“Dear publishers,

we designed and developed The Visual Language Cards, a learning game on visual grammar that is also a tool for designers. We had a full academic year of iterations through several play test groups and we printed a short number of decks to be able to play it and promote it. The full game consists of a deck of 45 cards, 4 gallery boards, 4 gallery standards; 4 sets of 10 tokens; and 1 sand clock of 1 minute.

We are looking for a suitable publisher, as it is a special game. You can read more about the game and the research involved in our website: http://ponsverhoog.org/visual-language-cards/

Do you think we are eligible for your line of boxed games? We would like to present it to you.

Looking forward,

PonsVerhoog”

The story of My Photography Toolbox starts in September 2017 with this letter. This was the short presentation email we sent to a publisher in Amsterdam to find out if a previous game we had developed, The Visual Language Cards, would fit their catalogue.

Once it’s over, diving into a design process helps understand the sequence of events and why the outcome is such.

We worked with notes, pictures, organized the sequence of events, so the process is now a story we want to share. It was conceived and developed in nine months, although it’s main research was done previously for over a year. You can see more about its release here:#myphotool #ponsverhoog @play, learn, rise.

Gee! The publisher answered! They would like to meet us and have a look at the Visual Language Game (although they were not sure it would match their market, uhm). Why did we, in the first place, propose a collaboration to them? We thought they could be interested since they had many books on the subject, but only a few games. So hup! we packed our prototype in a beautiful self-made box and to Amsterdam we went to convince them that our products were a perfect match.

The meeting was friendly and they were interested, but aaargh not in the game, only on the concept. The reason: it was a “didactic material”, not suitable for their network of museums and concept stores. One of us was disappointed. The other proposed to think of an adaptation.

Whew, after the meeting, our conclusions were completely different: while one thought there’s nothing to do, the other perceived a genuine interest on the concept. This is why nowadays we fully recommend designers to work in pairs. What two eyes couldn’t see, the other pair could, otherwise MPT wouldn’t exist.

October. After our different perception about the publisher interest, one convinced the other to work on a spin-off of our game. We started discussing what would be a good adaptation of the Visual Language Cards. The first idea was to SWITCH it into a photography game and toolbox for people interested in knowing more about visual grammar and its significance. Yo-ho-ho, we had a clear CONCEPT!. So we made a short two sentence PROPOSAL, sent the email to the publisher, and … they liked it.

We started working on the new concept ANALYZING what was valuable on the first game to bring it into the second. Of course, the RESEARCH done! We had spent months in reading and organizing the theories and concepts into a didactical sequence. Although it was obviously too extensive, so we divided the concepts into basic ones and complex ones. We were going to work with the basic principles in order to have clear mechanics.

Even so, after some hours playing with the VLC prototype, discussing the GOAL and the possible game MECHANICS, d’oh, the first game idea was quite complex. We named it Meaningful Photography card game.

We both have experience about the stages in a creative process, it’s one of the main topics in our courses. When we had another session to devote to the game concept, we read what we had done and we didn’t like it. It was a long document of four pages, the rules of the game were difficult to follow. Mmmm not good. We were already over complicating the rules. Why? We were not even close to our goal: an easy game to play with the basic visual principles of photography. Gosh, what needed to be done?

We looked back to the core of the concept and to our GOAL: a card game that could be developed re-designing what we had without investing a lot of time. Conclusion: probably in order to put together a new concept based in a previous one we were adding too many ideas and rules.

A bit worried by the usual fear of losing hours, we put the draft aside and decided to make a STOP and rethink all of it.

End of October. Second tryout.

We start from zero again. What is the GOAL? We want a game tool for everybody, not for experts, that helps improving image composition via the connection between visuals-emotion-message.

We ask ourselves Why is this relevant? >> we have witnessed the spread in sharing pictures via the wide use of smartphones. This is a big audience, many with a smartphone could be interested in playing if the result was to make better pictures.

With the GOAL and the AUDIENCE in mind, we take a large folio for writing and drawing. We combine composition rules with image characteristics. Mmm ok. And what if we add something that gives a grounding and a clear purpose. Yes! We add photography genres. So, the player combines rules to make a photo based on a certain genre. After a couple of hours, we come up with aneasy combination of visual principles, set into a time frame, with a clear goal: constraint to 4 rules, make a picture based on a given genre in photography. We name this second draft “My Photography Studio”.

November. The next move had to be the PROPOSAL to the publisher, now that we were satisfied with what we had. But of course, it had to be accurate.

While describing the categories or groups of cards, we realized that something was missing: the human magic touch that makes an image special. Mmmm a category for covering questions related to the attitude of the maker. Like having an intimate connection with the subject. We named it Attitude. At this moment we even felt a bit proud. This was the missing element, the one that gives you the final push to be confident enough. And while being on the flow we found out what was going to be a TURNING POINT: creating an icon illustrating every photography principle.

What about the NAME? Names are important to define a concept. My Photography Studio had a clear disconnection with our goal: who has a studio? Only professionals. The name gave the idea of a professional space, and it was for a much broader audience. We still liked the idea of something personal, Mmm My Photography… what? What if we call it My Photography Toolbox?

After being sure that the concept was coherent with the goal and that the name fitted, we wrote the publisher to present it.

This is part of the email we sent them:

“We name it My Photography Toolbox, a collection of 35 to 45 cards that are a fun learning game for practicing the visual language of photography. See the file attached for a short description.”

On the same email we requested a quick answer and …

“It would be good to have your feedback asap for two reasons: we go on a honeymoon trip soon and we have a group of adults ready to playtest this proposal the 9th of December.”

True, we were already preparing a playtest, there’s no other way to move on when you design games, you need to check that the mechanics work, the rules are clear and all functions coherently at every step. The first rule is  prototyping as soon as possible to be fast in finding out the mistakes made.

And aha! we shared some privacy, it felt fine (and honest). As an answer, we received joyful hands up from them.

We believe that self-disclosure is a good tool to create well founded relationships. If you share yourself by saying something that is personally meaningful you increase the sense of familiarity and relatedness. Creating the right atmosphere with your partners is sooo important.

With the elements we had at hand, we made the first prototype. How? That needs time. One of us had some hours, so she draw each icon and wrote each text by hand, cut each card on paper, glued it to different coloured cardboards, cut it again. Mmmm . . .it was quite rough. Then she used the cutting-rounded-corners-thing and… it looked much better! (everyone should have this magic tool) We had a number of “concept cards”, but we needed the “example cards”, so she searched the studio for magazines and newspapers, selected the best pictures, and then looked for matches. Finally, we had an easy prototype, with more or less half of the cards planned for the game.

Phoar, we played a bit with it, it felt sooo home-made.

A paper prototype it’s a very handy way of testing that can be used for many types of designs. It saves time, it gives you creative freedom, it’s cheap and while making it it already shows you the incongruencies. What we saw while busy making the prototype was that long descriptions of text would create a heavy feeling.  So, we decided to consider this as a main strategy of the graphic design: calculate first the maximum lines of text a card could have.

December. The publishers liked the concept proposal and they even shared with us the possible deadlines for production: end of June.  What? Seven months? We had to move fast in organizing the playtest. This was the moment many game designers fear: finding a place, time, and a group of people ready to playtest.

How to play test? This is often a great difficulty for game designers. We went for the easy way: we called a meeting of friends (and friends-to-be). We copied the rules, found a nice box where to store the prototype and prepared a list of questions for them.

Katrin offered her house. We all cooked something, it was a “lekker” dinner as they call nice food in the Netherlands. We met Bob, enjoyed his humor, laughed. There was some expectation. We shortly explained the rules and we got the usual reactions: “oh, I am not sure I am the best person to test this, I am not good at taking pictures”. Hup, we put them at ease explaining that this is what game designers need, just normal people. And we started playing in couples.

We played too, and had time to take funny pictures of them: trying with a lamp to have better light, searching for a mirror image in the bathroom, or using a coconut to add texture. Gee, after playing, we were all smiles. Then, looking at the pictures made, everybody was flabbergasted: it was fun, fast, easy, and it seemed such a good idea to all! Everybody felt proud of the resulting photos, they praised the hand made cards (mwah) and suggested us to consider the same style. We asked about the feeling, the rules, the time, the name, the icons… the main conclusion: only a few things to be revised and what a yo-ho-ho experience!

It was the first play test and it was successful. We shared the enthusiasm of the players with the publisher. We created an entry on our website and uploaded pictures. We were getting confident that in the end we were going to have a good game tool.

We looked at the notes we took during the playtest

  • the RULES were clear, no doubts at all in contrast with another game we were still developing (in which the rules were a nightmare);
  • although the REWARD SYSTEM had to be reassembled. The players didn’t feel like rewarding each other because everybody felt all pictures were nice. A team did not use one card, but the others didn’t want to give them a thumbs down. They asked us to reconsider this (“maybe you can remove it”) and they agreed that it was not needed, because they had all created something from zero and that was enough, no punishment should be exerted.
  • The DURATION was exactly good. We thought that 20 minutes was too short to put five cards together, decide how to use all its ingredients in one photograph, compose it and take it. However, the three teams finished on time and were thrilled by the time constraint. So, in!
  • The DESCRIPTIONS in the cards were precise, no questions were asked (again in contrast with the previous card game design).
  • The illustrations/ icons helped to internalize the descriptions, they all looked at them and got the idea, even before reading the description, although they were just simple drawings. Purpose accomplished!
  • The color code of each category was functional, all players understood.

So, not a lot to modify compared to other play tests and iterations. Christmas was coming and we took a break.

In January, after a two week break, we prepared a planning. Now we had some perspective to modify the reward system. The players said it wasn’t needed.

We first thought of keeping it, making it more simple. So we removed the tomato cards: cards to be given when a rule/card was not properly used or not used at all. The players were too kind to each other for the fact that they did their best, so they didn’t want to use the tomatoes, it felt too unkind. As designers we enjoyed imagining this penalty, it seemed so fun. However, this is the the kind of thing that you don’t see from the inside: the incongruencies.

The game was not about winning, was neither a race nor a competition, so giving tomatoes to the flaws was too far-fetched. This is a clear example of the benefits of play-testing.

So, after trying this and that we came up with the idea of using “light” as the reward concept. It looked coherent for a photography game. It was going to be sparks for rewarding and red lights when failing.

During January we finalized the iteration of the reward system and the descriptions in the cards. We revised all texts and the theory involved a number of times, although we new the research was properly done during two years for the previous game (that was the final project of a master). And finally, by mid February, we gave the exit shot to the graphic design.

We sat to discuss how it had to be. First of all, we wanted it to be clear and clean, so the texts had to fit in a blueprint structured in 4 parts:

1/ the concept name and description;

2/ the icon representing the concept;

3/ a tip to put the concept into practice;

4/ the result / effect of using the concept.

Lenno worked on the first sketches with basic shapes in illustrator resulting in simple images. We needed to have an idea of how it could look. We knew it was just the first sketch, but we thought we had to work on something as a basis, so we sent the sketches to the publisher: the color codes, a card of each category, a couple of example cards, the rewarding cards, and different options for the back of the cards.

After the playtest was analyzed and we shared the results with the publisher, they sent us the standard agreement they sign with authors of games. It was an important moment because for the first time we saw in detail what are the conditions established, which are basically the percentage you receive for every sale and the declaration of rights from both parts.

The end of January was hectic, they wanted to know the exact number of cards, they needed the cover image for their catalogue and we planned a meeting to discuss all of it.

We worked for a couple of weekends and went to sleep late quite often.

How did we decide the number of cards? A standard deck of poker cards has 52 cards. Tarot decks and others can vary, but still they have defined figures.  We checked the card games that BISPublishers had already published and we figured out that some had 72. That was a much better choice for our game, 54 would be too little for the amount of categories.

The difficult part was to adjust the five categories we had with a proper name and with the same number of cards. For instance, some categories had 5 cards while others had 7 or 8. How to adjust this? Doing the math. First: for the mechanic of the game we needed the same amount of cards in each group. Also, this total had to be doubled because each concept card had to have a matching card with a photo example. So, if we had 5 categories, containing 6 cards each means 30, plus 30 photographs means 60, and we still had 12 left for the reward cards. This was the right calculation after many others.

Nowadays, when someone asks how did we decide the categories and the numbers we immediately know that they are either specialists in visual language or in card games.

We were waiting for the comments about the cards. Long days passed without any reaction. Finally, we received a very short email. They liked the first ideas and they hoped we could talk about it (they had sales meetings), but it was fine for now. According to the planning we had to start the design of the cover image for the box.

We did brainstorming on images of different types of tools and made some mood boards. We worked with the idea of using old tools to create the outline of a smartphone. The idea was to use these tools as a metaphor for craftsmanship. We took the images from old engravings or drawings, all free of rights. With them we created a number of collages, a technique that we thoroughly used in our previous game (Lost Prince). It was fun to try combinations and it had a cute look, but there was something… something impossible to describe when you are in the middle of it and without any perspective. Therefore, we explained the idea before the meeting with the publisher in Amsterdam.

“The idea for the cover image is to create an icon of a smartphone made with tools. We think that the box has to be attractive, we have chosen a style of typography and colours a bit retro, with reminiscence of the 80s. The box is double the size of the cards, so, when you open it, it has two compartments. In one, the example cards, in the other, the concept cards and scoring cards (30 and 39). The size of the box depends on the size of the cards. We’ve been working with the tarot size, it’s nice for composing with a title, an icon and text, although poker size maybe fits the photographs better. I attach the sketches.”

Finally, after three months of emails forth and back, the meeting. I went on my own because Lenno had to give a lecture. I was so much looking forward to this moment, there’s nothing like the face to face experience to be able to catch up.

We went first through the agreement, commenting on the doubts that I had. I wanted to understand each clause. I learned, for instance, that the first batch of 3.000 copies was the standard figure, but if the sales were good they would order new prints immediately.

Afterwards, we discussed the subtitle Refine your eye & master your skills and we came up with new possibilities, like A set of rules to train your eyes.

We checked if the number of cards could suit a 72 card deck. We had 69 playing cards. The rules fitted in 2 cards, size 11 x 7.5. With a standard typography size 9, we still had one of the four sides empty. They wanted a card for the credits with our logos, publishers and authors, so it fitted perfectly! We concluded that we wouldn’t need a leaflet.

Then we looked together at the sketches. They had some comments about  the cover image made with old tools. Maybe it should be more abstract? More stylish? (in line with the photos we shared on a Pinterest board) Maybe a photo of tools and the graphics in top? Or only icons? About the design of the cards the comments were a bit unclear. To my understanding it was a sign that it was not good enough.

Want to keep reading? The second and final part of the story here: https://ponsverhoog.org/mpt-design-process-in-the-nude-part-ii/