Economy of Scale in Spread Design

In microeconomics, economy of scale refers to the theory that average costs start falling as output increases. As I apply it to tarot spread design, it asserts that the level of effort required to read a spread decreases as the number of card positions increases. While this seems counter-intuitive, it’s due to the fact that, when there are enough cards in the layout to tell a convincing story through their direct interaction, the reader doesn’t have to inject too much intuitive guesswork to fill in the gaps between them. There is a seamless flow between the positions that eliminates the awkward leaps of faith that must sometimes be made to decipher a minimalist spread. Less ambiguity means less “heavy lifting” for the imagination, which can then focus on synthesizing the meanings of the cards on the table. While there is probably an optimum size beyond which it becomes a case of diminishing returns (for example “whole deck” spreads), an ample number of cards gives the reader something more than an interpretive “vacuum” to chew on. It may not take less time, but it can be a lot less work.

Every since I was first exposed to the Celtic Cross in Eden Gray’s 1960 book The Tarot Revealed, I’ve been a fan of larger spreads (by which I mean larger than five cards). The CC is a near-perfect example of a spread that provides just enough detail to tell a compelling, fully-realized story, providing both situational awareness and developmental insights. As I use it, the CC reveals both the timeline (past, present and future) of the question (the “cross” section), and the querent’s responses to the circumstances that emerge as the story unfolds (the “staff” section). The “Outcome” card is basically an extension of the “Near Future” card modified by the querent’s engagement and input.

But in going back over the 80 or so spreads I’ve created during the last few years (most of which appear in this blog), I found something interesting. Although the relative size of those spreads has remained on the larger, more complex side, the amount of effort I put into writing the guidance for reading them has gone down considerably, to the point that some designs need only the text that will fit on the same page to adequately explain their use. Where a 7-card spread may once have required up to three pages of detailed instructions, a single stand-alone page (or even a half-page) is now the rule rather than the exception.

I attribute this to a couple of things. My selection of positional meanings has become much more precise as I come to more accurately understand exactly what I want out of a given spread. Too much information can be as bad as or worse than not enough, and built-in “information overload” can sink a reading even faster than the indiscriminate use of “clarifier” cards. Also, every position must carry its weight, with no incidental “fluff.” One of the worst examples of superfluous cards that I can think of is in A.E. Waite’s CC design; he essentially had two positions to represent the Querent: a Significator card and a card in Position #7 he called “the Self,” a waste of one position which Eden Gray took care of handily in her version (and which I’ve since elaborated on).

I’ve also sharpened the focus of individual spreads so there are few general life-reading designs that require a “kitchen sink” approach to populating the positions. (I’m sure I’ll never be able to come up with anything quite as elegant as the Lenormand Grand Tableau, although I think I made a reasonable run at it here.)

I now have my spread line-up organized into a small number of categories: Decision-Making and “Yes-or-No” Comparisons , Problem-Solving Scenarios , Relationship Issues, Work and Business Matters, General Life Forecasts, Health and Happiness Projections, and “Miscellaneous” (unique entries like “timing,” “spirit contact” and “lost item” spreads). Therefore, each layout covers a narrower scope than previously and the position descriptions have become much more self-explanatory.

Finally, I realized that the audience I’m seeking for these offerings is an experienced one that can quickly “catch my drift.” They understand positional spreads thoroughly and don’t need much hand-holding to figure out where I’m going with them. I’m now giving those individuals more breathing room to make their own sense out of my work and to bring their own creative ideas into the equation. Most of these people have moved well beyond the single-card and three-card pull and want something with more “meat on the bone.”

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