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.


  1. Excellent post Trina. I have enjoyed playing the game and learning about visual design in the process as well. I’ve often watched a drawing come to life thinking less about what the drawing was and more about why the person was drawing it out the way they were. Also – and I’m sure others have done this as well – I often enter all of the letters of a guess but leave out the last one… just so I can watch the rest of the drawing take shape.

  2. James K. says:

    When I was teaching technology in middle school, I had the students working in pairs playing Sim City. We were talking about what it takes for a city to work, looking at infrastructures, etc (we even took a field trip to the power plant). It was my first semester teaching at this level, and I was more or less winging it.

    One day, the principal came down and was talking to the students about what they were doing. I thought he was going to be upset that the students were just sitting around playing a game. But then the student he was talking to started talking about how they had to balance their budget, making sure not to get in the red, etc, and how they would have to get a loan if they did, and then how they would have to increase revenue to pay it back. He looked at me and smiled, and I realized the students were getting MUCH more out of playing a game than I had originally intended! And what’s more, the kids didn’t even realize they were learning while they played!

    Since then, I’ve always looked for a way to get learning and gaming connected.

  3. I totally hold back letters just to see the drawing unfold! And I thought I was the only one…

  4. Great story, James. I’m going to start my son on Ricochet Robot soon (a board game, I adore). Not only will it help him build his design thinking skills, it should also help him with his math in a way that’s totally fun/nonthreatening…

  5. I love this game so much – not just because it’s fun to draw but because it forcues you to communicate – to think not just about how you understand a concept but about how your peers/friends will understand that concept. I think it’s a useful concept for elearning developers to revisit as they face the challenge of communicating ideas clearly every day. It could also be a great team building exercise. : )

  6. I agree with you, Kelly. It’s a great exercise for designers because it really forces you to experiment with balancing a lot of different factors – including your own ability to execute what you’re visualizing.

  7. I like watching the learning curve with new players: early efforts are way too complicated, and often the player ends up adding words anyway. Just a dozen efforts in and you see the lines get cleaner, better clues, an understanding of which details will help the other player make a better guess.

  8. One thing I find striking in the game is how the idea of audience is reinforced. Notice how, when you’re drawing, there’s a note onscreen reminding you of the word you’re drawing and who you’re drawing for. The game isn’t about drawing well… it’s about a conversation between two people. When I was drawing KILT for a friend, I clearly made it a pic of one of our mutual friends who occasionally wears a Utilikilt. Did it make them guess more quickly? Probably not. Did it make my friend laugh and make the game more fun? I hope so!

    This plays into word selection, too. I’m never going to draw Jay-Z for some of my friends. I’m never even going to draw a bird and write “+ Z” because “JAYZ” are letters that they would never, ever guess.

    Is there a lesson in there for designers? Yeah, I think so. I believe in obsessing about my audience.

    P.S. I totally wait for the drawing to finish, too! Especially with yours… “Hey Judy U., Trina R. has sent you a drawing” is one of my favorite notifications to receive!

  9. Hahaha!

    Just realized I publicly posted another example of something I would only draw for a certain audience when I blogged about Draw Something a few weeks ago…

  10. “I believe in obsessing about my audience.”

    Brilliant! I completely share in that belief, Judy.

    – t

  11. Tracy Parish says:

    I love your point about colours and the significance they play in learning, communicating and playing this game. I saw one friend draw an apple and I knew it was an apple, but because they had to draw it in one of the standard colours, they then added the word “green” and and arrow pointing to the apple. They didn’t trust that their drawing was good enough to convey their message without the colour reference.

  12. The publishers of Pictionary missed an incredible business opportunity here! It’s probably not too late for them, and that would be a shame as OMGPOP have done such a great job with Draw Something. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Pictionary app now try to compete.

    Take-home Business Lesson: understand what business you are really in and what are the new opportunities. Pictionary thought they were in the business of publishing board games. Fail. Their business is entertainment. And THAT is a changing game, with new opportunities opening up everywhere for quick thinkers.

  13. For what it’s worth, my attempt at drawings on Draw Something improved dramatically once I tried using a stylus pen. (i.e. search Amazon for it,, etc.) Now you still have to have the right mindset and approach as described above, but even the best of intentions can get derailed when confronted with the “fat finger” problem! Happy Drawing!

  14. Marilyn Justin says:

    I love the fact that you can pick random players to draw with, and can have as many as 40 games going at once or even more! Never a time when “no one is playing”. I also love “getting to know” the stranger at the other end of the drawing, who could be on the other side of the world by the way, Like you said, “obsessing about my audience” is a huge part of the game, for me, even more so than the actual drawing part. I draw differently for different people that I have become acquainted with so to speak, a young person vs. an older one, male vs. female, and even different cultures from my own. We even write comments back and forth, compliments and comical sayings. I find myself asking questions such as ” do you live in the US? or where did you learn to draw so well?”. After several hundred drawings back and forth with a stranger, you tend to become kind of like friends. And it gives you a great insight into how your friends’ minds actually work at communication! My boyfriend has a strange way of communicating in a visual manner! Overall it’s a great learning tool as well as a very fun and addicting game.

  15. Nutun Ahmed says:

    I agree with Marylin about the getting to know people, though some people are reluctant to answer. I too have many games with random players, I love it when people put the effort into drawing a clue, it is annoying when the other player just writes out the word to be guessed.
    I like the challenge of producing mini art works, I try to put in enough details to make the word easy to guess for people I’m playing with. I use my fingers on a Samsung Galaxy tab, people have asked ask if I use a stylus.
    Like everyone else who has commented here, I am addicted to this!!


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