What is important to realize about this game is that you don’t have to be an artist to participate. The “I can’t draw” excuse does not apply. In fact, the more abstract your drawings are the more interesting (and hilarious) the game becomes.

Materials Needed

One great thing about Telepictionary is that it is a cheap activity, no fancy materials are needed. All you’ll need are some sheets of paper and a writing utensil per person (we usually use fine point Sharpies). I also encourage you to have some sort of writing surface for every player — a book, DVD case, table — whatever you have handy.

We usually use letter sized scrap paper cut into four smaller pieces. The size or quality of the paper doesn’t really matter, just as long as your paper is big enough for you to draw and write on. You can use index cards, backs of envelopes, sticky notes — whatever works.

You will need one stack of paper per person. This stack should consist of as many sheets as there are people. If there are seven people playing, then each person should have a stack of seven pieces of paper.

How to Play

Now that everyone has a stack of paper, a sharpie, and something to write on, you should configure your players in a formation that is conducive to passing. I suggest sitting in a circle or square. The following steps might get a bit confusing, but hang in there.

Step 1: Write a phrase

Each person writes down a phrase or a word on the first sheet of paper in their stack (this is the Telephone element). Try to make it something that most of the people in your group will understand and will be able to draw. Write….

Step 2: Pass the stack

After everyone has written something down, everyone is going to pass their ENTIRE stack of papers to the person on their left with their phrase face up on top of the stack. It might be hard to hand your whole stack over, but don’t worry, you’ll get it back.

While you’re letting go of your stack to the left, you’re being passed a new stack of papers from your right. It should have a phrase on the top sheet. Take a look at the phrase and move that sheet of paper to the back of the stack, phrase side up. Be sure to move the page to the back of the stack instead of flipping it over to use the other side of that sheet of paper. Flipping the page over tends to cause confusion in the later parts of the game.

Step 3: Sketch it out

Now that you’ve moved the phrase to the bottom of the stack, you should have a blank piece of paper on the top of the pile. Your task is to draw the phrase on this beautifully clean sheet of paper (this is the Pictionary side of the game). You should not be shy about your drawing skills. Think of it as the karaoke of drawing: sure, it is impressive if you are talented and you can showcase your skills, but it’s more entertaining for everyone else the less polished you are. Ask anyone who has played Telepictionary and they’ll tell you imperfect drawing is preferred. Draw…

Note: Pictionary rules apply: you may not use words, numbers or symbols in your depiction of the phrase.

 Step 4: Pass the stack, again

After everyone has tapped into their inner artist and has drawn the phrase in (im)perfect detail, everyone is going to again, pass their ENTIRE stack to the person to the left while receiving a new stack of paper from the right. This will become a familiar motion for you.

 Step 5: Put it into words

Now you have a new stack of paper with some sort of sketch on the top sheet. Take a good hard look at it and move that paper to the back of the pile, sketch side up. Your job now is to interpret the picture in words to the best of your ability on a new sheet. You may be as literal or as vague as you want. Write…

Note: You may not go back through the previous pages to figure out what the subject is supposed to be. That is cheating!

Step 6: Rinse and repeat

You are going to continue this cycle of interpretation through writing and drawing until you run out of new sheets of paper. When this happens, you will be surprised to see that your original stack of paper has come back to you.

If you are playing with an odd number of people, the stack you end up with should have the written interpretation of how your initial phrase has morphed (or mutated). If you are playing with an even number, you will end up with a stack with a drawing on top.

Draw….                              Write…. 

Note: Keep the pages in order. The game eventually ends with a story. If the pages are all jumbled, then the story doesn’t make sense. Always keep the pages moving to the bottom of the pile and the story will unfold as intended.

Step 7: Share out!

Pick a person to start sharing. Maybe you volunteer to go first. Take your stack, which should have your original phrase on top, and read it aloud and show the group. Then show them how the person to your left drew your phrase. There will be some laughs. Then, read how the next person put that sketch into words, there will be more laughing. Share how the next person drew the new, probably totally different phrase, and people will really start cracking up. Work your way through the entire stack. Your fellow players will start to howl. Then go ahead and have each person share their stack and see how the phrases and drawings evolved from start to finish. This part will take a bit of time, but it is also the best part. You probably won’t remember the last time you laughed so hard.


A Few Tips

You will notice that the time needed to complete a round varies from person to person and round to round. I suggest creating a time limit for each round. Two minutes seems to work well for us, at least for the drawing phases. This helps move the game along while adding the element of pressure. The result is pure entertainment.

If you are short on time, and cutting paper into squares is not really an option, try using a stack of sticky notes. When you are done, you can stick them together to make a comic-strip effect to share your story.

Why is Telepictionary valuable to UX?

What you will find after playing this game is that there are a few lessons that can be applied to your projects:

  • Messages are easy to distort if you are not careful
  • Clear communication is very important
  • Don’t underestimate how simple, iconographic visuals are instantly comprehensible
  • If visuals are not done well, they can be misinterpreted very easily

My colleague, Andrew Crow, does a modified version of this game. Instead of using stacks of paper, he starts with a wireframe of an interaction. Then, as the wireframe is passed around, the person who recieves the visual has to describe the interaction, its purpose and use. The next person redraws, and so on.

He says, “The point of this exercise is to show how good annotation and accurate illustrations are important when working with multiple people on your team. It is a great workshop starter because it gets people thinking about the problems and allows them to express them in the beginning of the meeting. That helps clear their minds so that they can concentrate on the workshop and not worry about the idea that they have in their head.”