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How to create a card deck: For learning, creativity or ideation

How to create a card deck: For learning, creativity or ideation

by Terry Pearce

A year ago

Card decks are versatile, powerful tools, that can help people learn, ideate and unlock new conversations and creative veins. Butter’s list of 44 card decks is a great place to see the range of card decks available, as is Deckible’s online range. But what makes a card deck tick? If you were to go about creating one, what should you consider? How would you make sure it did what you wanted it to do?

In 2021, I launched the Transform Deck. The deck is the fruit of a long process of distilling what I’d learned over twenty years of designing learning experiences – it exists to inspire people to create activity-led learning. I’ve created other decks for use in learning, and I love card decks. I’ve spoken at conferences about cards, read some of the academic literature, and I have a growing collection.

Over that time, I’ve noticed a few things about successful card decks that should probably be in the mix for creating new ones. 

Think carefully about what the deck should achieve 

A card deck, like any other product or design, should probably solve a problem. Who is going to use the deck and what is their problem? Design decks (like the Transform Deck) are built to solve design problems and decks for applying a process (like Fabula’s Storytelling Deck) are built to solve difficulties in learning and applying a process. Creativity decks (like 75 Tools) are built to solve stuckness in creative pursuits.

This might sound obvious but it’s very easy to build a deck that’s just based around content. You have some material that you love and you want to turn into a deck. But why should people use it? Why should they care? If it will make their life easier or better, they will – and that’s usually by solving a problem or providing an exciting opportunity.

Even decks specific to a learning topic can be seen as solving the problem of getting to grips with that problem. But it’s that framing – rather than just ‘a deck about X’ – that will give shape to your design and make it useful and usable.

Choose the right type of deck for the job

Here’s a question: where should your deck sit on the scale of prioritising depth versus usability? Coglode’s Nuggets has a lot of info, which means each card is almost like a condensed book chapter. But that can slow down the process. MethodKit’s lean prompts mean that each card is instantly ‘gettable’ but there’s little depth there; things are open to interpretation. In both cases, these choices are deliberate, to suit the deck’s use. The worst thing would be a deck where depth is important but lacking, or one where swift usability is key but the cards are clogged with too much info. 

Another scale you might like to consider is process-driven versus free-form. Is there a specific process to follow, such as with Fabula’s Storytelling Deck, or can you sift and play freestyle, using the cards however occurs to you? The Transform Deck is somewhere in the middle, offering a range of processes on how-to cards, but also lending itself to free play.

Other considerations include: will the deck have just one type or category of card, or several (Gamification Nation’s Game Deck is split into Game Mechanics, Win Conditions and more)? Will the cards be customisable (for example with post-its next to each as with MethodKit and Fabula), or is the idea that the card holds everything you need? 

Design the deck for the user, not for you

At all stages, you should be asking yourself: what does the user need? How will they navigate using the deck? What info will be most useful for them and when and where will they want it? This may sound straightforward, but the curse of knowledge means that it’s very difficult to put ourselves in the user’s shoes.

It’s much easier to create something from our own viewpoint, that suits us. And that makes it an easy trap to fall into. So if including something, ask: is this for me, or for the user? Is this strengthening the card or deck, or is it diluting the most effective parts?

And the most important thing here is playtesting. I did a lot of playtesting with the Transform Deck. Some things that seemed obvious to me, weren’t for users. Some things that seemed interesting to me, bored users. And users came up with ideas of how they’d like things to be that hadn’t occurred to me. 

Lean in to the affordances of cards 

Why is this a card deck? Why isn’t it a book? Cards allow certain things that books and other media don’t – called affordances. Which of these are you making use of? Which could you lean into more, to better make use of the format?

For example, cards allow you to: 

  • Break a topic down into discrete elements, like creativity techniques or learning activity types, each of which users can view individually
  • Move, sort and arrange the individual cards into groupings and layouts to make connections or categorise
  • ‘Hold’ a card in your ‘hand’ and have it secret from other users you’re working with
  • Easily compare any card with any other
  • Make connections and groupings across cards using markers like colour and icons, for example to create suits
  • Evoke bigger ideas beyond what the card specifically states
  • Shuffle and randomise
  • Re-organise, re-group and re-categorise, based on whatever criteria you like

This list could be longer. Think about your favourite deck, or some of the decks on the 44 decks list above. What does it allow? Would that help with your deck? How could you design to build up the power of that affordance?

Create an intuitive and consistent visual template 

Almost all of the affordances mentioned benefit from visual consistency among your cards. They don’t have to be full-colour, two-sided or icon-filled – your cards could each just be one picture or phrase. But they should still have consistency. Fonts and layouts should stay the same across cards unless there’s a good reason to change.

And think about what will be intuitive. Where would people expect to see a certain piece of info? If using icons, make sure they make visual sense (test them). If using something to differentiate suits or any other difference, make sure the difference is clear. And don’t forget accessibility – colour or any hard-to-see or hard-to-read element should not be the only differentiator.  

Get in touch if you’d like my help creating a deck 

These are some of my top tips for creating card decks. If they sound interesting and have sparked your imagination but you feel like you might need some help, Get in touch. I can help you design a deck, or design one to your specifications.