ode to the index card: generator of useful ideas

……………… typical Bruce index card ………….


“Creatives need constraints like a good architect needs the laws of physics (and in particular, gravity). It’s by working within the constraints that, ultimately, we creatives test our limits and push ourselves to grow.”



“In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness.”

Samuel Johnson


One 3×5 paper index card and a writing utensil (my preference is a pencil). I

would say 90% of any of the ideas I have ever had that have been worth a shit have occurred in that constrictive space using that ancient writing tool.

That said. This is about ideas and thinking. I am a scribbler. And a sketcher. And a pencil guy. I carry around a stack of index cards & constantly sketch out thoughts for people. I can confidently say my index cards are strewn around the world. I am sure some are used for dart boards, some for a good laugh & some actually was a seed for some idea.

To me, index cards means I cannot rely on, well, anything. The space demands that I use it however the idea demands. It is an exercise in brevity & clarity and forces some economy to the idea or thought.

When pinned up on some board the idea or thought has no place to hide. Shit. The thinking has no place to hide. If that space can display the core of some value proposition (which, inevitably, that is an idea), thinking has won the day.

Now. In my defense there is an entire book on ‘The back of the Napkin”   (I bought and then donated to some business library) and Jessica Hagy wrote a book called Indexed (which I never actually bought)  and Hugh McLeod wrote Ignore Everybody (a fabulous book) and has built an entire company/business around ideas succinctly communicated – all espouse the value of a constrained ideation method.

All that said.

While I have used index cards for decades the whole idea of constraints & old school simplicity came to mind the other day where I had a great conversation with a young person and at the end of it he said “I envision you live your life free of constraints and the rules that inhibit the majority of people.”

I hesitated <slightly taken aback> and responded “I’m sorry I gave you that impression … I think Life, as well as business, is best lived within a construct and while I believe society and some experts try and establish some silly rules … rules, in general,  are good and boundaries typically enhance creativity.”

Yeah. I believe Construct is good.


constraints maximize pragmatism & demands productive imagination to explore possibilities.

“Creatives need constraints like a good architect needs the laws of physics (and in particular, gravity). It’s by working within the constraints that, ultimately, we creatives test our limits and push ourselves to grow.”



So let’s talk about the relationship between construct, constraint and constrict. Constructs can either, or both, create constraints or constrict. Typically, that is not a reflection of the construct but rather the constructors (people) or the managers of the construct (people).

constraints maximize pragmatism & demands productive imagination to explore possibilities.

Constructs can be either good or bad because constructs, in general, define some finiteness in a complex infinite world.

Note: I believe construct is incredibly important for the future of business. I believe the key to the future is a business which can think conceptually and implement well against those concepts. It will be a natural way of combining emergent & deterministic strategies against concepts represent the most valuable opportunities.

Think about football fields, rodeo rings, Broadway stages, yes, even index cards, any finite space creates a construct for someone to maximize the space … in a multi-dimensional way. Thinkers take the 2 dimensional traditional constructs and seek to build within any and all dimensions.

Sounds weird, but finiteness offer freedom.

As a corollary … no finiteness encourages aimless unfocused wandering.

Note: ‘no finiteness wandering’ could be construed as freedom by some, but it isn’t really. Freedom in and of itself only has value where it is attached to some purpose or construct or intent. No finiteness freedom sounds good <on occasion>, but inevitably is extremely dissatisfying.

I’m not suggesting unfocused wandering doesn’t have some value, but rather that the great ideas and thinking don’t come from the unfocused, but rather the focused.  I am actually suggesting there is a massive difference between construct, constraint and constrict. When I refer to finiteness and boundaries I have also very clearly stated ‘nonrestrictive.’

Restriction: Too restrictive is most often a reflection of someone or something imposing philosophical and/or ideological control over others. More often than not tight space ‘finite builders’ leaders see people as a single unit, or engine, in which all the people are parts rather than autonomous individuals. They believe that if any part acts outside of the boundaries the entire unit could break. They build their boundaries not seeking to enhance creativity and innovation, but rather to control each individual’s behavior in order to ensure that what you do as an individual does no harm to the whole. It is meant to rein in and not let free and meant to create conformity and unity <albeit it is actually “oneness’>.

It is a faulty premise … and a defensive constrictive premise.

Why is it faulty?


“… provide an extended definition of creativity that embraces potential cross-cultural variations in this construct.

Creativity is defined as a 4-criterion construct, which includes attributes of novelty, utility, aesthetics, and authenticity. Novelty attribute stipulates that a creative work brings something new into being, which presents a new conceptual framework and/or modifies or violates an existing one. Utility attribute stipulates that a creative work is what a producer or a recipient considers creative, what represents an important landmark in spiritual, cultural, social, and/or political environment, and what addresses moral issues. The aesthetics attribute stipulates that a creative work presents the fundamental truth of nature, which is reflected in a perfect order, efficiently presents the essence of the phenomenal reality, and is satisfactorily complex, expressing both tension and intrinsic contradiction. Authenticity attribute stipulates that a creative work expresses an individual’s inner self and relates one’s own values and believes to the world. These attributes establish a comparison matrix, which can be used to evaluate and compare the levels of creativity of works from different areas of human endeavor.”

Anatoliy V. Kharkhurin


Constraint: Creativity of the mind is exactly the same as creativity of innovation. It is multidimensional and needs a balance of constraint and freedom in order to maximize potential.

The best creativity, thinking & ideas, happens within a construct offering constraints. Well established boundaries, ones that supply some constraint without being restrictive, create an environment in which the mind can roam freely within a realm provided some focus for that freedom.

True creative freedom is found within finiteness not without.

As I said in the beginning … “Life, as well as business, is best lived within a construct and while I believe society and some experts try and establish some silly rules … rules, in general, are good and boundaries typically enhance creativity.”

Anyway. While index cards certainly offer constraint (forces you to focus, or simplify, a thought) the real value is in the puzzle piece management, i.e., being able to envision how a thought fits into the grander narrative/scheme of things

Life, business, thinking in general, is a million-piece puzzle of which we gather the pieces one at a time. While our minds naturally store away everything we see and read and experience, an index card permits us to catalogue those pieces, no matter how tiny, onto a small canvas. The index card is a method of processing information, collating it, filing it away for when it is needed.

Let me be clear Life, and business, and thoughts; each is a million-piece puzzle. Period. Full stop.

Some people gather pieces and assess and others just don’t have that ability and use just the pieces that seem the most important.

Neither is good or bad in and of itself.

But I will say what is good is assembling those puzzle pieces in a constrained space. I don’t care if its index cards, notepads, whatever. If you can assemble puzzle pieces and assemble a thought within a space <canvases seem to be the construct du jour although I tend to use x/y axis> you can almost guarantee that people will be able to see the idea and its value.

But let me end this with a contrarian thought to what I just offered: assembling those puzzle pieces in a constrained space.

What if the entire idea of a constrained space is false?

What if all those post it notes and index cards are simply potential pockets of certainty within an infinite, boundless, world of uncertainty mired within complexity?

I thought about this staring at a whiteboard with index cards arranged on it. What if instead of viewing them as possibilities or information on some canvas (which is a construct) we see them as possible certainties in a lack of construct uncertain world? What if I viewed these index cards as finite games to be played within an infinite game? None of this suggests the value of using index cards and having construct to place some smart constraints on thinking & doing is valueless. In fact. It may even suggest that focus and clarity is even MORE important because they may actually represent the only real certainty you can find to place in a constantly changing complexity context. Ponder that.

Written by Bruce