Utility, Overkill or Elegance: A Spread Designer’s Dilemma

“Once upon a time there were three bears . . . oops, I mean tarot spreads that lived in a binder on my bookshelf. There was a great big ‘father’ spread, a middle-sized ‘mother’ spread and a tiny ‘baby’ spread. One was too large and hard and one was too small and easy but the middle one was ‘just right’.”

A cartomantic spread has only one Prime Directive: to furnish insights about a situation in as straightforward a manner as possible, with clarity and precision. At the same time, if it can infuse depth and color into the bare-bones narrative, it may serve up inspiration as well as information and thereby exceed the aim of its original purpose. The line between elegant simplicity and bloated excess can be an elusive one. The average spread generally lands somewhere on the continuum from purely utilitarian to excessively convoluted. The apotheosis of the starkly utilitarian spread is, in my estimation, the 3-card “past/present/future” layout, with the 5-card line a close second. Those complex affairs that use the whole deck (for example, the Golden Dawn’s “astrological” spread) provide more data than can be reasonably digested and delivered within the confines of a short reading session. The “Goldilocks Zone” for spread design holds layouts like the 10-card Celtic Cross which, again in my opinion, is a perfect example of “just right” in terms of level of detail and the time required to perform it.

As I grow in spread-building skill, I tend to shoot for streamlined elegance above all else. The result needs to strike a careful balance between directness and expansiveness, something I tried to achieve with my make-over of the Celtic Cross. Too little detail and the reader has to fill in the gaps between cards with intuitive guesswork (in which case we’re no longer simply reading the cards), while too much can produce a case of “analysis paralysis.” Unless an idea springs full-blown from my noggin like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, I ask myself three questions before I start: a) what do I want to know? b) how much do I want to know about it? c) in what form do I want it presented? The last two dictate the number of cards and their arrangement, which can also be influenced by the shape of the layout I’m envisioning. My recently posted “Two Paths You Can Go By” spread is an example of the last point.

When I create a spread, I’m seldom satisfied with fewer than five cards because the result of anything less seems so “flat.” I prefer a flow of cards that includes surprises: hidden cards, side loops, double-backs, multiple-choice decisions, stacked cards, oblique techniques like facing, reversal, “shadowing” and built-in clarifiers, in short anything that can impart a three-dimensional feel to the reading. It’s this sense of depth that I find most compelling when working up a new spread because it can make the whole thing “come alive.” If you browse through my growing inventory of spreads on this blog and maybe try them out, you can judge for yourself how well I’m doing at this.

5 thoughts on “Utility, Overkill or Elegance: A Spread Designer’s Dilemma

  1. Although I don’t often use positional spreads myself, I find reading through your methods of spread creation to be fascinating, thank you. Hmmm, I recently came across someone on a forum seeking a suitable spread to investigate the underlying state/health of the U.S. economy and couldn’t help but wonder what you might come up with. It’s an interesting one.


  2. Here is a spread that uses the concepts of competing and conflicting interests that might be useful. The main horizontal stem of the spread could be used to show the course of the economy if left alone, and the two input chains as showing the influence (and often manipulation) of external entities.


    I just completed a “situational well-being” spread for this purpose that I’ll post tomorrow.


  3. Thank you. With their ability to capture and deal with complexity, I can see both those spreads being very useful for such a question. I shall post links to them on said forum. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

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