Artefact Cards and liminal states: creative thinking breakthrough tools


There’s a long, long list in my subconscious that I hardly dare look at: Things I Should Have Blogged.

The items comprise three types:

  • Important ideas that have taken up residence in my head. For instance, liminal states.
  • Useful tools and ways of working. For instance Artefact Cards.
  • Opinions taking shape. For instance, just because a system like digital advertising is  corrupted doesn’t mean it won’t be with us for decades to come.

I may come back to the third and pot it out in the nursery of ideas here on this blog, with a media agency-proof fence around it to give it a fair chance of developing or not, but for now I’ve got a chance to right the first two examples in one post.

This week, I had a lovely conversation with John Willshire, who developed the Artefact Cards product, about how I have been working with them. You can listen to the whole thing here as John recorded it with a very snazzy microphone and iPad Mini set-up.

Artefact Cards are a really simple tool. Playing card size bits of card, white on one side and coloured on the other. You draw words and pictures on them with a Sharpie pen and them lay them out, re-arrange them and in this way organise thoughts and ideas.


As we talked, we got onto the subject of the liminal state in the creative thinking process (which for my money includes developing strategy). My friend Jim Byford introduced me to this immensely useful concept.

In the context of creative and strategic thinking, the liminal state is what you find yourself in just before you have a breakthrough, or just before you fully understand something, make it yours. For instance, if you can recall trying to learn your lines for a play, the liminal state is where you are just before the words settle and take up residence in your memory – and then you can start using them, adding your inflections and emotions, making them your own.

I’ve very often found the thinking at this point in the creative process intensely uncomfortable. Whether writing a book or a plan or a pitch – it’s a kind of temporary agony, a dark tunnel I pass through where I think you know nothing and will never have another good idea again, and then it passes and there’s the the idea I need, the answer that fits.

Knowing that this is something called a “liminal state”, it makes it easier to handle. In psychology / neuroscience, this is an example of “affect labelling“. If you can name the feeling you have, you can put yourself slightly outside it, understand what is happening to you and that it will pass.

The other thing that understanding the liminal state does is help you to stop trying to “jump to the answer”, as Jim put it to me. Because liminality feels uncomfortable, you want out – to end the feeling and go with the first idea, the obvious one, the easy one. The danger here is that your creative/strategic solution will be mundane, run-of-the-mill and doomed.

You have to go through the confusion, live with it for a little while, sit still while the ideas and thoughts, disconnected and jagged, whiz around your head.

Then they settle. Then you see it: what it is all about.

It’s simple, it was there all along… as Duncan Watts points out, it feels obvious once you it is something that you understand. You pitch it to yourself: it works. You pitch it to a colleague: they don’t hate it, maybe even like it. With each airing the idea gains coherence, legitimacy – becomes more eloquently and credibly articulated as you and others breathe belief into the thing.

Speaking with John Willshire about how I had been using his Artefact Cards, I realised that I like them because they are a good tool for helping that settling process, of working steadily through the seemingly nonsensical maze of thoughts, ideas and concepts and helping some kind of order emerge. Much like throwing down ideas on a white-board, scribbling out mind-maps or any other visual thinking method – but they feel slightly more agile – you can move ideas around, try them in different shapes more rapidly.

In the example I talk about, it’s not even that I reached the solution – the outline of an ebook in this case, but I was able to move on to that only after I had made sense of all of the ideas. Seen their shape laid out in this way. That’s something John says is a recurring theme in people’s use of the cards – seeing the “shape of ideas”.


Artefact Cards are another tool in the box for thinking, perfect sometimes for working through those liminal states. Worth a spin with the trial pack, I reckon.

6 responses to “Artefact Cards and liminal states: creative thinking breakthrough tools”

  1. I’m familiar with this “uncomfortable” state in another context: judo. I’ve been doing judo for nearly 20 years, and a long time ago I understood that the phases I went through where I felt I was making no progress, where I was even regressing, well, those phases were always followed by a burst of progress. At some point, something would click. I’ve come to view them as “something cooking”, an unpleasant phase where things are getting ready in the background. It helps me stick through them and even embrace them.

    In my work life, I have that too: when I’m preparing a talk or a lecture, I go through a phase of not really knowing how to tackle it, not having a clear view of what I want to say, etc. Then it clicks into place and I can move forward in my prep. As you say, it’s easy to get discouraged in those phases, and reading you has made me realise it’s really at those times that I procrastinate the most. Labelling them and being aware of this feels like it will help me tackle them more “aggressively”. Thanks!

  2. Yes – I can see how that would apply to longer processes too. I’ve seen it with running – but that’s for another blog post I have cooking…

  3. Actually, I somehow love this state. I get used to it since childhood, I think, I was a kind of a day dreamer, and then, suddenly the text I had to write or the decision I had to make became quite clear. The most difficult part, sometimes, was recursive justification !

    Nevertheless, you don’t always have enough time to “wait for”. These kind of tools are really useful to accelerate the process, or to share it with others.

  4. Lovely – couldn’t agree more!

  5. […] The liminal state is what you find yourself in just before you have a breakthrough, or just before you fully understand something, make it yours | Anthony Mayfield […]

  6. Great post. I have been starting to do more drawing again and each time find it almost unbearable as I sit in front of something trying to draw that first line. It is feels like “trying” to meditate – forcing my monkey brain to sit still never works. The more I try the more pressure I feel, the more unbearable it gets. I almost feel like running away. Bonkers how much courage it takes to sustain the liminal state!

Leave a Reply