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The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

postcards as doorways

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Andrew Curry and Victoria Ward

“Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.” (John Berger, 2005).

This is an extract from an essay about the use of a particular type of found or constructed object – the postcard – as a device to enable dialogue in groups that allows participants to connect together past, present and futures, to build new stories about the future, and to put themselves in the picture. The authors, who have collaborated in using postcards as a workshop device, come from different disciplines. Andrew is a futurist, Victoria works with narrative knowledge and storytelling. In both of our practices we have found that the use of postcards changes the nature and the meaning of the experience.

The full article, including four short use cases, is available online. Victoria and Andrew will be working with Wendy Schultz to run ‘The Thing From the Future’ at the next Association of Professional Futures London Fridays gathering on 20 February.

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photo | Victoria Ward

The use of postcards as artefacts in a futures process was, like much innovation, the conjunction of chance and constraint: a client seeking a visual exercise to change the dynamics of a workshop, combined with a box of unsent postcards in an author’s (Andrew’s) home. In Victoria’s case it started in 2003 with a client seeking to construct the brief for a new integrated healthy living centre participatively with doctors, nurses, volunteers, outreach workers and patients: how could we reorganise the power structures in the room and ground people’s imagination of a future building in their own personal daily experience?

There are variations, but essentially this is it: a dialogue process that uses visual cues to open up different ways of seeing, of witnessing and conveying our own experience, and perhaps different types of insights, about the present and future. And more: a way of sharing fragments in such a way that small moments sometimes build to a larger and sometimes surprising narrative. In doing so, in our experience, they also create different types of narratives, different types of conversations, and a vivid body of language, image and material that can be incorporated directly into the next stages (whether this is an architectural competition brief, a set of scenarios, a future vision or new approaches to re-imaging professional practice.)

Without making overblown claims, we see from the use of postcards in the workshop setting the same democratising effects that the postcard once created in social communications. They create a way of creating a shared language and a shared context, and one that can be made material in the room through display. Looking back at our practices, we see eight ways in which the use of postcards has opened different doors, and – for the purpose of this essay, with the benefit of hindsight, framed as a new narrative – have given each of these a one-word label:

1. as a way to construct layered timelines that connect past, present and future and link personal and organisational timelines to the meta-narrative

2. to push beyond the frames in the room and break open closed spaces and mental models

3. to use the physical action of touch – selection, writing, arranging, recombining – and the anchoring of personal experiences or insights in a physical object consisting of an image and a few words (in the first person) to keep people grounded, connected with their feelings.

 4. combination allows fluid new juxtapositions, and multiple possibilities from combining and recombining materials, and so stretches imagination

 5. pictures always have multiple layers of meaning, and we live in an increasingly visual era. When a postcard is selected, intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously, those additional layers also add a patina to the story that is being told.

6. postcards de-privilege senior voices in the room, strip away authority and equalise the value of professional and operational experiences

7. having a postcard as a vehicle through which to communicate provides safety, neutrality and provides a means for difficult truths to be conveyed, or personal offerings to be risked with reduced vulnerability – they contain. They can also create a temporary intimate space in which to have a dialogue,

8. they can change the tempo, allowing the reorganisation of time and space in a way that slows down or speeds up, or change the direction of travel, allowing for radial enquiry, rather than linear.

In his book Another Way of Telling, co-written with the photographer Jean Mohr, John Berger (1982) writes that “[N]either teller nor listener is at the centre of the story: they are at its periphery. Those whom the story is about are at the centre. It is between their actions and attributes and reactions that the unstated connections are being made.” Postcards used as a workshop practice, create an expectation that everyone – for at least some part of the day – becomes the teller, making or re-making the unstated connections that, together, let us change the way we see the sky.

About the authors

Andrew Curry is a Director of The Futures Company in London, and a member of the Association of Professional Futurists.  He blogs here and tweets @nextwavefutures. Victoria Ward is a partner of Sparknow.

The full article is available online here.

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