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Best-Illustrated Game Apps for Babies/Toddlers

I know, I know . . . it’s been too long since I’ve posted. But in that time, a new project has been brewing.  I’ve been offered the opportunity to illustrate and design an iPhone app for babies/toddlers, and I couldn’t be more excited. So stay tuned for tons more updates as I enter the world of new media and app development!

In doing market research and speaking with the app developer, I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to game apps for babies and toddlers, the market is wide open.  For instance, the Toddler Teasers series (above) has sold millions of apps – I’ll bite my tongue and leave you to judge the images and design for yourself.

What’s lacking, overall, are game apps with high-quality illustrations.  Who says that images in an app have to look digital, cartoonish, mass-market, or be pasted together with clip art and stock photos?  The developer and I agree that it doesn’t have to be that way – and I’m looking forward to putting the same watercolor, hand-drawn quality into this app that I would into a trade picture book.

That being said, there are a few good illustrated apps out there (and some nicely-designed apps that don’t need illustrations at all).  Before I dive into book apps, let’s take a look at some nice iPhone game apps for toddlers:

1. Peekaboo Barn (Night And Day Studios) / The most comparable app to ours, Peekaboo Barn’s game of farm animal names has been downloaded over 400,000 times!  Illustrator Divya Srinivasan’s young, quirky illustrations are well suited for the app world as well – quite a departure from her editorial work.  Be sure to check out the sequels, Charley Harper’s Peekaboo Forest and Peekaboo Wild.

2. Word Wagon (Duck Duck Moose)Duck Duck Moose is another award-winning app developer that I can really get behind.  Their animated characters and levels of learning look like a lot of fun, don’t they?  And as far as illustrations that are super-digital, these are pretty sharp.  Check out their other apps like Park Math, Wheels On The Bus, and Fish School.

3. Tiny Tunes Toy Piano (562 Studios) / A well-designed interactive way to start off your kid when they’re still too young for piano lessons. The combination of note name, letter, color (and bonus – animated animals!) could help small kids learn basic songs in no time.

4. Uncolor (Christy Brant Co.) / An innovative and simple twist on the illustrated app.  Just draw on the screen with your finger and an image appears beneath the black surface.  Kind of like those rainbow Scratch Art boards from childhood!

5.  Balloonimals (IDEO Toy Lab) / Because I – literally – could find no other illustrated, non-licensed-character apps for babies and toddlers that I thought were well done, here’s my favorite non-illustrated app.  The design is gorgeous, 3-dimensional, and interactive.  Just beware not to spit on your phone when you blow up the balloon!

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E-Readers: Design Democracy or Design Anarchy?

Picture yourself in a first-grade classroom.  The teacher has given out handfuls of jujubes as a way to teach addition and subtraction (“if you have 6 jujubes, and take away 2…”).  But the kids have different ideas – instead of a math lesson, they’d rather build gummy towers, flick the candies at each other across the table, or eat them and run around from the sugar high.  There’s 25 students, and only one teacher. Do you let the kids do what they want?

The obvious answer is no. The kids will run around like crazy and pelt jujubes at each other! They’ll pass out from the sugar high!  They won’t learn any addition or subtraction, which will prevent them from learning multiplication and division and… and… then they’ll never go to college and get a job!  Why don’t kids get to run their own schools?  Because they don’t know what’s good for them.

Here’s the point I’m getting at: there are over 300 million people in the United States. About 1 in 10 adults own an e-reader and, depending on their device, they get to choose the font style and size of the text they’re reading, rendering a book designer useless.  In the classroom, this amounts to handing the kids a bunch of jujubes and saying, “You don’t need someone to tell you how to do math, just go do whatever you want!”  Is it design democracy, or design anarchy?

At this point, you may be saying, Okay, it’s not fair to compare the American population to a bunch of first graders. But of those 300 million people, less than 1 in 1,000 adults are graphic designers. The vast majority, even those who are visual, are typography-illiterate.  And any designer who has had to explain what they do to folks back home can back me up on this.

So why even bother with the design of a book? Let’s face it, you can read the book no matter what — why not give the people what they want?  Well, great design equals great readability. People like me spend time making sure words flow easily from line to line, page to page, highlighting and minimizing what’s important and unnecessary. All so that you don’t notice the design – it’s as beautiful and transparent as glass.

More than that, design gives flavor and tone to the story, making every book a unique experience to enjoy. In e-readers, you only get a few different fonts, so that every book you read is the same, with the personality of, well, a Kindle.  In searching for choice, readers actually get homogeny.

I believe that people are more adept at recognizing great design than they know. That for the most part, they want a pleasant, well-designed reading experience. They may not know what they want, but they know when its bad.

I’m writing all this because Steve Matteson, the type director for Monotype Imaging, did a presentation at work the other day.  He’s on the forefront of this new frontier, and works with Monotype to create and fine-tune typefaces, in a process called “hinting”, so that they’re better for display on screens than in print.  It’s not all settled yet, but it’s fascinating stuff.

E-reader type design a slow process, but one day we’ll get the choice of thousands of clear and elegant fonts. The industry will set standards, and eventually, control of the book will go back to the teacher… I mean, designer.  In the meantime, as it was with computers and the internet, we’re stuck with a whole lot of ugly.  Or is it democracy?

Holiday Ideas for the Artistically Gifted

(as tested by Annie Beth Ericsson in Christmas 2010)

Prologue: Just Paint ’em Something!

I’m sure every illustrator, when asking what to get their family for Christmas, gets the response, “Just paint me something!”  It’s great that an artist can make their own gifts, but with a blended “modern family” like mine, there are just too many relatives… you’d be painting Christmas gifts all year!  A few special folks got real-deal paintings (shown above), but in case you’re not watercolor-inclined, here are a few creative alternatives I tried:

1. 4 Over 4 Cards

I have to give my shout-out to Queens… ever since my pre-graduation scramble for business cards and promos, 4 Over 4 has been, hands down, my favorite printer.  To prove my point, this Christmas, they had an amazing special on greeting cards — I got 75 full-color cards with free shipping, envelopes, the works… for only about $50!  Using the polar bear image I created, I gave little sets of 6 blank notecards to family and friends.  They were so well received, I think they’ll become an annual tradition!

2. A Personal Subway Map

One of my dearest friends, bless her, has absolutely no sense of direction, and is often calling me to ask, “Where am I?”  So I decided she needed a NYC subway map of her own, complete with favorite landmarks and frequent haunts.  It may not be the best thing I’ve ever drawn, but it’s a fun idea for an urban explorer.  On the other hand, she also got a smartphone for Christmas.  Let’s see which helps more.

3. Digitally Colored Photos

I stole this idea from my coworker, who was using this handy tutorial to enhance black and white family photos with a vibrant, hand-colored look.  For those who are better with the paintbrush tool than a paintbrush, this is a simple way to put a personal touch on old portraits, and all you need to know are quick masks and color balance in Photoshop.  I tried a few and framed them, but I’d love to see a whole album of updated photos!

4. Faux Quote Hoops

I’m constantly “starring” Design*Sponge’s DIY projects in my Google Reader for later, but this was one that I just HAD to try!  I love the idea of taking something vintage-inspired, and making it a little irreverent or clever.  In practice, though, this craft project has one fatal flaw — iron-on transfers.  Yes, downloading an embroidery font is much more appealing to me than actually sewing, but the transfer paper leaves a strange residue on the fabric, even where you didn’t print anything.  Maybe there’ s a trick to get this out, but I’m not trying this one again unless I can get a clean image!