The 3 Things ‘Draw Something’ Can Teach Us About Being Better Designers

A friend of mine introduced me to ‘Draw Something‘ last month and I must admit – I’m addicted. I’ve always been a doodler but this app really ups the ante by challenging me to illustrate a wide array of concepts – everything from simple words like ‘cow’ to people like ‘Lady Gaga’ or ‘Madonna’ – so they can be guessed by a friend who’s also drawing words for you. You earn coins for correct guesses and successful rounds are celebrated.

Now, I already fancied myself to be a visual person, but playing Draw Something has really reinforced to me that visual thinking is only one layer of design. It’s also shown me where some of my own design strengths and weaknesses lie. Here are three specific lessons I’ve learned…

1. Animate vs. Illustrate

I’ve seen an interesting trend. Some people take the quickest route to communicating their ideas, illustrating with maximum speed and simplicity (think about the timer you’re up against when playing ‘Pictionary’). This is despite the fact that Draw Something doesn’t impose a time limit on drawing, nor is there a time limit or bonus for quick guessing. While the quick illustration approach keeps the game moving, it can backfire when there’s not enough detail for your partner to correctly guess the word – which is the object of the game after all.

Then there are the people who take their simple drawings a step further by animating their illustrations. By purposely trashing their drawings in favor of further iteration in the subsequent sketch, they are in effect using animation (as opposed to a static illustration) as the means of communication.

Take the term ‘omelet’ for instance, one friend drew an egg cracking over a bowl. Then she trashed that image and drew an image of the egg in a bowl being beaten with a whisk. She trashed that one and drew an image of the egg cooking in an omelet pan. The final drawing in the series was of a folded-over omelet centered on a circle (a plate). Would I have guessed ‘omelet’ without the animation? Probably. But animating the steps of making an omelet was a rather brilliant way for my friend to make herself clear. By feeding me information in manageable chunks that built one upon another I wasn’t left to divine information based on one limited interpretation of the idea. Further, since I can stop the animation by guessing the word at any time, it’s a clever way to leverage the game’s features for maximum effect while freeing me to guess at my own pace.

Illustrating concepts is good, but does that mean animating them is always better? Not necessarily. I think the more important question is how often do we as designers forget that clear communication is a balance between efficiency and practicality?

Lesson learned: Too much focus on economy may result in a loss of clarity.

2. Color matters
I had two friends drawing the same concept, at the same time for me. They were both drawing ‘Easter egg’ but my friend who took the time to add colorful accents to her egg and use green to signal that the egg was seated in a bed of grass was able to get me to the correct word a lot faster than my friend who simply relied on black & white patterns to communicate the idea of decoration.

Lesson Learned: It seems like an obvious thing, but using color really is a great way to help the brain more readily grasp the patterns it’s programmed to search for. Color cues ease comprehension while making the overall experience much more stimulating & satisfying.

3. Avoiding Words is Harder Than it Seems
Anyone familiar with ‘Death by PowerPoint’ knows that bullets kill. Despite knowing this, the reason so many of us still struggle to communicate without onscreen text is that it’s really, freakin’ hard! Case in point: within my first few hours of playing ‘Draw Something’ I watched as a fellow designer friend repeatedly drew a red and green triangle over a stick figure before finally using the drawing tool to write me a note:

“I give up! Please just type the word ‘KILT’.”

Even friends who’ve gone to great lengths to create a perfectly clear illustration invariably give in to the temptation to augment their drawings with unnecessary and visually overwhelming labels. And further down the spectrum are my friends who treat almost every drawing challenge as an opportunity to write as many words as possible – presumably in an effort to avoid subjecting me to their questionable drawing skills. While thoroughly amusing, this approach always leaves me wondering, “Are they aware that ‘Draw Something’ is, in fact, a ‘drawing’ game?”

Lesson Learned: Treat word usage with the same strategic consideration you use for images. A word or two as a reinforcing/clarifying visual cue can be helpful, but the universal truth of onscreen text holds true – regardless of the application – less is more.

In short, how you approach the treatment of visuals has as much to do with designing for successful communication as the choice of the visuals themselves.

Have you learned design lessons from playing games? Are you a Draw Something addict? Share your observations, lessons learned, and design insights by leaving a comment.