A Unique Deck of Metaphoric Associative Cards

Alexander Gorobchenko and Marina Evmenchik Psychologist

The original Russian article (Download the PDF) was published in a Russian-language journal (the English translation of the journal’s name is Educator – Magazine of Non-Formal Education), No. 1(19), 2011, published by the network of educational NGOs in Minsk, Belarus. A translation of the Russian article into English is below.

About the Authors

Alexander Gorobchenko Psychologist, Leader of the Creative Studio “OH-STUDIO”, senior lecturer of the Psychology Department of the Women`s Institute “ENVILA,” graduate of Administration Academy. Activity and interests: psychological help, existential consulting, non-formal education, and helping specialists in the helping professions.

Marina Evmenchik Psychologist, Designer, Activity and interests: psychological help, personality growth trainings, gender psychology, floristics and phytodesign.

A Unique Deck of Metaphoric Associative Cards

Metaphoric associative cards are a unique tool for assisting specialists who work with groups (psychologists, counselors, coaches, pedagogues, educators, etc.). There are different names for these cards in professional circles: “ОH Cards” (the name of the first deck), “projective cards,” “therapeutic cards,” “interactive cards,” etc. Due to the efforts of therapist and publisher Moritz Egetmeyer, the cards have spread all over the world. In our country, the metaphoric associative cards appeared relatively recently. The cards were accepted with enthusiasm by psychologists, social educators, therapists, social workers, and a wide range of people interested in self-knowledge and self-development. Metaphorical associative cards began to be used by specialists as quality, convenient, projective, and educational material. Today, there are 17 unique decks of cards we can use.

The decks of associative cards are sets of images – pictures in a card format. There are the following decks of metaphoric cards:

  4. ECCO
  7. SAGA
  8. 1001
  11. COPE
  12. CLARO
  14. BOSCH
  16. TAHITI

The description of all the decks are presented on the official website of the publisher Moritz Egetmeyer www.OH-Cards.com and on Creative Studio “OH-STUDIO” www.oh-studio.narod.ru.

The history of the cards

The first deck of cards was created in 1975 by Ely Raman, Canadian professor of art history. He wanted to take art out of galleries and bring it closer to people. He considered that works of art should not be “art for art’s sake,” the subject of the passive contemplation of human beings. Art should be accessible to everyone, and that means getting it into people’s hands. The first deck of cards is called “OH” (it’s the English interjection which expresses surprise).

OH Cards were published in 1981 in Canada. This set is composed of two decks – the first consists of situational pictures (88 cards), the second consists of frames with words (88 cards) – both by Ely Raman. The words for the frame deck were selected by using a number of suggestions from psychotherapist Josef Schlichter. The word deck is in a larger format than the deck of pictures. The decks are made so that the image cards can be placed in the frame of the word cards. Therefore, this tool includes the image and the word as two poles – the emotional and the cognitive. Images appeal directly to feelings and intuition, and thus are often able to bypass the rational barrier, the “smart filter.” In  contrast, the words appeal mainly to the consciousness and the expression of analytical, rational thinking.

Thus, the combination of picture cards and word cards can be considered as the unity of cognitive and visual stimuli, which refers to both the left hemisphere of the brain (analytical, logical thinking) and to the right hemisphere (emotions, intuition). When the two decks are used together, it is possible to have 7744 different combinations. This combinations encourages people to open their creative potential.

In 1983 Ely Raman met Moritz Egetmeyer, a psychotherapist by education. He was able to see in the OH Cards a tool with which he could encourage patients into frank conversations about themselves and their problems.

According to an agreement with Ely Raman, Moritz Egetmeyer was allowed to sell OH only in Germany and Europe. After his amazing meeting with the OH Cards, M. Egetmeyer and his family returned to Germany, but found no publishers who would agree to publish the metaphorical cards.

The publishers considered the cards not to be enough in demand to make a profit because metaphorical cards don’t abide by the basic principle of card games, where there is a winner and loser. Having been refused by all publishers, Moritz Egetmeyer founded OH Verlag (OH Publishing) in Germany and began to publish the OH Cards himself. Since that time, OH Verlag has focused on publishing and promoting these associative metaphorical cards as a game and as a unique tool for working with people. So started the OH Cards journey all over the world.

The first OH Card deck appeared in Germany in 1985. Moritz and Ely introduced the game to the public for the first time at the Games Fair in Essen.

Their presentation was done in the original, therapeutic-associative format: Cards were selected blindly – one from the picture deck, the other from the word deck – and one commented on any spontaneous feelings, thoughts, or associations that arose. Many representatives of major manufacturers curiously examined the cards. But there was an unexpected complication. In the exhibition halls it was impossible to create the atmosphere of mutual trust needed when the cards are used for therapeutic purposes.

Suddenly, Moritz saved the moment by coming up with the idea of using the picture cards to tell stories, which facilitated the development of entirely new types of public games. This idea was the impetus that later led to the creation of the SAGA deck, the second deck of metaphorical associative cards. The story of the cards is ongoing – the work itself and interactions with the cards and the people who use them are encouraged and facilitated by the emergence of new concepts with the cards and new decks.

For example, psychologists and psychotherapists working in crisis situations with victims of violence and trauma appealed to the OH publisher with a request to create a particular deck of cards. Subsequently, the COPE deck was born, as a result of international co-operation between the publisher from Germany (Moritz Egetmeyer), an artist from Russia (Marina Lukyanova), and a world-renowned therapist from Israel (Dr. Ofra Ayalon).

General principles and “OH Etiquette”

If someone wants to understand what is unique about these decks of associative cards, first one must get rid of conventional thinking about how to “play” cards. Traditional games assume a competitive process of win/lose and the intrigue of one player wining through the weakness of another. The assumption with using OH Cards is cooperation, not competition and winning. Thus, all the in-group methods, games, or exercises (call it what you want, depending on use) suggest cooperation as the principle of joint, consistent, harmonious work – a willingness to support and assist one another (as opposed to competing).

Using the cards in groups with the principle of cooperation suggests a principle of activity, because each participant of joint action is its active agent, not just through listening, understanding, knowing, and studying people, but also through self-acting and helping people.

Metaphorical imagery provides visual stimulus for the projection of individual phenomena, which is one of the basic and important principles for the use of the cards. The picture card format as visual stimulus is also a symbol or metaphor. The picture card as a symbol or metaphor is an independent artistic format that has emotional and allegorical meaning, which corresponds to the phenomenon of life, in which we are able to connect objective meaning to our senses and experiences.

The use of metaphorical (safer) language in working with groups with a variety of problems can remove many defense mechanisms, build an atmosphere of trust, and create communication. Strawberries Beyond My Window is the metaphoric name of a book about metaphoric associative cards, written by Waltraud Kirschke. The metaphor “strawberries beyond my window” symbolizes what is inside us but we cannot “touch” because of the window/obstacles. Metaphorical cards allow one to get into contact with the inner world safely, gently, lovingly. Using a metaphorical space to find new ways to solve our problems and get answers, we often find quick solutions.

Art is the foundation for creativity. Exercises and games with pictures in card format create the conditions for opening creativity, for creating something new that previously did not exist. When working with the cards, allow full freedom for associations.

Sincerity is the next important principle to recommend when working with the cards. Be honest and open working with the cards and stick to a simple storyline.

It is important that each participant knows and feels he is considered, his opinion is important, and he can speak freely to put forward suggestions, to make the choice that he is unique.

Therefore, it is prohibited to interpret or reinterpret another person’s interpretation, because each of us reflects the same picture situation in our own way.

Another important recommendation is to speak in the present tense and describe events depicted by the cards as being dynamic and in process.

What distinguishes humans from other creatures? It is our subjectivity – our ability to be spontaneous and to be a reflection of that spontaneity. What surprises and charms us about small children? It is the spontaneity of their behavior, their absolute honesty and openness in any display. When we become adults – taught to react properly, to not be spontaneous – we suddenly come to the fact that spontaneous behavior is behavior that asserts its own intrinsic value, that spontaneity allows us  to make discoveries within ourselves, to develop and create. Often, we try to be spontaneous and we come up with nothing. Violation of spontaneity prevents full self-actualization, the full sense of self as a subject of itself, as a self-sufficient individuality. When we let ourselves be spontaneous in a metaphoric associative activity, as with the cards, we use more imagination than logic.

The last recommendation is allowing the option of re-choosing a card without explanation. The author of any proposed action with the cards may replace any unsuitable or unimportant cards.

The recommendations proposed by the original authors of the cards are called “OH ETIQUETTE.” They can be used by the participants in groups.

OH Etiquette:

  • In OH, we honour each other’s privacy. I may choose to pass, to not play the cards I have drawn. I can do this with or without explanation, revealing my cards or not.
  • In OH, we honour each other. I will not interrupt you.
  • In OH, we honour each other’s intelligence and imagination. I do not re­interpret (or interpret) your cards – even in the secrecy of my mind.
  • In OH, we honour each other’s integrity. I do not contradict you or argue about your interpretations. I try to remember that there are no “correct” or “incorrect” interpretations of the pictures, no misreading of words.
  • In OH, we honour each other’s individuality. When I interpret my OH Cards I do not assume that you see what I see, feel what I feel, read what I read.

Fields of use

There are many different ways of using the cards as projective stimulus material in groups and in individual work with adults and children. Metaphorical cards are effectively used in work with families, in psychodrama, gestalt therapy, art therapy, transactional analysis, and psychosynthesis. Post-traumatic syndrome, work with psychosomatic illnesses and addictions, problems of parent-child and marital relationships, team relationships, team-building, conflict resolution, personal growth … that is an incomplete list of areas where using therapeutic cards to address the imagination, fantasy, and the flow of associations can be very effective and useful.

Metaphorical cards have all the advantages of projective techniques, significantly expanding the therapeutic arsenal of a psychologist or therapist. The cards help to access a complete picture of the “inner world” of the client, his personal myth of the world and himself in it, as well as a subjective image of the situation from the perspective of the client. The cards help very quickly to clarify and understand the actual experience and needs of the client’s internal processes. Associative cards provide us with an opportunity to see a clear picture of any interpersonal relationship, or relationship, with ideas and images of one’s external or internal reality. Using the cards to refer to the traumatic situation through metaphor allows the avoidance of additional traumatization and creates a secure context for searching for and modeling solutions. Cards start up the internal processes of self-healing and finding one’s unique path to recovery. Working over time allows one to model and research any process in the past and in the future. People can do this by finding images of solutions, with the help of the metaphorical cards, and creating that specifically, embodying it later in reality.

Metaphorical associative cards as projective material are successfully used in trainings, interactive discussions, and individual consultations. They are a great help to those who work with other people because they allow a way to start talking (communicate) and create an atmosphere of trust and interest in self-searching and self development. The cards are a manual for creating the necessary context whereby clients gain access to their own inner creative beginnings.

Associative cards are a unique educational instrument. Firstly, cards are a reason to start a conversation in the group, even if the participants didn’t have any points of contact or common topics beforehand. Secondly, it is possible by explaining the rules of using the cards to demonstrate and illustrate the basic principles of humane, personally oriented relating (attitude), respect, and cooperation in the group as a community. Thirdly, the cards can be used as a start-up for the development of creative potential and the search for alternatives by each of the participants of a group (for example, writing a composition or essay by choosing a card blindly, or searching for new ways to resolve conflicts by working with the cards and images). Fourthly, working with the cards using the proposed rules reduces the fear of criticism. Participants learn to listen to others and to hear them. Also, the cards can be used as thematic material for the study of humanities (social psychology, family psychology and psychotherapy, organizational psychology, crisis psychology, etc.). There are a lot of ways of successfully using the cards: stimulating personal growth; coping with crisis and recovering from the consequences of trauma; correcting relationships; conflict resolution; diagnostics and assessment of professional competencies of future specialists; analysis of psychological features of representatives of different professions, cultures, and nationalities; and the development of core competencies of future professionals.

Examples of methods (games) with the cards

Oriental Poetry [1]

Category: Creativity

Purpose: The discovery and development of creativity

Time: 20-30 minutes

Number of participants: 8-14

Materials needed: For this exercise, you can use the cards ECCO, BEAUREGARD, LYDIA JAKOB STORY

Process: Participants are given the rules of Oriental poetry. Then each participant chooses a card blindly and spontaneously says a word according to the rules of versification. A card is chosen for every word or phrase from the rules.

The rules of Oriental poetry:The main word (noun)Adjective, AdjectiveVerb, Verb, VerbA phrase that expresses the ratioA nounFor example:Autumn…Grey, sad.Comes, knocks, does not retreat.Indeterminate state of grief and sadness.Memories.


Category: Interaction
Purpose: Learning to recognize personality portraits through descriptive characteristics, establishing contact and communication, and developing empathy.
Time: 30-40 minutes
Number of participants: 8-14

Materials needed: Metaphorical card decks – PERSONA, PERSONITA

Process: Each participant selects a portrait from the PERSONA or PERSONITA decks that resembles a “psychological portrait” of any of the members of the group. Do not choose based on external characteristics (height, build, etc.) that would immediately identify a specific person. The picture is selected based on a depiction of traits, habits, and psychological features that characterize the particular person (a minimum of 10 features). Then each participant presents their portrait to the group and the other members try to determine which person in the group is being depicted. There can be a comparison of the visions of the same person by various members of the group.

So, metaphoric associative cards can be considered as a deep psychological game, as stimulating, projective material for group or individual work. The cards are not oriented to games where there’s a winner or a loser. They are created for something bigger than as use as a simple collective table game, but they are also not cards for fortune-telling, as are, for example, tarot cards. These cards are rather something completely new and breathtaking. They are a tool for accessing our own imagination and creativity; an instrument for self-actualization; a catalyst that creates an atmosphere of liberation when a user begins to speak about himself freely and openly. The card images don’t have generally accepted meanings that can be assumed independently of a concrete game situation.

The cards challenge the player to open up their meaning, namely the unique meaning they have for the player now, at this moment, in this situation. Tomorrow, it may be an entirely different meaning.


By means of this material readers can get acquainted with metaphoric associative cards – that they are a unique tool and a helper of specialists who work with groups (psychologists, trainesr, consultants, pedagogues, educators, etc.), their history and origin, the main principles of use, and the field of application.

[1] The “Oriental poetry” and “Persona” methods here are by A. Gorobchenko