When all you have is a method card set, everything looks like a design problem.

by Jen

Let’s talk about tools.


Sometimes, when people feel they’re onto something  and want to share that something with others, they write a book, or present a workshop, or speak at conferences. Sometimes, they make tools that others might use to do whatever they do, better.

In my case, I spent the first half of this school year figuring out how design thinking can inform science communication strategies. From extensive research and some initial experimentation, I developed a set of strategies that fold a bit of social science, psychology, rhetoric and design together to make science communication more powerful. I tried it out, and found that, indeed, this process works; that is, it seems possible to frame information and design science communication so that people with different values and worldviews can end up on the same page. (Or, at least, pages that are a little closer to each other).

Around that time, I also met the fine folks who founded Public Communication for Researchers, a group of grad students, professors, deans, journalists and science communicators here at Carnegie Mellon University who want to enhance the conversation between the science community and the general public. They were very interested in my thesis work, and I was very interested in working with scientists who find themselves in a position to make use of the strategies I have been designing. I began thinking less about repeating the type of study I ran with the information piece on vaccines, and more about how best to make my findings useful for others: should I produce a booklet of tips and techniques? A style guide? A workshop, a curriculum, a webinar, a presentation? Having developed a short talk for my TEDxCMU audition and sharing that with the PCR folks, I realized they would be a fantastic group to work with, whatever my choice, because they are themselves interested in not only better communication strategies, but teaching these strategies to others.

They asked me to present a workshop, which I’ll be conducting next week. I started to think about the curriculum, asking myself what others would need to know if they are to apply the same process I did for the vaccine piece with any level of success. I thought about other methods people have used to share design principles with designers and non-designers alike… and next thing I knew, I found myself designing a tool kit (how predictable) that could help people apply the understanding I’ve developed over nine months to their own communication design.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of the more designerly versions of this kind of tool: the IDEO method cards, Frog’s Collective Action Toolkit, the Design with Intent Toolkit, and so on. These were the first kind of tools that came to mind, but I wanted to explore several types of guides, method cards, and other tools to see what they have to offer, comparing strengths, weaknesses, and intentions. In addition to the more obvious choices mentioned above, I also got my hands on Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, Luma Institute’s Innovating for People Planning Cards, a set of psychology tidbits for UX designers called Mental Notes, The Decision Book, and the Activity Deck to accompany Jonah Sachs’ book: Winning the Story Wars.

Some of these tools are really just a deck full of somethingsLuma and IDEO’s cards are a collection of techniques or methods, divided into categories, that people can try in the practice of human-centered design.


The Mental Notes and Oblique Strategies sets are, similarly, a set of somethings, but they are not a collection of techniques. Instead, they are a collection of things to think about. Mental Notes is really just a set of psychology principles, and the user is prompted to reflect on how that particular (drawn at random?) card might inspire their work. The Oblique Strategies deck is a little more esoteric (but also my favorite); it wasn’t created specifically for designers and I think that makes it a little more interesting, if a little less practical in its usefulness as a collection of non-sequiturs.tools4

Meanwhile, The Decision Book is a collection of models, mostly visualized through diagrams and illustrations, for strategic decision making. Even though it’s not a card set, it could function similarly; open randomly to a page (if you’d like), or use the table of contents to search for something in particular.tools3

Finally, the Story Wars Activity Deck is a little different. Because it accompanies a book, it is less a stand-alone tool than the others, but also more instructive. It consists of three activities and the accompanying Values and Archetypes cards help users brainstorm and apply the ideas Sachs discusses in the book. This card set caught my attention for that reason: it functions not as a collection of somethings, but instead as a proxy for a teacher or mentor. It’s a set of exercises.


I wondered if I could combine the strengths of these different styles of toolkits to produce something useful, usable, and desirable for science communicators in particular. A structure like the exercises in the Story Wars deck would be very useful, but without the luxury of an accompanying book, I’d need to find a way to include the content itself within the set. The other decks that function more as a collection of individual somethings offer the ability to to be drawn at random, to provide inspiration or prompt reflection, where the Story Wars cards cannot. How might I combine these and tweak them a bit to fit the goals for my design process?

I decided I needed to incorporate five types of information:

  • The actual content. The information about cultural cognition, values, and other principles a person would need to understand in order to use the toolkit.
  • The strategies. The key ideas that I have crystallized into a design process for science communicators.
  • Exercises. The techniques people can try, using this tool, to develop skills that make use of the information they now have.
  • Context. The background info, a few key studies, anything that helps flesh out the process.
  • Supplementals. To make exercises possible, I need to include any other materials that would be used with those exercises.

Essentially, those categories boil down to:

  • What do I need to know?
  • Why do I need to know this information?
  • How do I use this information?
  • When & where should I use use it?

So I set about designing just such a tool…

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And when I present my workshop for PCR next week, I’ll also be able to give the participants a paper prototype of it. Right now it consists of 28 cards that cross reference each other and provide each of the five categories I described above.

paper prototype

The goal, of course, will be for participants to take said tool (kit? cards? set? still looking for a better term!) back to their colleagues and, ideally, use them in collaborative settings to reproduce the learning I’ll aim to impart at the workshop. Most researchers spend their time researching, not communicating, but my hope is that a tool like this one might help them feel more confident to apply some of the knowledge I have developed on the design of science communication.

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In my experience, tools like the IDEO or Story Wars cards are most useful, not when I’m sitting alone at my desk, but when I use them to communicate about design principles and methodologies with others. I’m hoping that, where a simple collection or a single activity may fall short, this science communication design tool will be able to function as both a collection of informational cards and a more structured set of activities, together, with the flexibility to be used differently for different needs. Of course, we’ll have to see what kind of feedback I get on this prototype… this is an iterative design process after all. I’ll write more about the feedback and the workshop next week.