Distant Early Warning: Marshall McLuhan

Curator: Tim Belonax
date: January 10, 2013
Categories: Advertising
Tags: cards, ideation, McLuhan, thinking
Eric McLuhan
The card deck comes in a slipcase with instructions.

Is it possible to train the way that you think, the same way you might prepare for a sporting event or study for an exam? Is it possible to improve the way that you think or are we simply born into one pattern of thought? As a graphic designer, there’s bound to be a point in your process where thinking creatively becomes a challenge or you simply want to push beyond your comfort zone. 


I first became interested in thinking as a focused subject when I joined Project M in the summer of 2007. John Bielenberg, Project M’s founder, is notorious for “thinking wrong,” a method for breaking heuristic bias within a person’s thought process. He introduced me to Edward DeBono, who originated the term “lateral thinking” and was a proponent of teaching thinking as a subject in schools. DeBono’s Thinking Course was one particular book that John recommended, and it’s kept me interested in the subject ever since.


I recently stumbled upon a deck of cards that were dedicated to creative thinking. Marshall McLuhan’s “Distant Early Warning” card deck was released in 1969 as part of McLuhan’s “DEW-Line Newsletter.” 


“The card deck was intended to stimulate problem-solving and thinking, in a manner that later came to be known as ‘thinking-outside-the-box,’” says Scott Boms, spokesperson for the McLuhan estate. The newsletter was initiated by New York publisher Eugene Schwartz, at the height of “McLuhan-mania.” The cards were designed by McLuhan, his eldest son Eric, Harley Parker and George Thompson, long-time family friend and assistant to McLuhan at the Center for Culture and Technology. The deck perfectly reflects McLuhan’s vision of the artist in a time of rapid social and technological change: 

“I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it,” stated Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.


The DEW Line was a real thing. Stretching 3,000 miles across arctic Canada at approximately the 69th parallel sat a chain of 63 integrated radar and communication stations. Completed in 1957 during the height of the Cold War, the DEW Line was intended to provide advance warning of imminent air attacks on Canada and the United States. While McLuhan’s views were often very academic, he certainly had a sense of humor.


Eric McLuhan
The language and typography of the cards worked with the existing graphics of playing cards

Scott Boms
The “DEW-Line Newsletter”

Bell Telephone
Advertisement for the DEW Line

“Oblique Strategies”

These cards feel like the precursor for many projects I’ve come to love over the years. Published through the Human Development Corp., the “DEW-Line Newsletter” came in different forms, like a record or slides, often including pre-released chapters from McLuhan books. All this feels similar to the shape-shifting sizes of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and other 826 publications.


But perhaps the deck more closely resembles Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies.” This set of cards (subtitled “Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas”) intended to help artists break their creative block by changing their thinking (i.e., lateral thinking). “Oblique Strategies” was originally published in 1975 and has been republished in a number of editions, the most recent being an app. 


It’s startlingly comforting to see the parallel thinking of the time that initiated the creation of these cards. While we continue to assume “there is nothing new under the sun,” at least we don’t stop trying to stir our creativity and think differently.


“There has never been a period in the history of the world that has been quite so frightening or so fluid. Everything is changing: businesses, occupations, opportunities, the very definition of what it means to be a leader, a husband, a human being.” —From an advertisement for the DEW Line cards


The cards can be purchased here: http://ericmcluhan.com/bookshop


Special thanks to Scott Boms for his expert insight.

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