Wednesday, October 17, 2007

VizThink: Vizionary!


Here in Toronto we just ran VizThink Toronto 5, a.k.a. "Vizionary!".

So what is Vizionary?
In a nutshell, a modified version of the family favorite "Pictionary". We took the basic premise and tweaked it to be played in a large group environment in a round-robin tournament style.

Overall I think it was a great success, when I posted the event I wasn't sure if I'd get anyone out as it wasn't a traditional "Come learn something from a speaker" kind of event. We ended up having 16 people show up so we played in four teams of four - which, in looking back was a pretty ideal size for a test group.

At the end of the day, running a Vizionary tournament is a pretty straightforward process and there isn't really a wrong way to do it.

What you'll need:
  • Index Cards
    Pick up a few packs of multi-coloured index cards from your local Office Supply Store. Figure on a minimum of about 10 cards per person attending to ensure you'll have enough words for the evening.
  • Sharpies
    For writing on said cards
  • Vertical Writing/Drawing Surfaces
    Whiteboards, easels, pads of paper etc. You'll need a drawing station for roughly every two teams you have playing.
  • Whiteboard Markers
    If you use whiteboard surfaces for the game
  • Timing Devices
    For each drawing station you'll need some way to keep track of time. Plus one master timer for the rounds.
1. Create the Categories
Unlike Pictionary, which comes with a nice box of cards with lots of words on them, in Vizionary we make our own.

The first step is to pick some categories - for this initial version of the game I just brainstormed some categories with a couple of other people ahead of time. Ideally you could work in a session at the start to get the group involved in setting the categories for the evening. At this point though I was more concerned with the actual mechanics of the game etc. that I didn't want to add another level of complexity to the evening.

Click to EnlargeCategories are a tricky thing - if they don't work the rest of the evening will suffer as they drive the context of the evening. Because the participants are creating the words there's a lot of room for some strange stuff to end up on the cards, as a result you need to find categories that have the following characteristics:
  1. Broad enough that there will be plenty of ideas and hopefully minimal repetition.
    For example "Pets" would probably result in a LOT of "cat" & "dog" cards.
  2. Lend themselves to unobvious concepts/pictures.
    Taking the "Pets" example. "Cat" & "Dog" will be pretty much slam dunks. Especially in a room full of people with some artistic skill. But "Animals That Make Bad Pets" would probably end up with some interesting ideas.
  3. Are not so obscure that most people wouldn't know the subject matter
    "Architectural styles of the late 17th Century" - do I really need to expand on why this wouldn't work?
For our version we ended up with the following:
  1. Sayings Proverbs and Advice
  2. i______ (Fictional Apple Products)
  3. The 1980's
  4. My Toronto is...
  5. Random
Overall I think they worked for the most part. #2, i______, was probably the most troublesome. It never quite struck a balance, the words were either ridiculously hard or really simple. And in retrospect we should have limited #1 to 5 or 6 words.

Assign each category a colour of card and you're ready to go. As you can see in the picture above an extra whiteboard/pad & some coloured markers makes for a good legend.

2. Creating the "words"
So this is where we kicked of the participation portion of the evening. As people arrived we asked them to grab at least two cards for each category and come up with ideas (one per card). Within about 15 minutes we had a really healthy stack of cards that would get us through the game. If you do the basic math @ 2 ideas x 5 categories that's ten "draws" per person - Factor on each person drawing once per round you could run a game of ~9-10 rounds, or 18-20 teams playing each other once.

Again, there's another opportunity here to do an activity to get people stimulated and thinking creatively - the challenge though is you don't want the words seen by everyone as it will spoil a large part of the game. For the most part though I found people were pretty good at coming up with some pretty unique and interesting ideas.

Some notes to pass on to your group about the words though:
  • It doesn't have to be just one word but keep in mind that there's only two minutes for someone to draw this concept so try and keep it brief (~5 words max)
  • It should be commonly known. Unless you're with a very niche group of people keep the ideas in the "general knowledge" realm.
  • At the same time avoid the obvious ideas - it's probably a good idea to throw out the first idea that comes to mind for a category as many others will probably think of it to.
  • Have fun with them!
3. The Game
Ordinary Pictionary is a board game, but that really doesn't translate well to large groups of people. The structure that seems to work well is a round-robin, everyone plays everyone else format. For the nitty-gritty on how to schedule this kind of format check out Wikipedia's entry on it. It's quite straight forward.

It takes about 15-20 minutes to play a round if you have four people per team and they each draw once so keep that in mind when scheduling. We played for ~70 minutes and everyone seemed to be having a great time, we probably could have gone another 30 and still kept people engaged. That would work out to a 6 team round-robin game.

6 Team Round Robin

If you're lucky enough to have the problem of a lot of people, just split the teams out into "leagues" and have the teams only play other teams in their league:

Click to Enlarge
8 Team Round Robin w/Leagues

Keep in mind that for every two teams you'll need one drawing surface (Whiteboard/Easel) - If necessary you could also play with having three teams play at a time.

Here's the rules we used:
For the person drawing:
  • No talking.
  • No letters or numbers.
  • Feel free to gesture!
  • Take the card on the top of the pile. If it's a card you made slide it back into the deck randomly
Points & Timing:
  • The Drawing team gets one minute to guess. 5 points for guessing in the first minute.
  • After one minute there's an additional one minute "All Guess" where both teams can guess. 3 points for guessing during this time.
  • A Round is each person from both teams drawing once or 20 minutes, whichever comes first. Teams can keep drawing for fun if they're waiting for a round to end.
  • Whichever team outscores their opponents in a round gets a bonus 5 points.
Most Importantly:
  • Have fun, step outside your comfort zone and go for it!
Our winning team that night was the group that throughout the night let it all hang out and even came up with their own secret code for the drawer to use to help break down the words/concepts.
4. Go Have a Beer
Finish the night off a local pub - there's nothing more fun than a group of VizThinkers with their "creative adrenaline" pumping at the end of the night. Some of the most interesting/fun stuff comes out of the "over-beers" conversations.

If you do run a Vizionary! night let us know how it goes - and defenitely let us know of any modifications or adaptations you make. These things are a work in progress so feel free to innovate and improve on it!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Humor is serious.

Why? I think humor aids learning. And who would argue that it's not a great way to relax people, get them talking, loosen up tense situations and get your brain working again when it's been sitting dormant or bored?

Every VTS should have a learning objective -- a clear and real goal -- that can be referred back to if things get off track or bogged down in details.

But first check out this excerpt from Todd Holm's web site at Minnesota's Concordia College:
Education teaches convergent thinking. We teach students to look for the answer. Thinking converges on an answer, through a formula. There are measurable, right-or-wrong responses.

Humor promotes divergent thinking. We are encouraged to look for the possibilities not the answer.

"Children start off life putting ideas together in all kinds of ways, creatively and freely. Not coincidentally, they also laugh frequently, 5-year-olds over 400 times a day. But as [they] grow up, [their] thinking gets more constrained, in part because it becomes more goal oriented and more bound by conventions (Morreall, 1991, p. 368)."

So what we don't want is for the session to be all work and no fun. It's OK to have a good time, too. And while there's no elegant, surefire way to inject humor into every VTS you can easily change the pace and pick things up with a quick round of "misinterpretations."

This is purposeful divergent thinking -- (almost) purely for fun. Here's how to try it:

  1. Pass out slips of paper with different phrases on them or have individuals (or groups if you have a lot of people there) reach into a bucket to get one. These phrases should be prepared before the session and can be related to a specific topic related to this VTS -- or not. It's good to have some sort of a unifying theme, though, such as "common travel phrases" or "things said at technology conferences."

  2. Have everyone visualize their phrase on a whiteboard or giant Post-It. Ten minutes should be enough. Try to do all the drawing in one room with the images up on the wall.

  3. Now everyone walks around and makes at least one attempt to correctly interpret one of the drawings, in writing on the whiteboards or sticking up smaller Post-Its.

  4. Once they've made an honest effort, everyone goes around to all the drawings and purposefully misinterpret them. Write what you think each drawing *could* be representing even if that interpretation is funny, unrealistic or downright ridiculous. Give this part another 10 minutes or so.

  5. After everyone has contributed, go around the room and read off all the misinterpretations then tell the group the drawing was supposed to represent. Done.

Chances are you heard lots of chuckles and a few big laughs as people went around writing down their smart-aleck comments.

But the serious takeaway is how easy it is to misinterpret a drawing meant to have one specific meaning. Often visual communication work has enough context to help icons or illustrated scenes make sense, but this exercise reminds everyone that it is frighteningly easy to be too vague or too specific when visualizing something -- the right balance is difficult to achieve when you are trying to keep visuals simple but informative.

With a quick 20-minute exercise like this, you've gotten everyone up out of their chairs, moving around, talking and laughing. Getting back to business should be easy after this refreshing exercise/break.

Communicating effectively is serious business, but remember to have fun out there!