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The Low Tech Social Network – an amazing experience

At the recent Design Jam Oxford I was introduced to the Gamestorming book and have been pretty much obsessed with it ever since. Given the slightest opportunity I have been putting its ideas to use and one fantastic success was at a recent event in Nottingham in the UK.

We are a group of artists called Livescribes and we have only just launched ourselves into the world of Visual Thinking, Graphic Recording and Graphic Facilitation. When you begin a new venture – I quit my regular 9-5 web job to do this – you never quite know what might happen. The first event we were due to attend as Livescribes was called ‘Show Off’ at Antenna in Nottingham.

Antenna is a studio and office space for creatives based in and around Nottingham. We decided one thing we wanted to do to show the people there we do things differently was to instigate the ‘Low Tech Social Network’ straight out of the Gamestorming playbook (page 105). We would ask people to take a Post-It, draw themselves, write two things about themselves on it and ‘upload’ themselves to our piece of paper.

The event had businesses associated with Antenna as well as visitors all with stands showing their wares in a large, and very nice, bar area which forms the main networking spot within the building (it does coffee and beer). We unfurled a giant piece of paper and masking taped it to a large wall on a slightly raised area in the bar area. And after politely negotiating with some hairdressers to move their stand so we could be seen awaited the first arrivals.

As it was the hairdressers next to us became our first additions to the social network. We even drew a cartoon of them cutting hair. They went from a bit put out at moving to our new friends. Already the power of the social network was having an effect. We got everyone we could to ‘upload’ themselves and draw connections to other people. You can have a look at the final result on our site here (I have used the cloud zoom JQUERY plugin to create that effect incase you’re interested).

We managed to collar nearly everyone who walked into the room over the course of the day. Not only is this an excellent ice breaker its a fantastic way to get talking to potential clients at an event like this. Once the penny dropped that we were not trying to get their credit card details for some ‘New Facebook’ people smiled, grabbed a sharpie and connected. And once the network had grown into a significantly large collective artwork it became one of the main draws of the event.

My favourite moment was when I accosted a thin slightly stressed individual who was inspecting the work. After giving him the spiel and placing a Post-It and pen in his hand he got to it. Although one odd thing that struck me was, as I was speaking, he looked over my shoulder and made that sort of ‘no it’s ok’ hand gesture to someone. As the gentleman uploaded I noticed he wrote ‘politician’ on his Post-It, I looked around to see a coterie of sharp suited business delegates and political types holding clip boards and a few photographers all looking at us. It turned out I had button holed the head of Nottingham City Council. When he asked me how he should cut £20m from the city budget I immediately thought of the ‘Anti Problem’ Gamestorming session and was about to suggest we figured out how to spend £20m and then not do that – but he was whisked away by his army of followers before I could get him to a flip chart.

My tips are for this are: it’s a highly effective ice breaker, a great way to get talking to people and it can run all day. Get a massive bit of paper to do it if you can, people like the tactile nature of it. And over the course of the day we only met one person who didn’t want to do it, so we drew one for him. I wonder if you can guess who…

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Question Balloons

Object of Play
Planning to accept and respond to questions is one of the most difficult parts of running a meeting, a workshop, or a presentation. Will there be enough time for Q&A? Is the audience willing to ask questions? How many questions will they ask? Do I take questions at the end or throughout? How do I know if questions were answered in a useful way?

To address this challenge, the Question Balloons game allows attendees to ‘float’ their questions throughout a meeting or presentation; providing a visual status that helps manage group energy.

Number of Players
4 to 40

Duration of Play
Any length

How to Play

  1. Start by providing a marker and one or two helium-filled balloons to each attendee. The balloons must have strings that will allow the attendees to float the balloons and then retrieve them (from the ceiling, if necessary) when needed.
  2. Ask each attendee to write their questions about the scheduled topic on a balloon and then float the balloon. Only write one question per balloon. It’s okay to save balloons for later. Question Balloons can be floated at any time during the presentation or meeting.
  3. During any free time (pre-meeting, breaks, or lunch), the speaker or leader should walk around and read the Question Balloons, getting a feel for the questions that will arise.
  4. Inform all attendees that they should pop their Question Balloons – loudly – whenever one of their questions is answered sufficiently. This answer might come from meeting materials, slides, a speaker, or a casual conversation. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the session, any remaining Question Balloons will be addressed.
  5. When a question is answered, the corresponding balloon will pop. Some people will jump. That’s okay. The leader/facilitator should acknowledge that we have answered a question and lead applause. Some participants will float new Question Balloons throughout the session. That’s good.
  6. When the content or topic is completed, there will usually be two types of Question Balloons remaining. The first type is informational (When is the product being released? Who wants to share a ride home? How much is that service?). Answer these first. If there is no answer available, assign the question to the responsible party. The second type of question you’ll see is opinion (What is the best approach? How should I handle my customer?). These should be posed to the room. Instruct the person who floated the question to pop their balloon when they received information, from anyone, that will help them move forward.

Question Balloons are very effective for meetings loaded with content, like reviews and status meetings. For organizations that might be too conservative for balloon popping, sticky notes on a wall will also work. We recommend using balloons for special events, not for a weekly status meeting.

Key Points
The Question Balloons game gives power to meeting attendees, control to the facilitator, and feedback to both. It leverages visual and kinesthetic information through balloon floating and popping. It uses the mechanism of elimination to score how many questions get answered. Attendees can see that their questions will be answered. Play Question Balloons when you want to better manage group energy.

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TEDx Austin – Lo Tech Social Network (p. 105 of Gamestorming)

As many of you know, TEDx events have sprung up all over the world. Planning the bigger events takes a lot of time and effort from volunteers who are serious about “ideas worth spreading.” I’m one of those volunteers, having been on the production team for TEDx Austin since its inception. The team was very supportive of our book, Gamestorming, when it was released and we used the next group meeting as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the visual-thinking activities within. What you see above is an artifact from a recent meeting with some of the best design, marketing and UX firms in Austin. It was a creative brainstorm designed to put the “hive mind” together to see how we can make the 2011 event better and bolder than last year’s (which was very well done, in large part to Nancy Giordano‘s solid mind and infectious enthusiasm). I’d love to be able to show the other visual artifacts from the meeting, alas, that content is intended to be a surprise for the audience.

Some tips for running the Lo Tech Social Network game (on p. 105 of the book): This game is an opener and it really contributes to warming up groups that otherwise may be slow to wake up or timid about contributing, particularly if they’re in a group of their professional peers. (Note: If the people are strangers who have never heard of each other, this game won’t work. At least 1/2 of the participants need to have some knowledge of the others.) Position your white space by a food-and-drink area so the participants can loiter and make connections while they (sometimes awkwardly) stand around before the meeting begins. You can have written instructions on a flip chart next to the space they’re playing in, but it’s also good to have a visual example already in the white space (at least two sticky notes connected by a line that says how the people are connected) and you’ll find that people deduce what to do. And of course you can have a facilitator placed near the area to give people the rules of the game and supply them with markers and sticky notes. Lo Tech Social Network gets fun fast and it alleviates the desire to run the old “My-name-is _______ and-one-thing-people-don’t-know-about-me-is _______” snoozer. This is a faster way to accomplish the same goal and to actually show how small the world can be. And if you want to make the game less formal, start off the visual example by writing a comment like, “we have the same taste in women” or “we went to the same nudist colony.” If you’ve got a tight-knit group already, let them be goofy. It makes it a funnier experience.

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Trading Cards

Overlapper trading card

Object of Play

People sometimes grumble about the dreaded “icebreaker,” but humans are like cars: we perform better when we’re warmed up. This meeting starter is great because (1) it lets people self-define, (2) it gives people a “personality” outside the typical work environment, (3) it gives participants quick snapshots of multiple players (since they see many cards as they’re being passed around), and (4) it creates memorable visuals that give people conversation pieces as the meeting progresses.

Number of Players


Duration of Play

10–15 minutes

How to Play

1. Give the meeting participants access to large-scale index cards and markers.

2. Ask them to take 5–10 minutes to create a personal “trading card”—one that includes a self-portrait, a nickname for their “player,” and one thing about themselves that people in the meeting aren’t likely to know.

3. Have the players pass the trading cards around the room in no particular manner or order. Tell them to read each trading card that falls into their hands and hold onto one they might ask a question about. They can keep passing until they find one.

4. Ask for volunteers to read their player’s name and nickname and then to ask that person a question related to the little-known fact on his card.

5. Let the player who was chosen elaborate on the question he was asked. The player can then opt to ask the person whose card he’s holding a question, or he can pass and you can request another volunteer.

6. Keeping going around until the players appear to be sufficiently warmed up. But try to keep the play at or less than 15 minutes long.


So, during the Trading Cards game, there really is no harm and, ahem, no foul. Help meeting participants integrate before the meeting starts.

The source of the Trading Cards game is unknown.

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Low-Tech Social Network

Meshforum 2006

Object of Play

The object of this game is to introduce event participants to each other by co-creating a mural-sized, visual network of their connections.

Number of Players

Large groups in an event setting

Duration of Play

25 minutes to create the first version of the network; the network remains up for the duration of the event, and may be added to, changed, or studied throughout.

How to Play

To set up the game, all participants will need a 5×8 index card and access to markers or something similar to draw their avatar. They will also need a substantial wall covered in butcher paper to create the actual network.

1. An emcee or leader for the event gives the participants clear instructions: “As a group, we are going to build the social network that is in the room right now. We’re going to use this wall to do it. But first, we need to create the most fundamental elements of the network: who you are. Start by taking your card and drawing your avatar (profile picture) that you’ll be uploading to the network. Save room on the bottom of the card for your name.”

2. Create the avatars. After a short period of time (and probably some laughter and apologies for drawing ability), the participants should have their avatars and names created. At this point, the emcee may add a variation, which is to ask the group to also write two words on the card that “tag” who they are or what they’re interested in at the event.

3. Make the connections. Next, the emcee directs participants to stand up and bring their cards and a marker to the butcher paper wall, then “upload” themselves by sticking their card to the wall.

4. The next task is simple: find the people you know and draw lines to make the connections.  Label the lines if you can: “friends with” or “went to school with” or “went mountain climbing with.” This continues for a time and is likely to result in previously undiscovered links and new friends.


The initial network creation will be somewhat chaotic and messy, resulting in a mural that has a lot of spaghetti lines. Over the course of the event, participants may browse the network. Encourage this, and see what new connections are made.

The source of Low-Tech Social Network is unknown.

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Graphic Jam


Object of Play

Words become more challenging to visualize as they become less literal. For example, the words computer and necktie offer immediate imagery. But the words strategy and justice are more abstract and lend themselves to broader visual interpretations. Graphic Jam is an all-purpose visualization game that you can conduct before many other games as a warm-up, but it’s also a useful game in itself. Visualizing abstract concepts supports logo development, presentation design, website design, metaphor development for e-learning, and so on. It exercises the visual part of our cortex—which accounts for 75% of our sensory neurons—and turns on parts of our minds that don’t get much action in a typical business setting. Why does that matter? Because business is getting more complex.  Being able to use your mind’s eye to see and show problems—and solutions—will be a sought-after skill.

Number of Players


Duration of Play

30 minutes to 1 hour

How to Play

1. Establish a large, flat, white display area for this game. Give all players access to sticky notes and index cards.

2. Ask them to take 1–2 minutes to write words on the index cards that they have difficulty conceptualizing and drawing, like “quality” or “teamwork.” Ask for one word or phrase per index card.

3. Gather all of the contributions, shuffle them, and then draw one card and read it aloud to the group. Tape it up in the white space.

4. Ask the players to reflect on the word and draw a visual representation of it on a sticky note so that it can be posted on the wall. Give them 2–3 minutes to do so.

5. Have the players approach the white space and post their sticky note under the index card with the related word.

6. Repeat steps 3–5 until all or most of the words have been read aloud. If you draw repeat words or synonyms of previously drawn words, draw again until you get a fresh concept.

7. By the end of the game, you’ll have a gallery space of visualized concepts. Ask the group to spend time looking at how others interpreted the words.

8. Referring to the sticky notes, lead a group discussion by asking what certain images mean and how the artist related that image to the word that was read aloud. Ask players to discuss which words were easier to visualize than others and why. Close by asking them how they might see visualization skills applied in their daily life and work.


It is highly likely that the words the players contribute to this game will be on the abstract end of the spectrum. Note that the amount of time you’ll need for this game depends on the number of players, the number of words each player generates, and the complexity of the word concepts. Use your best judgment on how long to spend conducting a Graphic Jam session. And when you decide it’s time to call it quits, ask the group if there are any burning concepts they’d like to see visualized. If so, take a few more minutes with the group to tackle them. When the game is over, give the players a chance to converse with each other about the creative processes and techniques they use to conjure ideas and imagery.

The Graphic Jam game inspired by the same-named activity created by Leslie Salmon-Zhu, co-founder of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners.

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Welcome To My World

Overlap Toronto

Object of Play

Many of us make the mistaken assumption that others see what we see and know what we know. No one in the world shares your internal system map of reality. The best way to compare notes, so to speak, is to actually draw an external representation of what you think is happening. Welcome to My World gives players an opportunity to better understand other players’ roles and responsibilities. It helps chip away at silos and introduces the novel idea that we may be seeing only one reality: ours. It helps immensely to show what we see to others so that we can start to share a reality and work on it together.

Number of Players


Duration of Play

30 minutes to 1 hour

How to Play

1. Give all players access to flip-chart paper, markers, and sticky notes. Ask them to take 30 seconds to write one of their job responsibilities (e.g., create the company newsletter or devise a marketing strategy for Product X) on a sticky note and stick it to their shirt.

2. Have the players wander around the room and pair up with someone whose job responsibility they’re the least familiar with or that they’re curious about. If you have an odd number of players, join them to even it out.

3. In pairs, ask the players to take turns drawing their best representation of how they envision the other person’s workflow around that job duty. They can use simple circles, boxes, and arrows to make flowcharts or they can get creative, but they cannot interview the other player or ask any clarifying questions while they’re drawing.  Give them 5–15 minutes to draw quietly.

4. When the time is up, give each player five minutes to share her drawing with the other person and describe what it means.

5. Then give the pairs 5–10 minutes each to clarify or agree on the realities of each other’s drawing. They should also take time to discuss where the areas of ease, friction, and interactions with others fall in the process. They can elaborate and draw on the other person’s visual at this point, or the original creator of the visual can add content as his partner shares.

6. Ask for volunteers to show their visuals to the larger group and to describe some of their insights and observations.


To be maximally effective, this game has one requirement: the players should represent a range of positions or job responsibilities within an organization. The game rapidly loses its value if all the participants have the same, predictable workflow, like processing an undisputed insurance claim. The idea is to educate each other on the realities of their work duties and to help break down silos across organizational areas. Once the insights start coming out, this game can significantly increase the understanding and appreciation of others’ work. And it can be even more effective when you have players who have to work together but historically have had little insight into—or even patience with—their colleagues’ processes.

Most people feel comfortable drawing basic shapes and workflow-related diagrams since these are common in company life. If, however, players balk at having to draw, tell them they’re welcome to rely only on words, but they’ll miss an opportunity to make a simple picture of someone else’s “world” at work.

The source for the Welcome to My World game is unknown.

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Ice breaker

Ice breaker, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

Here’s a simple but effective way to break the ice and introduce people at your next meeting or event. It’s a good way to get people into a brainstorming/creative mood and sets the tone for a creative meeting.

1. Give everyone an index card and a colored marker (it’s better if everyone has a different color).

2. Have each person fold the card in half to make a table tent.

3. On the front, have them write their name and draw their “supermask” (as in, if they were a superhero, what would be their mask?).

4. On the back, have each person write their “supername” and “superpower.”

5. Go around the room and have each person describe their card to the group.


1. If everyone more or less knows each other: After writing their name, have each person pass their card to the person on their left or right. The person receiving the card fills it out and passes it back. Then go around the room as before.

2. Instead of “supername” and “super power” you can try other things, like “wrestler mask, name and secret move.”

3. Corporate version Have each person draw a self-portrait on the front of the card, and on the back write something others are unlikely to know about them.

We did this at a recent edition of visual thinking school and it really livened up the meeting. Here are the results.

Give it a try, and post your cards to the vizthink! pool.

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Back of the Napkin


Object of Play:
The goal for each team is to come up with an answer  to a provocative question and write/draw it up on the back of a napkin.

Number of Players: Teams of 3. (See strategy section for discussion of different team sizes.)  No limit to the number of teams other than what the organizer wants.

Duration of Play: TBD by organizer.  Minimum amount of time recommended:  10 minutes per team per question.

Examples: Here are examples of questions and  napkins from the recent TEDxTC event in St. Paul, MN.  [1] [2] [3]

How to Play

  • Game is played in teams.
  • There is at least 1 problem statement/open-ended question per game session.
  • Each team writes and/or draws their answer on a napkin.
  • Each answer appears on one side of the (folded) napkin.
  • Players write their names on the other side of the napkin.
  • Optional:  Players may enter as many solutions as they want, however, each submission has to be from a different team.
  • Optional:  Each team must be comprised of at least 2 people who have just met or are just meeting.
  • Optional:  A group of judges will look at the entries.   Play for bragging rights or for a prize.  To keep it clear that there are all sorts of possibilities, offer different categories, such as:
    • Most Practical
    • Most Out-of-the-Box
    • Most Whimsical
    • Most Visual

As a facilitator/organizer, why might you play this game?  Here are some reasons:

  • To introduce people to each other and/or to facilitate networking amongst them.
  • To provide a fun, competitive way to brainstorm.
  • To turn the reception for an event into an experience that people value as part of the overall experience.

The back of a napkin is already associated with Aha moments and inspiration.  Its informality helps combat people’s instincts towards worrying about whether they can draw, have the “perfect” solution to the question, and other worries that can crop up if we were to use something more formal. It’s a good idea to reinforce this in the introduction to the game by encouraging teams to be as practical, whimsical and/or out of the box as they want, and, if winners will be named, by having categories that include playful ones.

Question strategy: define a question that’s open-ended and requires more than a couple of words to answer.  Keep it relatively short and clear.  Don’t worry that the question is too “big” in terms of its scope.  This game is meant to inspire conversation and ideation.

Another important thing about the question is to make sure it relates to something that all the potential players have in common.  Some examples of common things are:

  • a speech that everyone’s heard,
  • a book or article that everyone’s read,
  • a company or organization they’ve all done business with or been a part of in some other way,
  • an experience they’ve had in common, such as being a parent or living in the same community.

Team size:  you can choose to set the team size to be exactly n players, no fewer than n players, no more than n players, or n to y players.  I recommend that the numbers be somewhere between 2 and 6.  If you’re running the game at an event where people decide to play or not, going with the “n to y players” would work best.  This is because people are playing and networking at the same time, and if 4 people want to play in one place and 2 in another, for example, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to.  In an environment where it’s important to you that everyone plays, setting team sizes more precisely might work better.

With regard to team formation, you can go with an unconference approach and have multiple questions and have people gravitate to the question they want to answer and find others to team with, or go with something more defined.


  • A napkin that’s around 5″ x 5″ in its folded form works well. It’s better to get ones with a smooth surface so it’s easier to write on.  Gel pens work well, fyi, if you’re providing pens.
  • If you are playing the game with multiple questions or in a large space, consider having a host/facilitator at each question’s station to explain the game and answer questions.
  • I recommend having a flip chart or other large-format paper hanging on the wall and having players tape their napkins to that.
  • Tell players the timeframe in which the game will be played.

[This game is credited to Sheila Kim.]

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Geneva workshop

Object of Play
Some of the best ideas are compilations from multiple contributors. Brainwriting is a simple way to generate ideas, share them, and subsequently build on them within a group. Access to multiple hands, eyes, and minds can yield the most interesting results.

Number of Players: 5–15

Duration of Play: 30–45 minutes

How to Play
1. In a space visible to the players, write the topic around which you need to generate ideas and draw a picture of it. An example of a topic might be “Employee Recognition Program.”

2. Distribute index cards to each player and ask them to silently generate ideas related to the topic and write them on the cards.

3. As they complete each idea, ask the players to pass that idea to the person on their right.

4. Tell the players to read the card they received and think of it as an “idea stimulation” card. Ask them to add an idea inspired by what they just read or to enhance the idea and then pass again to their right.

5. Continue this process of “brainwriting” and passing cards to the right until there are various ideas on each card.

Optional activity: Ask the players to write an idea on a piece of paper and then fold it into an airplane and fly it to another participant. Continue writing and flying the planes until each piece of paper has several ideas. Conclude with steps 6 and 7.

6. Once finished, collect the cards and ask for help taping them to the wall around the topic and its picture.

7. Have the group come to the wall to review the ideas and draw stars next to the ones they find most compelling. Discuss.

Optional activity: Create an idea gallery in the room using flip-chart pads and stands. Ask players to write as many ideas on the sheet as they can and then wander around the room and add ideas to the other sheets. Continue this process until each sheet has a good number of ideas.

In a typical group setting, extroverts tend to dominate the verbal contributions. And while their contributions are certainly important, it can be difficult to hear from quieter players who also have something valuable to offer. Let the players know that this play is intentionally silent. It affords the quiet people the opportunity to generate ideas without having to verbalize to the whole group, and it gives you certainty that you’ll hear from every player in the room.

Brainwriting also allows ideas to emerge before being critiqued and creates a space for them to be co-created, with multiple owners, and therefore a greater chance of follow-through.

The Brainwriting game is based on the same-named activity in Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys. Horst Geschke and associates at the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, developed a variety of these creative-thinking techniques referred to as “brainwriting.”