A project for Child Protective Services in NYC, OLIO was a card-game collaboration with Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman.

A prototype deck, showing both sides of the cards: a letter side and an image side.

A prototype deck, showing both sides of the cards: a letter side and an image side.

The project

OLIO was a relatively open-ended design challenge from Child Protective Services. CPS sees many children and families each day, and oftentimes those families are stuck waiting. In Summer 2016, Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman approached me to help them design a playful intervention to help ease tensions and pass the time for families working with CPS.

After months of research, site visits, brainstorming and countless iterations, we came up with OLIO. OLIO was a deck of cards made of images and letters, complete with a rulebook of for dozens of games for children 4-18 and their families, and a facilitators guide.

Research & Design

Designing playful experiences for parks, playgrounds, and festivals is easy. Designing for emotionally fraught spaces is incredibly difficult (and, incredibly rewarding). This project in particular required a lot of background research, interviews, observations, and testing to really take shape.

I spent a lot of my time on the project on-site, at various intake centers, libraries, and waiting rooms around the city either with social workers or with families. Sometimes I led sessions and sometimes I watched the social workers take the lead.

For this project we had to come up with something:

  • Relatively inexpensive to produce

  • That could be played by a 5-year old or an 18-year

  • To be played either alone or with others

  • That passed the time

  • That could facilitate meaningful interaction smoothly

  • Was something kids and families actually wanted to engage with

The three core components of the final product were:

  • A single, custom deck of 100 cards

  • The fronts of cards feature a single letter

  • The backs of cards are all distinct images, mostly of people, animals, and city-themed objects (NOTE: many of the images on the cards are from the work of Frank Viva, with permission).


  • A rule book using tons of diagrams and as few words as possible

  • Games that used only images, games that used only letters, and games that used both

  • Games for a single player and for groups

  • Games that are played on a table with only cards, games that are played in and around a large room using bodies and space

Facilitator’s Guide

  • Because the game needed to be something social workers could use in facilitated family sessions, I wrote up a guide that explains different ways the cards could be used in different settings, and how to select the appropriate game for a group or a child.

OLIO is not publicly available but we are working on designing a similar set of games for other contexts.