In a jam? Ask Brian Eno! – approaches to creative thinking

Are you stuck in a sticky mind fart? Get help from Brian Eno.



If you clicked the above link, you’ll be taken to a dinosaur of a website from the 1990s made by Brian Eno. The page delivers to you one of his “oblique strategies”- aphorisms developed in order to move you through sludgy mind-jams.

First appearing in 1975, originally these strategies took the form of a deck of cards that a creative person could keep at hand to get them out of a brainfreeze. Eno and his friend Peter made this set for their creative counterparts, accessing the rich resource of creative principles, action strategies and just plain good ideas they recorded when they weren’t stressed or in a jam.

It’s not a card game as such….but it could be if you made it one. There are even some blank cards in each deck that are available for one to write their own ideas.

The cards now exist in code on the internet, free to download and share. If you are old-fashioned, and don’t have a computer (which means you are reading the book version of this blog) then you could always buy the deck from Brian.

Eno discusses the Oblique Strategies at greatest length in an interview with Charles Amirkhanian, conducted at KPFA 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 remeeting 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.

-Brian Eno, interview with Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA-FM Berkeley, 2/1/80

An introduction to the Oblique Strategies can be found in the deck itself. This is how each of the first three decks labels and describes itself:

(card one)
Over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas
(signatures, if your copy is signed)
Printed January 1975 in an edition of 500
of which this is number (your number, circled)

(note: later versions note that the deck has been revised, and include the date of publication – either 1978 for edition two, or 1979 for edition three)

(card two)

These cards evolved from our separate observations on the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized 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 (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.

Some of the above text was pilfered from here.