encoded on physical cards through the placement of holes in a grid. Hollerith’s invention revolutionized the field of data statistics and marked the beginning of the computing age. His Tabulating Machine Company later became IBM.

Herman Hollerith developed a machine that could tabulate statistics by reading information encoded on physical cards through the placement of holes in a grid. Hollerith’s invention revolutionized the field of data statistics and marked the beginning of the computing age. His Tabulating Machine Company later became IBM.

Visual Thinking Tip: “Code” your individual cards in as many ways as possible, using symbols and colors to categorize information. Structure may later emerge from this metadata.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of many novels including Lolita, composed his work using an index card-based method, assembling stories in fragments. In an interview with The Paris Review, Nabokov described his card method: “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done. My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”

Vladimir Nabokov, author of many novels including Lolita, composed his work using an index card-based method, assembling stories in fragments. In an interview with The Paris Review, Nabokov described his card method: “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done. My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”

Visual Thinking Tip: Save your thoughts in fragments – a memorable quote, a midnight brainstorm, a crucial statistic, a sketch – to maintain a pool of content that can be assembled or reassembled for multiple possible uses. Communicating your ideas to audiences that vary in their perspectives and needs is much easier when you can rapidly pull the most relevant content or storytelling approach for each audience. 

Faceoff: Decks vs. Books vs. Post-it Notes

When should a set of information take the form of a deck, versus something else? Decks have capabilities no other form has. Let’s compare decks with two other dominant forms: books and post-it notes.

Faceoff: Decks vs. Books 

  • Books are for narrative storytelling when sequence matters vs. Decks are for capturing a complete set of possibilities and for situations where sequence does not matter or multiple sequences are valuable.
  • Books are organized for findability vs. Decks are organized for discovery.
  • Most “complete thoughts” are still contained in books and articles, but the world is changing quickly - we are unbinding knowledge. The internet has transformed us into multi-linked nodal consumers. We move from page to page, linked in myriad ways. Many books on the shelves of book shops and libraries probably could be more valuable if they were decks.

Faceoff: Decks vs. Post-its

  • Post-its start with a blank card vs. Decks start with a universe of options.
  • Post-its are generative vs. Decks are selective.
  • Post-its are an open set vs. Decks are a closed set.
  • In practice, Post-its draw upon the knowledge in a room vs. Decks bring expert knowledge a the room, while still leaving control over how that knowledge applies to the people in the room.

Seven Motions: How We Interact With Decks

When designing decks, it's helpful to consider how we interact with them so we can take advantage of all their amazing characteristics. There are seven motions when interacting with decks: four "randomizers" and four "sensemakers". 

The Randomizers: Shuffle, Deal, Draw, and Flip

The Sensemakers: Sort/Group/Stack, Sequence/Rank, and Compare/Combine

(4th in the series)