Written By Philip Williams

The Making of - Part 1: The Birth of an Idea

September 28, 2011 | draw a stickman / app development

We recently launched, an interactive website where visitors draw a stickman and take part in his animated adventure. It became a viral success overnight, attracting millions of visitors from every part of the globe and winning numerous awards.

In the next couple articles I'm going to describe the challenges and adventures we had developing such a unique website.

Be Creative Every Day

I am convinced that many companies are genuinely afraid of creativity. Far too many great ideas are never realized because companies lack the courage to step outside the box. The Internet is filled with thousands of people all doing the same thing, all copying each other and each hoping that their product will somehow stand out more than the one next door.

Creativity is risky. There's no guarantee that a new idea is going to work, because there is no precedent to look back on. A good idea takes hours of trial and error. It may fail, but when it succeeds the benefit is unmatched.

I was thrilled when in January of 2010 Hitcents gave me the opportunity to be the lead developer on this project and began devoting a few hours each week to developing new creative concepts. I began with one simple goal: create a website unlike anything ever seen before on the Internet.

It's wonderful to start broad and slowly focus in on more specific ideas. Through hours of brainstorming I narrowed down my idea, “what would happen if you could draw a stickman and see him came to life?”

Since we launched the stickman project we have received hundreds of thousands of tweets, but one of my favorites is when @timesweekend tweeted, “A magical thing just happened. I think this is how Pinocchio's creator felt.”

That was exactly the emotion I intended to evoke and I am thrilled with the final outcome. But the process to get there was very challenging.

The Magic of a Prototype

We started developing our concepts using Adobe Flash. There were numerous questions that I needed to answer. How could a computer program detect where a user drew the foot? How could the computer find the leg, the hand, or the head? How would the program animate each of these body parts. I needed to write a program that could animate virtually any kind of stickman.

I broke the problem down into smaller chunks and began by animating just the lower body. My initial experiments were very complex and resource intensive. It would frequently lock up on slower computers.

Finally I had a working demo. Users could draw a stickman and see him walk across the screen. I showed my demo to a few people and waited to see their reaction. The response was wonderful. People loved it! As soon as they finished drawing one stickman they wanted to draw another one and see how it might come to life too. At this point the animation was rough and mechanical, the graphics were primitive, but the concept was everything I had hoped for.

When developing new ideas it's very important to share them with others at every stage of the process. I have a habit of getting excited about things that no one else seems to care about. The only way I know if an idea has significance is when I share it with someone else.

Part of the challenge in sharing ideas is that most people have a very hard time visualizing the unfamiliar. If my idea is truly unique, then my friends will have trouble understanding it because they do not have anything to compare it to. That's why prototypes are critical. My dream of a stickman coming to life really didn't mean anything to anyone else until I created a small, primitive proof of concept.

The first step in creating a viral website is to think of something that no one has ever created before. Then build upon that concept, create a few prototypes, get feedback from others, and refine the idea. In my next article I'll talk about how to evolve an idea over time.


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