Tinybop Dials Up the Weird to Craft Stellar Kids Apps
“This is the perfect kids book,” Raul Gutierrez says as he grabs a small white book off a shelf. The book, Little Fur Family, is a classic from 1946 about a family of bears. Its cover features a tiny bear with a hole cut in his stomach, through which pokes a patch of fur. “This book is so weird.”
Gutierrez, who founded the children’s app company Tinybop, has a theory about weird. He believes that for any children’s book or toy or app to be truly great, it must have an undercurrent of strangeness. “I think most great children’s stuff is a little bit weird,” he says. “And weirdness is hard to bake in, unless you’re, like, a little bit weird yourself.”
Tinybop is weird—the Brooklyn startup behind apps like The Human Body, The Earth, and Everything Machine has been known to use fart sounds to teach kids the fundamentals of science. In the past five years, the company has slowly established a small, kid-focused media empire around apps so strange and beautiful that even adults (ahem, me) like to play them.
Tinybop started with a funny request. It was 2010, and Gutierrez had just left 20×200, the online art-print shop. He decided to take a year off and figure out what he wanted to do next, knowing only that he wanted to work in mobile. One day, his son, a kindergartener at the time, asked to trade his birthday party for an iPhone. “That moment really made me stop,” he recalls. “It made me realize not only was this thing the most important toy in his life, it was like the most important thing in his life.” This intrigued and worried Gutierrez, who, like many parents, worried about how much screen time his sons were getting.
Gutierrez began watching how his son used the iPhone and tablet, and quickly realized no one, especially in the education space, was taking full advantage of the medium. The apps on the market were loud and flashy, and oversimplified complex subjects to the point of inaccuracy. “I think kids are very sophisticated in the way they look at the world,” he says. “I think we underestimate what kids can take in.”
Gutierrez is a lifelong fan of children’s books—“in college,” he says, “I was the weird kid who had children’s books in his dorm room”— and that fascination has given him unique appreciation for kid-friendly design. He wanted to see if he could take the attention to detail typically afforded children’s books and direct it toward an education-focused app. Each of TinyBop’s apps is designed by a team of illustrators. Deciding which of their designs make it into the app is a simple process: Concept drawings are printed onto paper and given to kids,
The apps really are pieces of art, but they also represent an interesting approach to interaction design. Gutierrez explains that the apps are rooted in the inquiry-based learning method, which maintains that teaching is less about feeding kids facts and more about guiding them to ask the right questions. For example, none of Tinybop’s apps include instructions. This, says Gutierrez, usually poses a bigger problem for adults than it does for children, who tend to treat the apps like open playgrounds.
“The apps don’t do anything unless you act,” says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review. Letting kids have agency over how they want to use the app is key to facilitating learning, he says. When there are no instructions, kids tend to spend more time not just exploring but understanding the app. “The lightbulb goes on a lot faster when you’re fooling around and experimenting and playing,” he says.
In The Human Body, for example, kids who want to explore the function of an eyeball are presented with straight-on and cross-sectional illustrations of the organ. Touch it, and it’ll blink. The cross-section shows the muscles that contract and pull the eyelid down. “[Kids] might not understand that’s the muscle, but they’ll understand that this thing is connected to that thing,” says Gutierrez. In another example, he explains how the app teaches kids about the spine. “We never have a text pop up that says the skeleton holds up the human body,” he says. “What we have is if you pull out the spine, the whole body collapses. Everything you need to know about what the spine does is embedded in that interaction.” In other words: The apps are less about presenting facts—“Google is a terrible interface for a six-year-old,” Gutierrez says, laughing—and more about making connections and building a holistic knowledge-base.
Tinybop has received a modest influx of cash (they brought in $5 million in funding last year), which Gutierrez says is the result of turning Tinybop into a cohesive, recognizable brand. He’d like to continue building the company’s reputation. The brand should be so synonymous with quality children’s apps, he says, that people searching for a new one in the app store will search not for the name of an individual app, but simply “Tinybop.”
Eventually, though, you might not be going to the app store at all. Gutierrez has plans to turn the education apps into a children’s lifestyle brand—a savvy move, considering the popularity Tinybop so far. His vision: Bedsheets, toys, t-shirts, videos. “I can see a lunch box for each of our apps,” he says.