[eg features such as sound or animation]. The worst offenders I found were games, especially freemium games. They were essentially using gambling mechanisms to get kids to keep pushing buttons and that was exactly the opposite of what I wanted my child to be doing.”
Skyscrapers is illustrated by Mike Ellis
Gutierrez saw an opportunity to create better content that would encourage free play and cover subjects children everywhere would study in school, from nature to how our bodies work.
“We looked at how children play and for me, the best toy my kid can have is a set of blocks. If you just give kids blocks, they’ll be bored, but if you say, ‘build a ship or a zoo or a castle’, suddenly they’re off to the races. So the idea with the Digital Toys was to create these kind of blocks that would come alive with children’s imagination,” he adds.
“For me, this medium [smartphones and tablets] is one that really lends itself to open play because of the interactivity and direct feedback you get from devices,” Gutierrez continues. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with traditional storytelling [on iPhones and iPads] but I’m yet to find many people who do it better than a book … so we were keen to steer clear of traditional, turn-the-page kinds of stories.”
Apps feature little in the way of text or explanations but accompanying handbooks, available to download from Tinybop’s website, list points for discussion and more information about the themes covered in each app. Children and teachers can use the handbooks to start conversations with children around the app, challenging the idea of screen time as a solitary experience or one where children don’t learn anything.
“It’s about helping them to understand the world more deeply and discover what they’re into,” says Gutierrez. “My own kids have played with our apps and often, it has sparked an idea or a conversation. We’ll be in the car and they’ll ask a pretty elaborate question about something, and it will turn out the idea was prompted by the app – as a parent, it’s really satisfying to know you’ve created something that is enhancing their understanding.”
Before designing apps, Gutierrez says Tinybop will usually sit down children to find out what interests them about a particular topic. The company consults with children from a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, which can often reveal interesting cultural differences. With The Monsters, for example, the team discovered that children in different countries think about monsters very differently – some have grown up with films like Monsters Inc while others are more familiar with mythical beasts and animal fables.
Children are then invited to test apps using iPads that also feature products by rival companies – “It’s really important to give them other choices to see how you measure not only against what you’ve done, but other people in the marketplace,” adds Gutierrez. “Little by little, you get a sense of whether the app works.”
One of the things that makes Tinybop’s products stand out on the app store is their design – apps have a surprisingly minimal aesthetic compared to other children’s offerings and feature beautifully illustrated objects and characters. The company works with a different illustrator for each product – UK-based Owen Davey created a vast library parts for the Robot Factory, which lets kids design their own robot, while Chinese illustrator Tianhua Mao worked on The Monsters and Berlin-based Mike Ellis illustrated Skyscrapers.
Artwork is often inspired by vintage learning aids and visual ephemera from comics to textbooks, but with a modern twist. Artist Kelli Anderson looked to Charley Harper’s Golden Book of Biology and popular emoji to create illustrations for the Human Body, while Plants was loosely inspired by Tin Tin comics. Apps also feature some lovely added touches – in Skyscrapers, the colour of the sky changes depending on where children are in the world, showing a night sky if it’s night time where they are and a sunny blue one if it’s daytime. Gutierrez is passionate about the importance of design and critical of apps that underestimate children’s ability to appreciate good aesthetics.
“There’s so much content for children that is sort of dumbed down in the way of design, and there’s really no reason for it,” he says. “In the 50s and 60s, you had some of the world’s greatest illustrators illustrating children’s books and creating incredibly rich infographics, but a lot of that has been lost. We’re trying to help bring it back.” He does acknowledge, however, that there is a growing number of companies making apps that are both beautiful and engaging.
On its blog, Tinybop offers a fascinating insight into the company’s development process, showing behind the scenes sketches of new products and publishing interviews with illustrators and designers, as well as educational activities for parents and teachers to try. The company also recommends apps, books and resources by other companies on its ‘Tinybop Loves‘ page.
Tinybop is now rolling out apps every few months – a team of 20 split their time between updating existing apps, developing upcoming ones and thinking up ideas for new ones – and Gutierrez says he plans to launch at least two more this year. The company is also working on a package for schools and a project that Gutierrez says will be “a complete break” from what it has done so far. Each of its forthcoming products will have a different look and feel, says Gutierrez, but all have the same aim of encouraging curiosity. “It’s one of the most important traits you can have as a child,” he adds.
For more info about Tinybop’s apps, see tinybop.com
Read more here:: Tinybop: the New York startup designing apps to inspire children’s curiosity