Visual Telephone

Last week we were in Des Moines, Iowa, and while we were there we visited a high school English class. The teacher had asked us to come in because his students were studying graphic novels, and he wondered if we could talk a bit about the various ways in which words and pictures work together in illustrated books.

We spend a lot of time thinking about this very thing, and so we enjoy talking about it. But even more than talking about it, we love showing how pictures and words work together by getting people to write and draw them.

To do this, we play a game called visual telephone. Here’s how it works:

1) Get a group of people together. It probably works best if you have at least eight people.

2) Give everyone a blank book with at least as many pages as there are people in the group. If you don’t feel like making blank books, you can use stacks of paper instead.

3) Everyone turns to the first page of his book (or to the first page of blank paper) and draws a sentence. Everyone gets one minute to write the sentence. It can be any sentence in the world, about anything. For example, you might write this:

4) Now set the timer for two minutes. Hand your book (or his stack of paper) to the person to your left. Look at the new sentence you’ve just been handed, turn the page (or pick up a new piece of paper) and draw a picture that tries to communicate the new sentence. For example, you might draw this:

5) Set the timer for one minute and hand your book/paperĀ  to the person to your left.

6) Look at the picture you’ve just been handed and spend the minute trying to translate it into a sentence. For example:

And so on…

Invariably, things go off the rails.

Proving, the impossibility of pure communication between media.

And the impossibility of seamless translation from mind to mind.

And the undeniable pleasure of combining pictures and words.

And the drama that ensues when everyone’s favorite snack food returns to full price.

The game ends when you get your own book back.

The above is just one of 30 books the kids made in the span of 15 minutes. They were all wonderful.

The best part of the game is sharing the books with each other when the actual writing and drawing is done. It’s rare that the final picture has much in common with the initial sentence. Remember that, in this case, that sentence was “Alex is entertaining.”

You do not need to be a good writer or a good artist to play this game. All you need is some paper, something to write with, and the willingness to try. Imagination helps, but it probably isn’t required.

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