Lateral Creative Disruptors
FELIX OPPEN ON OBLIQUE STRATEGIES
Anyone involved in creation for work or play, designers, artists, musicians, architects, engineers and the like will at one time or another will face a block, a creative block. it might be complete, the proverbial blank sheet of paper on which ideas refuse to appear, think Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in the The Shining, or it might be a single track, train of thought, line of reasoning that obviously leading nowhere is nevertheless somehow inescapable.
Most of us have strategies for dealing with these terrors, for sometimes in can be quite terrifying. These range from, I guess quitting completely, taking an axe to the world – hello Jack – to the imbibing of various mind altering substances, to far less destructive pursuits like getting out of the office/desk and taking a walk/run/cycle or looking at the creativity of others. Often these strategies are pretty ad hoc, which means when a deadline looms the block breaker might be as much a problem as the block itself.
In the early 1970s, however, Peter Schmidt, a painter, and Brian Eno, independently of each other at first then in collaboration developed a creative block breaking tool. They called this tool Oblique Strategies: Over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas. It consists of 100+ cards each with a single statement printed on it, a challenging constraint that is intended to break a creative block. On each card is a phrase or cryptic remark that is an invitation to think laterally.
Eno being a musician developed the cards to help musicians break creative blocks and it is indeed popular with musicians having been used explicitly by REM, David Bowie (especially during a recording of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger), Eno himself of course and Coldplay. While some cards are particularly music related most are not and can be used to break any sort of deadlock or dilemma situation.
In 1980 Eno said this about Oblique Strategies in an interview with Charles Amirkhanian, conducted at KPFA_FM in Berkeley in early 1980:
‘These cards evolved from our separate working procedures. It was one of the many cases during the friendship that he [Peter Schmidt] and I where we arrived at a working position at almost exactly the same time and almost in exactly the same words. There were times when we hadn’t seen each other for a few months at a time sometimes, and upon re-meeting or exchanging letters, we would find that we were in the same intellectual position – which was quite different from the one we’d been in prior to that.
The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt *that* attitude.”
The first Oblique Strategy said, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” And, in fact, Peter’s first Oblique Strategy – done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that – was … I think it was “Was it really a mistake?” which was, of course, much the same kind of message. Well, I collected about fifteen or twenty of these and then I put them onto cards. At the same time, Peter had been keeping a little book of messages to himself as regards painting, and he’d kept those in a notebook. We were both very surprised to find the other not only using a similar system but also many of the messages being absolutely overlapping, you know…there was a complete correspondence between the messages. So subsequently we decided to try to work out a way of making that available to other people, which we did; we published them as a pack of cards, and they’re now used by quite a lot of different people, I think.’
Use of the cards (of course there is now a phone app) is very simple though the instructions are rather vague. Are the cards intended to be oracular – single statement > single action or not? An introductory card states ‘They [the cards] can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) 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. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.” It appears that the deck was not intended to be a set of rigid instructions and over the various editions the cards have been modified in number – 103 to 123 cards – and content – from the quieter more droll earlier editions to more raucous later editions.
A selection of statements:
Use ‘unqualified’ people.
State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
Only one element of each kind.
A line has two sides.
What to increase? What to reduce?
Try faking it!
Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
Ask your body.
Work at a different speed.
Discard an axiom.
Do we need holes?