Illustrating Tinybop’s The Earth: here’s what I learned
If you asked me about designing apps a year ago, I wouldn’t have known what to tell you. I mean, I like playing games and apps, but I’m generally more interested in visual narratives: comic books, films, graphic novels, children’s books. I am very curious about how human beings represent themselves and why we make the stories we do.
I see so many screens everyday here in New York, just on the way to and from work. It can be unnerving at times: who isn’t creeped out by all the Candy Crush zombies on the subway? I love my phone, but am I too optimistic to want whatever is on my screens to enrich my life? I want screens to enrich other people’s lives, something beyond hyperactive short-term junk.
I’ve worked Tinybop for over a year. Tinybop’s mission statement:
We grew up playing with toys that activated the most colorful realms of our imaginations. Our blocks were skyscrapers and galaxies — whatever we wanted them to be. We’re creating elegant, educational iOS apps to spark the curiosity of kids around the world today. In our apps, kids play and learn by diving into big ideas, seeing how things work, and making connections about the world they live in.
Good, right? That’s why I work there.
I’m concerned with the value of visual content because it affects my work as an illustrator. I really want the things I make to impact people in helpful, interesting and even magical ways. You can imagine how excited I was when Tinybop offered me the opportunity to illustrate The Earth, number five in the Explorer’s Library series.
So I’ve just spent the past six months planning, designing and illustrating The Earth. Allow me to share my wisdom. I want to tell you a bit about why I made certain style choices, share a little bit of process, and articulate how challenging some of the simplest things can be. Perhaps it can help and inspire you in your own interactive endeavors.
If you were an art director at a game company, I would be dead last on illustrators wishlist.
Why? I use a lot of texture in my work; I love fine detail and organic marks. I like atmosphere and mood, softness and subtlety-painterly qualities. I love books and prints, especially old time-y expressive styles. There’s a reason apps are not generally geared toward this kind of work: it often looks great as flat art, but is usually quite challenging to animate and even more complicated to get it to respond to touch.
Let me take a step back. Generally speaking, interactive products live on devices: our phones, tablets, watches, and whatever new contraptions Apple dreams up. Therefore the art created for these projects should be digitally generated and very flexible — able to fit on a number of sizes and look good at different ranges of sharpness. Additionally, device storage is a factor. You cannot make an app with huge art assets — people will not be able to store your project on their phones. If you peruse the app store, you’ll notice that there are a lot of apps with very simple flat shapes and vector art. The nature of making art for apps simply requires that the artist be quick and iterative, flexible and spry.
But this app is about the Earth! I wanted it to be full and lush and a little bit sophisticated. I needed some reference material. I needed proof that we could create something with a bit of nuance. So I spent a lot of time researching apps that valued production and dealt with nature or landscapes: Simogo’s Year Walk, Snoman’s Alto’s Adventure , USTWO’s Monument Valley, David O’Reilly’s Mountain, all Vector Park apps, Toca Boca’s Toca Nature to name a few.
I looked at them and tried to break down, visually, how these things were made. Most of these apps felt quite digital. The more I looked at these apps, the stronger I felt that The Earth should not fall into the what I call the “vector art abyss”-it shouldn’t be oversimplified or super flat, but it also shouldn’t be It shouldn’t try to be too realistic or appear too much like an infographic. Google Earth already exists and has cornered the market on that. We needed a style with more imagination, more whimsy. We ended up having long discussions with our developers to make sure that a textured, painterly style was possible while still having the processing power to create interesting and full interactions. We’re fortunate to have very smart and creative developers here at Tinybop, they’re always interested in finding new ways to innovate and make the game work in favor of the art.
We also wanted to make sure we had the ability to make the app feel more organic: we needed water and lava to flow, rocks to tumble, and waves to crest and break. For those of you who are not developers or production designers you should know that these sorts of effects are uniquely challenging to build. These are all the sorts of details we had to consider and plan while figuring out how to structure the app. Each choice we made influenced our future choices a great deal. The content of the app informed its structure and vice versa.
So to those of you thinking about making apps, or creating some sort of interactive visual project I’d like to emphasize this point: do the research and make plans. Think everything all the way through. Before undertaking something as complex as an app, it’s important to know what, why and how you want to make it. And it’s just as important to be prepared to change course.
In my case, I needed to look at a lot of books. Why books, you ask? Content is only as good as its inspiration, so I needed the best collection that I could find. The Earth is a pretty big subject that has been covered in many different and interesting ways, and I wanted to keep an open mind. I visited the Tinybop library. I grabbed anything that was remotely relevant. I looked at a lot of instructional books from the 60s and 70s — books about glaciers, rocks, minerals, water, air, and, obviously the Earth. I grabbed the huge Smithsonian Earth, The Definitive Visual Guide. I looked for compelling moments in nature, and sought to understand how this planet looks and works.
When I got overloaded with information, I looked at fiction. I looked at a lot of children’s books. I found wonderfully inspiring content in Ed Emberly’s The Bottom of the Sea, Lotta Nieman’s Walk this World, Matthea Havey and Giselle Potter’s Cecil the Pet Glacier. These books all provided interesting ways of simplifying huge topics. They helped me figure out how to tell little stories about complex geological processes.
As I thought more about designing the app, it became very important to think of fun ways to deliver educational content, just as these books did. It became all about balance: information and research content, style and visual content, and technical prowess. Fact and fiction. I made sure to draw accurate sliding plates, but I also made sure that we’d have a whale in the ocean to bring the app some life.
Once the research is done and production is underway. one thing becomes very clear: apps can become very complex creatures. It’s important to create a solid foundation for interactive projects as they hinge on interrelationships and logic. Even the little details, like that little whale required a lot of consideration (does it animation? how? is there sound? does it lead you somewhere? etc.)
Still, there are a lot of planned moments that didn’t end up making it into the app because of time constraints or because they were just beyond the scope of the project. This, perhaps, was the largest lesson I learned while making the app: the letting go. There are so many external factors that shape the process, it’s important to be able to adapt.
Sometimes, I compared this project to working on a film, which I’ve also done. The nature of the work is so collaborative and incidental. Despite all intentions, the engineering of the work yielded very different results. You find yourself making many compromises, or coming up with very different solutions entirely, especially as the deadlines inch closer. It’s at the last moments that you find yourself most in need of that initial clarity and structure (wait, why was that important again? What was the point here? What are we trying to get the user to do?). There’s also the human factor. After all, people (and in our case, children) don’t respond well to the app, it’s simply got to adjust.
That was my major challenge: understanding that the app is its own, organic product — making an app rarely goes as planned, yet strong and intense planning provides the best way forward, especially with a team.
The initial strategy informs the creative choices each team member ends up making along the way. The stronger and more fleshed out that vision is, the stronger the ultimate product is.
So spend time looking at the market, mapping out the narrative, gathering inspiration, making mood boards, and creating mock ups. Test the mock ups with real people. I’ll repeat: test the mock ups with real people. You will be surprised.
My final advice: truly understand the thing that you would like to create and then start illustrating. In my experience, illustrating an app was more like engineering an image. I didn’t create concept art, I created art that would be broken down and used in the game so I had to consider that while I was creating the work. I found myself thinking about how the image would come to life as I was working; a thought process I rarely encounter when working on art for books, or my own personal work. I also found that once I started illustrating, I really couldn’t afford the time to rethink creative decisions, so I was glad to have done all of that research and reading before picking up my pen.
So, as you start off on your own interactive adventures, I recommend that you constantly ask yourself “why” and “how”. The more answers you have ahead of time, the better off you’ll find yourself. Sounds simple, but it’s far easier said than done. Once you’ve built that strong structure, then trust that all that research, planning and iteration help make a product that is a positive contribution to visual culture overall.
If you’d like to see this essay with a lot of process photos (recommended!) find it at here.