Building a brand for Tinybop

Take the time to gather the details for effective design.

If you don’t start the design process with everything you could possibly know about the company or product being created, you’ve already failed.

Taking the time to collect the details at the very beginning creates the foundation for effective design, especially when it comes to developing a brand. But in the startup world, things never move fast enough and design lingers in a fragile space where it can either make or break a product and its brand.

When I first met Tinybop’s founder, Raul Gutierrez, in early 2013, it was under the uncommon circumstance that he understood the value of creating a brand that represented something more than just its product, and that finding its visual expression well before the launch of the first product would help ensure its success. More so, Tinybop’s apps are designed to encourage open play, without rules or levels. To do this effectively, for kids in 40+ different countries, design had to lead the way.

Raul had already spent about a year formulating his vision for the products, philosophies, and values of Tinybop. He had given everything his highest consideration, documenting it for potential investors and ultimately passing it along to me. A designer couldn’t ask for a better setup for creating a new brand.

DESIGN IS IN THE DETAILS

Tinybop has multiple app product lines, each with a unique focus. The first is The Explorer’s Library, a series of interactive playscapes that each focus on a big idea. The first five titles are The Human Body, Plants, Homes, Simple Machines, and The Earth. The series is inspired by the vintage reference books for kids that can be found on Tinybop’s bookshelves. Digital Toys is the second app product line — open-ended building toys that let kids create, test, and collect whatever they can imagine. The first two apps in Digital Toys are The Robot Factory and The Everything Machine.

The Childcraft series in Tinybop’s library

Importantly, for each app, Tinybop commissions a different illustrator, giving each title its own artistic approach.

(clockwise from left) The Human Body illustration by Kelli Anderson, Plants illustration by Marie Caudry, Simple Machines illustration by James Gilleard, The Earth illustration by Sarah Jacoby, The Robot Factory illustration by Owen Davey, Homes illustration by Tuesday Bassen

So, we needed to create an umbrella brand for a company that celebrates design as a way to inspire wonder in kids, has unique product lines, each with multiple app titles, and different creative approaches to each title. We needed a logo, app icons, and graphic treatments for app product lines. Perhaps a cohesive color palette and a typeface or two to help tie them together. And we needed a brand book. But a brand book couldn’t be made before all the possible applications. Here’s why:

The Hague Cookbook, with illustrations by Max Velthuijs.

I like to make the analogy that a brand book is a lot like a cookbook. To make a cookbook, a chef did a lot of experiments — tried a different measurement of sugar here, reduced the baking time there — before concluding that the recipe is perfect to share and replicate.This process is not done for just a single recipe. It’s done for the collection, which is often themed, and usually meticulously organized and edited. Creating the visual system for a brand is not that different.

Prepared with everything I could possibly know at that moment about Tinybop, I approached the work as play. Paul Rand once said, “Without play, there is no experimentation. Experimentation is the quest for answers.”

CREATING A BRAND ARCHITECTURE

Raul had shared some logomark explorations that he had commissioned from a few designers. He knew that while they were all aesthetically pleasing and well-executed marks, they were impossible to judge in the context of a white art board. He told me he would be totally fine starting over if I wanted to.

But there was one idea that stuck out conceptually. It was a mysterious black box with the word Tinybop on its side, a tiny windup key, and blocks of different colors sitting across the top. It was inviting someone to come and twist the key to see what might happen. It made me think of my nephew, who has a knack for looking across a cluttered room and spotting a wrapped present because of his overwhelming curiosity to know what is inside. I took this one as a starting point.

Initial logo design exploration.
Final Tinybop logo

Because the launch of this new brand would also be the launch of its first app title, we knew the logo could have a moment as the app opened and loaded, a consistent opportunity in every app title: the key turns, colors drop into the box and mix — what will Tinybop make next?

Something like this might be less important for a company planning to release only one product, as the priority would likely be the product’s brand, not the company’s. You can probably name several apps by title and not necessarily know the company or developer who made them, but it was key that our audience remember Tinybop as strongly as our app title.

The first app title is also part of The Explorer’s Library, our first series, so we had to consider how much the product line should also be branded. Whenever I’m faced with a question like this, I immediately step into the user’s shoes, knowing that empathy for the audience is the best way a designer can solve a problem.

The user would essentially open a Tinybop app and see the Tinybop logo, a visual treatment of the series name, and then the app title. It’d be short of a miracle if the general audience could comprehend all of it in such a short distance, which meant we needed to create hierarchy that prioritized Tinybop’s The Human Body over The Explorer’s Library series.

Instead of using a sub-brand logo which would compete with the company name, the series name relies on a text treatment.

Title pages for The Human Body

PICKING A TYPEFACE

In thinking about possible typefaces, my mind immediately went to the Bauhaus era for inspiration, seeing a connection in some of the philosophies. As a school of thought, there was a lot of experimentation and play, with materials, process, and craft. Art disciplines and forms of creative expression were woven together. If there is something as clear as this to inform the choice for a typeface, I will gladly embrace it.

Specimen of Futura, issued by the New York City sales office of the Bauer type foundry

Memphis and Futura were the right mix of fonts to create a cohesive system, with slight variations for each series title. I chose Worthe Numerals as the font for each app title’s number in the series, as an added wink to ensure it would get noticed.

MIXING COLOR

A colorful palette reflects the spectrum of what Tinybop aims to do but it was critical to get right. If the palette went too primary, it immediately blended in with the colors the educational app space is already swirled in. I added a gray and a touch of black harkened back to the 1940s and 1950s design era that filled Tinybop’s inspiration boards.

Business cards
#10 note cards
Postcards

CREATING APP ICONS

The App Store space for children looks like someone sprinkled little logos into a jumbo bag of M&Ms. The exciting thing about this (for the optimistic designer) is that it’s clear there are few who are really doing it well, especially for the kid audience.

This poor little icon is vulnerable to the highest scrutiny, expected to do things that are physically beyond its limited pixel area. As an icon, at its most basic function, it is meant to be a simple, memorable representation of the product. Apple’s very own iOS Human Interface Guidelines recommends this. An app icon is the packaging on the shelf that helps the app stand out from the competition. No doubt it has to work hard to do that.

For Tinybop, we needed each app icon to have a consistent design element to link it to its series, as well as nod back to the Tinybop brand. Some of the other companies with multiple app titles solve this by employing a border treatment or a teeny tiny representation of their logo in the corner. But we also wanted to represent the rich content of our apps, and tasked ourselves to use the app’s illustration artwork in the icon. The solution we came to combines the wind-up key from our logo, an illustration, and a unique color for each app title.

App icons

Now that we have several titles out, this system is working — in aesthetics, consistency, and brand recognition. We did have a more graphic approach that we nixed last minute for fear it was too minimal. It’s hard to know which approach would have performed better in terms of marketing and sales. But we haven’t let that approach completely go, and it’s popping up in fun places.

Pins for each app

UX FOR LONG-TERM SUCCESS

One of the biggest opportunities for a brand to shine is in its product.

There is a huge opportunity for companies to fortify their promises through the content and experiences they create for their audiences. At Tinybop, our products are designed for kids. We respect their intelligence, knowing they are capable of responding to good design just as enthusiastically as adults. And, kids have relatively limited experiences with screens and love discovering things on their own, while adults can be uncomfortable with interfaces for fear of making a mistake, which opens up the potential for us to find better ways of designing interactions.

Opening screen to The Human Body

I’ve often handed the opening screen to our Human Body app over to friends, only to have them hesitate and ask for direction. Kids, however, will dive right in, excited to go in whatever direction they want.

I believe it is this untapped potential — to design newly engaging and enriching experiences — that will become the ultimate measure of success for Tinybop’s brand. A brand can attract an audience through thoughtful design, consistent design, and even merely good-looking design, but unless it carries through on what it promises, no amount of design polish will ensure its success. And the kids will be the first to confirm that.

A playtester at Tinybop HQ