Paper Doll Principles: Intro & Playability

I don’t talk a lot about the “craft” of paper doll making. How to make paper dolls just isn’t something I tend to discuss. I don’t know why that is exactly, though I suspect there’s some deep seeded insecurity in play there.

Well, all that stops now!

This is the first of a series of paper doll posts I have planned on how to make paper dolls.

And I sincerely hope that some of my fellow paper doll artists will chime in with their thoughts in the comments.

The first thing I want to do is introduce the my paper doll principles. The things that I believe are important when I design paper dolls.

Paper Doll Principles:

  • Playability: Every paper doll must be a functional toy.
  • Artistic Quality: All paper dolls must be beautiful before and after they are cut out.
  • Diversity: Every person deserves a paper doll that affirms their existence.

Each of these qualities is important. However, were I am pick one to focus on the most, it would be Playability.

Playability is a term that evolved in the video gaming community. It refers to how well a video game can be played. For me, I think of it as a way of measuring how well a paper doll can be played with.


Because paper dolls are toys. (Sometimes, I think people forget this.)

Playabilty Factors

In this set the shoes are individual and wouldn't work well for an playable set. While pretty, this set really fails the "playabilty" standard I now hold.
In this set the shoes are individual and wouldn’t work well for an playable set. While pretty, this set really fails the “playabilty” standard I now hold.
  • Functionality
    • Does the clothing fit? Does the doll stand up? Do the tabs keep the clothing on?
  • Versatility
    • How many outfits does the paper doll have? How many mix and match pieces? If it’s a paper doll with  just one dress, that’ll get boring fast.
  • Theme 
    • What is the theme of the paper doll? How well does the paper doll reflect the theme the artist has chosen for her?

Now, if I told you I thought every paper doll set in Paper Thin Personas got a perfect score in all these categories, I would be lying through my teeth. You have to balance these things.

The best way to demonstrate how complex playability choices can be is through paper doll shoes. (Is anyone surprised that for me, it comes down to shoes?)

The Parable of Paper Doll Shoes

Shoes can be attached to the paper doll figure directly, if desired.

Paper dolls need shoes and shoes pose a unique challenge. There are three solutions for paper doll shoes.

  1. Attach them permanently to the doll.
  2. Attach them permanently to an outfit.
  3. Make them separate.

Option 1: Great for functionality, because you can not possibly loose the shoes. Unfortunately, it also means the shoes can’t be changed. (Functionality over Versatility) A few examples include Cora in Stripes and Her Ladyship.

Option 2: Keeps the shoes from getting lost, but also limits the mix and match options. (Functionality over Versatility) A few examples from my site include Ethan, Best Friends, Sci-Fi Girl and Bone Fairy.

Option 3: It is easy to lose the shoes in this option, but they can be changed which is fun. (Versatility Over Functionality). Individual shoes are both too easy to lose and tend to fall off. The best two ways to have interchangeable shoes are to attach them to a base or to attach them together.

Julie of Paper Doll School often used the attached shoes together option, as does my Madison paper doll. I tend towards the “shoes attached to the stand” option, as shown at the start of this post (and with nearly every other paper doll on this site.)

Deciding Which Option is Best for Your Paper Doll

Choosing the best option comes down to the third playability concept- Theme.

Most of my paper dolls have separate shoes attached to their stands, because they are intended to be a series where any paper doll could share with any other paper doll.

If your plan is to have the paper doll in some sort of underwear that is specific to her time (Victorian doll of 1886) or theme (fantasy lady like Her Ladyship) than the best option is to attach the shoes, I think. In this case, Theme over-rides the needs of Versatility.

If you plan on creating a single base doll and then having lots and lots of different themes around that doll (most of my paper doll series) than Versatility overrides the needs of Theme and simple undies, plus removable shoes are best.

If you plan on changing the dolls poses through their clothing OR making the clothing in a single piece (not mix and match), than I think the best option is to attach the shoes to the outfits as I do in Cybergirl or Spring. This is also the technique usually used by Boots of Pop Culture and Paper Dolls for her Star Wars paper doll series.

Also remember, you can do more than one at the same time!

Her Ladyship has shoes attached, but she also has ice skates. You can also put shoes on the base doll AND put shoes on the outfits. I couldn’t find an example of this in my archives (weird, but true), however, it can be done.

Moral of the Paper Doll Shoe Parable: How you balance the issues of playability is all about your intent as the artist. Never forget you are gaining and losing things each decision you make. And you are making decisions, even if at times you don’t notice.

Playability VS Artistic Quality

So, is playability the most important factor?

Well, only you can decide that about your own work. (I know, cop out answer right?)

Some collectors paper dolls are never intended to be cut out. These paper dolls value artistic quality OVER playability. That is okay. Some of my own work falls into that category. As I have gotten more experienced, however, I have come to view playability as one of the most critical factors in paper doll creation.

The paper doll has to work, even if you would never cut it out. The clothing needs to fit. The tabs need to work (if you draw tabs) and the thing needs to be functional EVEN if you don’t imagine anyone will want too actually play with it.

And that wraps up this first installment of Paper Doll Principles.

So, I have two questions for you today:

  1. What would you like me to talk about in this series? Any questions about paper doll creation?
  2. What do you think about these principles? Is there something I missed? What makes a “good” paper doll for you?


  1. Really great post. I agree that playability should be one of the top things to consider when making a paper doll.
    As for other posts, maybe you could do one about designing the outfits. How do you find inspiration? How do you draw them? That sort of thing.

  2. Great post. I try to ‘test’ my paper dolls *cut them out and put the clothing on* to ensure everything fits and looks right and the tabs function. I would like post on making patterns for fabrics.

  3. That was a really interesting post, thanks for sharing your thoughts behind your work.
    To answer your first question i’m just going to second rachels. I would like to hear more about how you choose your themes. For your seconds question I’m gonna say versatility. Even if I don’t cut them out I like knowing I can have lots of different options for whatever I could want my doll to be.

    1. Interesting the number of people who are interested in how I choose my themes. I never thought much about it. It’s always been… Well this is interesting right now. So, I’ll have to think about how to write about that part of the process.

  4. I like the idea of Paper Doll Principles. It’s such a tidy way to set your project goals. I, too, agree that playability and functionality are critical regardless of the final audience.

    It’s easy to think that art is just a random thing that happens without much planning and loads of “inspiration”. The truth is that art requires thought, planning, and work, especially on the days when that’s easier said than done. I like that this post (and following posts) address some of that.

    Also, today’s children are so savvy and having something that is beautifully designed really seems to resonate with them. At least, with the ones I know! Paper dolls are such a wonderful toy. They’re inexpensive, easy to find (at least online), serve as educational tools in so many ways, and are beautiful works of art.

    I’m eager to see more posts like this. You know, I LOVE process. I’d like to know how you come up with themes but I’d really like to know how you come up with poses & how you stay inspired to create serial paper dolls.

    Really excited about this series of posts!

    1. Thanks, Julie. This was really tough to write and I did worry it was a little “theoretical” for a starting post, but oh well…

  5. I would love advice on drawing the figure, but in a simple way that is not too complicated.
    A good paper doll for me is all about quality and versatility. I love the fact that your dolls share clothing, and it goes without saying they are brilliant quality!

  6. I second the comment about drawing the figure and, especially, *proportions* Paperdolls don’t need to be photo-realistic but what are some good rules of thumb so that they don’t look totally goofy?

    1. So, this is addressed to both Paper Doll Lover and Erin, figure drawing is something I actually am really very poor at, but I will see what I can do.

  7. It was very interesting to read.

    For me, a question that comes up, especially with printable paper dolls, is that if they should use space and printer ink as efficiently as possible and if this is more important that beautiful pages. Should I leave out the decorative border to save ink? Should I fit as many pieces as possible on the page?

    1. I think that things should still be beautiful. A shallow answer, perhaps, but I think Artistic Quality is actually critically important. Just because something is a toy, doesn’t mean it can’t also be beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.