Good design is often talked about as if it were a secret language spoken only by those sophisticated enough to understand it, but there’s a less self-congratulatory way to think about it: Design is the language that subliminally guides us in our attempts to explore the world around us. That’s what makes design so important to kids, those great anti-sophisticates who are just embarking on the journey through design that most of us will pursue for the rest of our lives.
Tinybop is a New York–based studio of artists and developers that is leveraging the language of good design in a new series of educational apps called the Explorer’s Library. The company’s first app, The Human Body, is a real charmer that intuitively guides children and adults alike through the weird, wonderful, and gross workings inside everyone.
Inspired by an identically named children’s primer first published in 1959 and illustrated by the great Cornelius DeWitt, The Human Body takes kids through a journey of their own insides. Breaking down human anatomy into different systems (the circulatory system, nervous system, limbic system, and so on), The Human Body teaches kids what their bodies do and how their bodies work through play exploration.
Children are encouraged to explore their innards through a series of transparent overlays of different systems, which can be applied and peeled back through the tap of a button. For example, drag a mosquito onto your Tinybop body and you can see how the bite transmits itself through the central nervous system. Shove an ice cream cone into your avatar’s mouth and you can see how your digestive system turns it into mush. You can explore how hearing works by talking into your iPhone’s microphone, and how your eyeball and brain work together to topsy-turvily suck up the world around you by flipping the phone right-side up and using the built-in FaceTime cam. You can tickle your body’s armpit with a feather, explore the colon, or prod deep into the mysterious machinations of the brain. And that’s just to start. The Human Body isn’t so much about explaining the human body as it is showing how it functions through a combination of great design and play.
A lifelong collector of children’s books, Raul Gutierrez founded Tinybop after his six-year-old tried to trade his birthday party for an iPhone. “If you know anything about six-year-olds, birthday parties are the only currency that counts,” Gutierrez tells me. “It made me stop and focus. Books were incredibly important to me, but for him, it was apps.” Gutierrez realized that there was no reason why apps shouldn’t be just as formative in the development of an intellectually curious, creative adult as the books he had read in his youth. Yet when Gutierrez sat down to explore the top 200 apps for kids, he was disappointed: Most of them were either poorly designed or made for another medium entirely. “I wanted to make something for kids that was just as beautiful as those science books from the early 1960s,” says Gutierrez. “But there was just nothing like that.”
Putting together a team of people Gutierrez had “design crushes” on, Tinybop was formed. For The Human Body’s distinct look, Tinybop turned to illustrator Kelli Anderson, who based her work on old transparency biology books, where one system could be physically layered over other systems in the body until a complete picture was formed. According to Gutierrez, landing an illustrator of Anderson’s skill was key in realizing the project. “There’s nothing random in the body. Everything is there for a reason, in a particular shape,” explains Gutierrez. “So there’s this real tension between what you can abstract, what you can just suggest, and what needs to be totally accurate.”
Another challenge in making the The Human Body a reality was designing an interface where kids could explore anatomy while finding out for themselves what various systems actually do, not through didactic explanation but through play. “It might seem simple, but five- and six-year-olds don’t necessarily know even simple things, like what the skeleton is for,” says Gutierrez. Kids brought in for testing might abstractly know they had a stomach or a brain, but couldn’t necessarily draw one in the right place on a blank outline of a person, or understand how they were connected. Figuring out how to teach kids about how these systems work without leading them by the nose was a problem Tinybop worked hard to solve.
The eureka moment was when a young Russian child intuited what the central nervous system does, just playing with the app. “You know that moment in The Matrix when Neo suddenly says, ‘I know karate?'” remembers Gutierrez. “This kid had that same moment, hitting his hand on the desk in front of him and squealing ‘I can feel this!'” That was when Tinybop knew they’d gotten it right.
Going forward, Tinybop is working on more entries in the Explorer’s Library series of apps, each one of which will team up with a new designer or illustrator to explore a fresh subject. In the meantime, The Human Body is available in over 50 languages on the iPhone and iPad for $2.99. At a time when kids are treated by corporations like the rampaging, goblin-like ids of their parents’ thoughtless consumerism, it’s refreshing to see a company like Tinybop take the opposite approach, giving both children and their parents both the intellectual credit and the richly designed apps that they deserve.