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5. Competitive Benchmarking

So... I'm developing a deck of cards! A format that was selected in direct response to the detangling of my own practice, and my desire to create a resource that was non-preachy and non-linear - i.e. a modular and flexible tool relevant to the widest possible audience. So although the rationale for utilising this form factor didn't emerge as a result of what is already out there, this product is now, well... about to be out there! ...and it will be walking the same planes and grazing on the same grass as some other creatures in this arena, both great and small. It is therefore crucial at this stage to take a look at the card-based toolkits that are already out there in order to see how they fare - Who are they aimed at? How are they received? ...and what gaps in the market are there?

The Big Hitters

Starting at the top of the food chain, here we have two of the biggest hitters out there. Method Kit, and the IDEO Method Cards:

Method Kit boasts a wide range of decks (over 45 analog kits - and counting) to suit a wide variety of workflows. They also boast a strong customer base, with the likes of Apple, Google, Disney, Spotify, etc cited as users of their toolkits.

The cards themselves feature a simple design, a key ingredient, a short description, and simple vector graphic iconography to clarify what each card is prompting the user to think about. The depiction of how they are used, time and time again, looks just like this...

IDEO's Method Cards are not too dissimilar, although they seemingly exhibit a more abstract approach to card-based prompts. IDEO Method Cards are a tool to showcase methods they use (as an org) to inspire great design and keep people at the center of their design process. Each of the 51 cards describes one method and includes a brief story about how and when to use it.

They are not a "how to" guide - it's a design tool meant to explore new approaches and help you develop your own. The deck can be used to gain a new perspective, inspire a team, turn a corner, or try a new approach.

Created in response to requests from clients, colleagues, students, and teachers, IDEO Method Cards are intended as inspiration for practicing and aspiring designers, as well as those seeking a creative spark in their work.

"I use the Method Cards mainly as tools for process design. They are great for groups who are working on solving a particular 'How do we get from here to there?' kind of problem." - Craig Pelkey Landes, Fast Company

A lovely sentiment, and one I'm keen to keep in mind for the developing Making Sense. On the whole, the products available at the high-end of the commercial chain exist as part of a wider sector, so unlike my own, they’re not just targeted at individuals within the creative/media industry, but also business strategists and project coordinators.

And with this wider sector as its target audience, we can see products that come across as somewhat faceless with their branding... This is something that I want to avoid where I can, and my approach is much more focused on Making Sense becoming the opposite of faceless resource, as it’s an artefact that aims to materialse my own personal workflow; it's a personalised brand. Not only that but more importantly it's a resource that will champion the workflows of other Making Sense users, and (as per audience probes last week) it is a resource that will need to help people cement their creative identity. So, Making Sense will be very much about faces, allllll kinds of faces - you could say... a community even.

Another thing I started to analyse for the first time in this fieldwork process as a result of this competitive benchmarking is the market value of such card-based toolkit products. The price points for the specific examples above definitely reflects a market of individuals with a higher earning power.

The average UK day rate for strategic consultants (the target audience of the likes of METHOD KIT and IDEO) - is £500. The average day rate for creatives, (as enforced by the likes of Arts Councils across the UK, and the target of the likes of Making Sense), - is £250. So given the average earning power of my target audience, I’m likely looking to aim the cost of my product around half of the average of these corporate commercial products shown here. At the most! I’m sure this will evolve as I get closer to manufacture for sale, but I feel that this is a good calibration point to start from at least.

This is something I intend to remain sensitive to as the development of Making Sense progresses over the next few months, because, well... this customer review of the IDEO cards says it all really...

Too expensive to use it the way it's intended. Those words are going to live with me throughout the remainder of this fieldwork process - because THAT would be a tragedy...

An Emerging Grassroots Community.

I took a look at the wider market of card-based toolkits, and as a result I found a blossoming grassroots community for this kind of product also! Here are some independent examples, of which span wider contexts then the previous commercial front-runners we've looked at some far.

What's Your Story? - What's your Story is a well-known and popular deck of cards amongst the grassroots facilitator community, and cited as a very effective product for group workshops engagements - from icebreaker activities right the way through to playing the role of a memory prop. This was amongst one of the more fascinating grassroots examples for me, not so much on the contents of the deck itself, but the way it is described and who it's aimed at. Self-styled as a 'card game', this enabled the makers to broaden the horizon on who this product could be marketed at (i.e. professional contexts, but also home entertainment and recreation!). This makes it one of the most wide-reaching products of its kind that I've seen so far. Codecks - An interesting card platform that exists within a digital realm. Emblazoned with the tagline "Playful Planning". This tool is aimed at game developers and serves as a product management tool that works modularly which is well suited to the nature of game development, with its many multidisciplinary components and diverse team coordination requirements. Listening - The first in a 12-part series, Listening by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a pocketbook about her personal journey with listening and her heart's poetry. The book includes a deck of cards with listening exercises and prompts. Together, this set encourages the practice of listening within. This is the first card-based resource (grassroots OR commercial) that actually places the identity of a practitioner behind them. They are an artefact that materialises a specific element of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's professional practice, and this really does chime with me (as if I haven't been banging on about this enough in regards to my rationale for Making Sense eh).

Facilitator Cards - Meg and Sam, a Kickstarter funded duo are the creators of these cards, that is emblazoned with the uniquely powerful tagline - "A deck for you, not your participants". I was immediately struck by the dual function of these cards. A top panel containing the key information and or a description of the purpose of that card, followed by (on most of the cards) a blank dry-wipe space to doodle/add bullets to as you engage with the cards themselves. I quite like the idea of the cards having a dual-use, i.e. not just serving as modular tangible signposts, but in this case they also provide a dedicated space for responding to them, giving them the power of owning and governing the whole experience of working with the cards. In response to this - I do wonder if there's other ways this can be achieved with card-based toolkits? How can cards become more than just cards? How can they enhance the experience of using them by generating mindful and even ludic environments for engaging with them? All of the above shows that the appetite for this kind of modular resource really is quite far-reaching, and aimed at a wide variety of sectors. Many of which featured on my own sector map (freelancers, facilitators, coordinators, etc).

...and while searching at this grassroots level I came across a really nice Medium article by Paul McGregor who had rather transparently shared why they like and value card-based toolkits, which has served as a valuable piece of incidental organic market research for Making Sense. McGregor's 3 core value points were:

These are things that I will be keeping in mind. Card-based toolkits aren’t just a practical resource, they have the potential to be a desirable artifact as well, and one that seemingly validates a decent price-point for them as physical products - with the average grassroots price points for card-based toolkits sitting at around £20 - £40; 50 - 75% cheaper than the more high-end Method Kit products… and as I had earlier anticipated, aligns much more with the earning power of my target audience.

I have to say all this talk of desirable artifacts that are beautiful to look at and make you feel special when you use them - It certainly begins to skirt the same mindset as collectibles and limited merch - and given that I’m striving to take a non-faceless approach, this is a very relevant ingredient to consider in the design and marketing of Making Sense; a visual beauty to increase its desirability is going to be important.

A History of Cards.

These kinds of resources are not a new idea within the creative sector. They are not a new trend or a current fad. Not one bit. Let's jump back a few decades to arguably one of the most famous contemporary examples of cards for creatives.

Oblique strategies, by Brian Eno.

Each card contains a gnomic suggestion, aphorism or remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. A few are specific to music composition; others are more general. For example:

  • Use an old idea.

  • Only one element of each kind.

  • What would your closest friend do?

  • What to increase? What to reduce?

  • Are there sections? Consider transitions.

  • Try faking it!

  • Honour thy error as a hidden intention.

  • Ask your body.

  • Work at a different speed.

  • Gardening not Architecture.

As quoted from the introduction to the 2001 edition of these cards:

"These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognised in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated. They can be used as a pack, 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..." - Oblique Strategies

It has to be said, their influence on pop culture was quite remarkable. Used famously by David Bowie in the creation of at least 4 of his albums, it is a resource that is very much respected by many thought leaders within the arts and music industries.

"At the Center for Performing Arts at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where I teach, on the wall are Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. And when my students get a mental block, I immediately direct them to that wall." - Carlos Alomar

Let's jump back even further, and not just in time, but outside of the context of cards for creativity.

The history of cards is commonly perceived as one that is highly grounded in shamanistic or ritualistic origins. This is somewhat true, with the emergence of Tarot cards in the 15th century. But something preceded Tarot. Something that is still around to this day. Playing cards.

The oldest surviving cards in the world are four fragments found in the Keir Collection and one in the Benaki Museum. They are dated to the 12th and 13th centuries (late Fatimid, Ayyubid, and early Mamluk periods). But playing cards are believed to go back as far as the 8th century. At this rate, if there's any common thread to EVERY card-based reference throughout this post - it's got to be the theme of games.

McGregor was right, gamification is an important aspect of cards - they serve that role in many forms, and they deal in this well.

Testing Existing Products

After all of this outward-facing benchmarking, I simply had to take a look at some of these existing decks myself, first hand. I decided to get a hold of two decks in particular, of which represent a sort of middle zone between the big-hitting commercial front runners, and the more grassroots resources. Introducing Intuiti and Fabula.

Both of these toolkits are actually created by the same independent publisher - Sefirot - they obviously managed to market themselves towards my interests eh, ya got me twice guys!

So when they arrived I spent a day looking over each deck; its ingredients, and the systems for using them.

The first thing that struck me about each of these decks comparatively is that one is much more abstract, and the other is much more direct with what each card portrays. Intuiti dispenses with the idea of hard structure and adopts a process that relies much more on the subconscious/unconscious mind in order to unstick mental blocks and provide creative inspiration. As a result, the guideance for these cards is very minimal.

Fabula on the other hand was much more the modular building block toolkit that I like in cards - and again the reason I wanted to create Making Sense! It features 3 discrete card categories and a spatialised framework for using them:

I'd say I actually want to plot myself a line between these two decks. Because I find both of these elements really appealing. The gestalt psychology behind Intuiti evokes sudden subconscious concepts and ideas, which comes very close to the feeling of reaching out to the gods of creativity. Fabula, feels much more logical, instructive, and modular; a rugged framework and a reliable foundation for systemic ideas. These truly do feel like the two elements I want to encapsulate within Making Sense. My own belief as a creative practitioner is that it's my ability for organisation and structure which I credit for giving me the ability to assemble abstract but novel creative workflow formulas for my own projects - to put it simply - I don't like to build my creatives houses on sand. The signposting of very clear and direct ingredients (á la Fabula) would lend itself well to organisation and structure - one of the core purposes for Making Sense. The signposting of more abstract ingredients (á la Intuiti) would lend itself well to the stimulation of creative ideas - the other element that Making Sense is striving to support users with. This is what I want to trial in the very first draft of the cards. However - how this shapes up exactly will become more clear as I enter the participatory design trials of my live fieldwork project.


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