He (David Byrne)’s a genuine eccentric,” says Eno. “He’s always been exactly like that, and I’ve seen him remain like that in quite extreme situations. For instance, we were mugged together once in New York. It was quite frightening; we were mugged by 14 people. My enduring memory is of David being dragged off into the bushes, saying ‘Uh-oh!’ That’s absolutely true; it was like a cartoon scene.
—  Brian Eno
Do very hard things, just for the sake of it.
(A way of doing something original is by trying something so painstaking that nobody else has ever bothered with it. […] Then the question arises in the mind: ‘Why are they going to all this trouble?’ I like this question. I like any question that makes you start thinking about the 'outside’ of the experience - because it makes the experience bigger.)
—  Brian Eno, 28 February 1995

Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) is a deck of 7-by-9-centimetre (2.8 in × 3.5 in) printed cards in a black container box,created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975. Each card offers an aphorism intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.


Origin and history

In 1970 Peter Schmidt created “The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts”, a box containing 55 sentences letterpress printed onto disused prints that accumulated in his studio, which is still in the possession of Eno. Eno, who had known Schmidt since the late 1960s, had been pursuing a similar project himself (which he had handwritten onto a number of bamboo cards and given the name “Oblique Strategies” in 1974). There was a significant overlap between the two projects, and so, in late 1974, Schmidt and Eno combined them into a single pack of cards and offered them for general sale. After Schmidt died suddenly in early 1980, the card decks became rather rare and expensive. Sixteen years later software pioneer Peter Nortonconvinced Eno to let him create a fourth edition as a Christmas gifts for his friends (not for sale, although they occasionally come up at auction). Eno’s decision to revisit the cards and his collaboration with Norton in revising them is described in detail in his 1996 book, A Year with Swollen Appendices. With public interest in the cards undiminished, in 2001 Eno once again produced a new set of Oblique Strategies cards. The number and content of the cards vary somewhat from edition to edition. In May 2013 a limited edition of 500 boxes, in burgundy rather than black, was issued.

The entire story of Oblique Strategies, with the content of all the cards, exhaustive history and commentary, is documented in a website widely acknowledged as the authoritative source, put together by musician and educator Gregory Alan Taylor.

The text of Schmidt’s “The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts” was published by Mindmade Books in 2012.

Design and use

Each card contains a phrase or cryptic remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. Some are specific to music composition; others are more general. Examples include:

  • Use an old idea.
  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
  • Only one element of each kind.
  • What would your closest friend do?
  • What to increase? What to reduce?
  • Are there sections? Consider transitions.
  • Try faking it!
  • Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
  • Ask your body.
  • Work at a different speed.

From the introduction to the 2001 edition:

These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognised in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated. They can be used as a pack, or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear…

Cultural impact

Many references to Oblique Strategies exist in popular culture, notably in the film Slacker, in which a character offers passers-by cards from a deck. Strategies mentioned include “Honor thy error as a hidden intention”, “Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify”, “Not building a wall; making a brick”, “Repetition is a form of change”, and one which came to be seen as a summary of the film’s ethos (though it was not part of the official set of Oblique Strategies), “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” This line was quoted in the 1994 song “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” by R.E.M., who also mentioned Oblique Strategies in their 1998 song “Diminished” from the album Up. The Oblique Strategies are also referenced in comic 1018, “Oblique Angles”, of popular web comic Questionable Content.

Other musicians inspired by Oblique Strategies include the British band Coldplay, said to have used the cards when recording their 2008 Brian Eno-produced album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends and French band Phoenix, who used the cards when recording their 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. German musician/composer Blixa Bargeld has a similar navigation system, called Dave. In response to their song “Brian Eno”, from their album Congratulations, MGMT has said they had a deck of Oblique Strategies in the studio, but they “don’t know if [they] used them correctly.”

They were most famously used by Eno during the recording of David Bowie’s Berlin triptych of albums (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger). Stories suggest they were used during the recording of instrumentals on “Heroes” such as “Sense of Doubt” and were used more extensively on Lodger (“Fantastic Voyage”, “Boys Keep Swinging”, “Red Money”).

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Tom Phillips (born 25 May 1937) is an English artist. He was born in London, where he continues to work. He is a painter, printmaker and collagist. He is best know for his A Humument:  A Treated Victorian Novel, it won an award for best for best innovation of Rivers. Phillips randomly purchased a novel called “A Human Document" by Victorian author William Hurrell Mallock and created art from its pages.

He paints, collages or draws over the pages, leaving some of the text peeking through in serpentine bubble shapes, creating a “found” text with it’s own story, different from its original. Several editions of A Humument have been published over the years, with more and more pages being revised each time.

Phillips is responsible for Brian Eno’s “Another Green World” album cover, the cover takes a portion from a painting of Phillip’s named “After Raphael”. Phillips was Eno’s mentor while he studied at Ipswich Art College.

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In celebration of David Bowie’s birthday, we share this poster from cooperhewitt. Design duo Non-Format were inspired by legendary producer (and Bowie collaborator) Brian Eno’s idea of “axis thinking,” a concept that all things lie on a continuum between extremes. They created this visual by categorizing Bowie albums against a pair of extremes.

More on their blog