9 Ideas Designers Can Steal From Great Children’s Books (Part 1)

Kid-less designers: You are beating me hands-down on sleep, gym, social, reading and movie time. Your minds are likely wonderfully clear of logistical tangles like scrounging up non-terrible snacks from a 7-11 in a pinch, or wrangling your kid crosstown rapidly without a carseat handy.

But you are missing out in a single, enormous way—and no, I don’t mean the joys of parenthood proper. (Parenthood should require no prosyletizing. Either you’re self-convincing to hop onto this ship of fools, or you’re not.) You’re missing out on all the great children’s books as a source of design inspiration.

[Related: To Kill A Mockingbird Book Covers & Concepts | Chromaphilia: A Masterful Book About Color in Art Illuminates Graphic Design, Too]

It’s no small exaggeration to say that having regular, automatic access to kids’ books has fed my creative process in ways that are now hard to imagine living without. So, why live without any longer? In this two-part blog series, we’ll introduce you to children’s books—classics, newcomer titles and sleeper hits—whose narrative tactics are worth borrowing for creative work aimed at adults.

Skeptics may ask: Are the conditions governing kids’ books and adult design work really so similar? Absolutely. The bar for children’s books is ridiculously high. Sure, parents will open their wallets to buy many such books—but a chasteningly large number of titles compete for those dollars. Not known for their patience, children push away books that don’t absorb them. And exerting those charms isn’t simply a matter of extraordinarily beautiful illustrations. Those are often table-stakes just to get published.

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The potency of a great kid’s book is the all-around cleverness of its concept: how precisely the book knows its reader, what they’ve already read and loved (or rejected), and how exactly it speaks directly to her buried fascinations or fears. Nearly all the same conditions—saturation, impatience, jadedness, ingenuity, exactitude—make the business of designing a knockout corporate website, company brochure, or infographic equally fraught with challenges.

Without further ado, then, let’s dive in:

Idea #1: Subversion grabs attention.  

It’s a universal truth: whatever their age, humans love subversion, naughtiness, rules-breaking of all kinds. We think we know what this Thing is about, whether that thing is a children’s illustrated book or a sales whitepaper. We think we know the reactions expected of us as we read, and we’re loath to play into those expectations too meekly. Call it an expression of our liberty in the face of reading, an act requiring a measure of submission. Naughtiness affirms our autonomy in engaging with this Thing at all—and with that, gives us permission to respond positively to any calls to action. Rules-breaking draws us inexorably forward by making us wonder: however will this book do what I know it ultimately will, starting off on this strange and alarming foot?

Zeralda’s Ogre by Tomi Ungerer is a classic case-in-point. Ungerer is a past-master of illustration as subversion, both in children’s books as well as political posters and erotica. (Ungerer paid dearly for this subversion earlier in his career but has since made a resurgence; my post for AIGA about Ungerer’s new treasury explores the tale more fully.)

Zeralda’s Ogre opens by introducing a brutish ogre, ending with a jaw-dropping flourish: “Of all things, he liked little children for breakfast best.” Yes, Virginia, this is the story of how a child-eating ogre mends his ways. The ogre meets Zeralda, a chef-child whose delicious cooking opens up his palate. He hires her, then marries her, and all is well once more. But Ungerer finishes the book with a zesty coda: a picture of grown-up Zeralda with the ogre and their many children. Zeralda cradles a baby, while one of her sons brandishes a knife and fork behind his back. Is the child-eating really over? The question rolls deliciously in your mind, like a chocolate slowly melting on your tongue. You can achieve a similar, long-lasting resonance with design projects that hook audiences subversively, take them on an absorbing journey, then leave them with an intriguing remainder, a hint that the adventure will continue—with the next campaign.

For more lessons in the studious application of subversion, try While You Were Napping by Jenny Offill and illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt and Chicken Cheeks by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. While You Were Napping openly courts disaster by playing to every kid’s secret belief that all the best stuff happens during naptime, while expertly soothing the kid down for same. Chicken Cheeks recites all the forbidden names for butts and derrieres, assigned alliteratively to animals that stack precariously on top of one another. It tames a kid’s potty-mouth temporarily by sheer overexposure.

In both cases, the parallel to design work is clear: a subversive opening gambit proves you know your target audience’s thinking well. It renders you a mind-reader and builds a measure of trust with your audience immediately: preconditions for receiving the ensuing message with an open mind.

Idea #2: Lead with your materials.

An illustrative style that breaks with the genre’s norms signals immediately to an audience that this tale goes in a novel direction. It can also open up unexpected reservoirs of feeling, increasing emotive pull.

Swimmy ranks among the classics by author, illustrator and mid-century adman Leo Lionni. It’s the tale of a fish named Swimmy who loses all of his siblings to a “tuna fish, swift, fierce and very hungry.” He recovers from this  disaster with aplomb, teaching a new school of tiny fish to swim in a protective formation resembling a large fish. Lionni’s books  frequently experiment with unusual illustrative styles, from marbled Venetian papers to loose, abstracted spongework.

Occasionally designers find themselves stuck—thanks to budget or other constraints—working with materials they wouldn’t have chosen. Embrace that limitation. If you tease out the materials’ distinct properties and foreground them in your message, un-ideal material choices end up working for your design, not against it—often yielding surprising emotional force.

Idea #3: Draw them into the creative process.

Creatives are told—rightly, in most cases—to erase their tracks when it comes to their creative process. The viewer need not suffer all the same twists and dead-ends you did to yield this particular final product. At the same time, the process to create anything is itself a rich and involving narrative. For design works about products or services aimed at solving a problem—say, a brochure about planning your retirement savings—process-lead narratives draw readers deeper into the subject matter, making what was previously a tedious, multi-step process feel like an adventure.

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson starts with Harold deciding to take a walk in the moonlight. “There wasn’t any moon,” Johnson writes, “and Harold needed a moon for a walk in the moonlight. And he needed something to walk on.” He deftly sketches both with his purple crayon—and thus begins a journey full of unexpected curveballs and quick-thinking saves, all birthed from Harold’s doodling. As a reader, you marvel on two levels: first, how does Harold dream up these tight situations? And how then will he extricate himself?

Many design projects hold this power of potential immersion: first, to create an inviting new world, and second to explore the rules governing that world. Particularly with long-form projects like whitepapers, ebooks or microsites, designers must involve their audiences in self-creating the narrative as a joint venture. For a complex message to resonate, audiences must buy into the complexity first before going deeper.

Press Here by Hervé Tullet works similar magic before your eyes. (Its cover image opens today’s post.) Jaded, videogame-loving kids who drag their feet toward reading-time will leap to interact with Tullet’s clever, graphics-forward narrative. Press a dot and, on the next page, it shivers to life, coughing up additional dots. Press again, and on subsequent pages the dot grows bigger, then tinier, zigzags and caroms in crazy directions.

The book meets you with an open hand immediately and demands: will you come along with me? Like author-illustrator Tullet, designers must create the drama inherent to a project, set the stakes, and posit an alluring-sounding journey. Audiences won’t willingly follow along you unless you first lead.

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That’s just for starters. Watch for part 2 of this mini-series coming later this month.


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