9 Ideas Designers Should Steal From Great Children’s Books (Part 2)

Creatives who are parents know that children’s books can feed the creative process like nobody’s business. No kids? No problem. This two-part series will introduce you to children’s books whose narrative tactics and forms you can repurpose in your creative work for adults. (Catch up on part 1 here.)

Creatives who are parents know that children’s books can feed the creative process like nobody’s business. No kids? No problem. This two-part series will introduce you to children’s books whose narrative tactics and forms you can repurpose in your creative work for adults. (Catch up on part 1 here.)

Idea #4: Unusual forms pull audiences in.

Form often dictates design – whether it’s a trifold brochure, a whitepaper, or a mobile app interface. While it’s good and necessary to design within constraints, give yourself occasional license to bust out of them. After all, trifold brochures are expensive to produce nowadays, yet most aren’t worth saving. Similarly, most kids’ shelves are groaning with books. Why buy another one? Designing a piece that transcends a well-worn form can unlock its breakout potential and give the message enduring value.

It’s Useful to Have a Duck by Spanish author-illustrator Isol has been widely translated, but it’s not easy to find an English version. (Our edition is in German.) This board book opens accordion-style to reveal a simple-seeming narrative. A child finds a rubber duck and starts fiddling around with it: pretending it’s a fake nose, wearing it as a hat. Inevitably the duck finds its way to the bathtub and takes a swim. But closing the book reveals a surprise: the exact-same illustrations re-tell the story from the duck’s perspective. It’s useful to the duck to have a kid, too. While wearing the duck as a hat, the duck considers him an observatory tower. While a fake nose (to the kid), the duck pretends he’s a gargoyle.

This is Not a Book by Jean Jullien (pictured at top) turns the regular bound book on its head. One page spread turns the book into a monster’s chomping jaws. Rotate the book on the next spread, and it becomes a pretend piano. It widens the scope of possibilities lurking inside a standard printing format.

Playful takes on form in design can communicate a knowing air, shake a jaded audience into paying attention again—and transcend form’s limits.

Idea #5: Use expected rhythms and forms to unexpected effect.

Here’s a riff on the previous idea. Children’s books include a few extremely well-worn forms: ABC books, color books, and counting books are chief among the bunch. Producing a knockout hit within such a form demands deep literacy of that form in its countless iterations. When you’re really constrained as to both a project’s form and structure, consider which swerves within those limits can liven up the proceedings and your audience’s reaction.

My hero-books for this idea are contained in this “nutshell library” by Maurice Sendak. Chicken Soup With Rice is a book of seasons, One Was Johnny a counting book, and Alligators All Around an alphabet book. Each seizes its premise with a brilliant absurdity that propels the story along.

One Was Johnny starts with Johnny alone in a room. One by one, the room fills with animals doing screwball things. The counting reverses to leave Johnny all by himself again: “AND HE LIKED IT THAT WAY.” These stories intuit the internal logic governing these classic forms – in this case, one counts upwards and then needs a compelling narrative reason to count back down – and build unforgettable stories around them.

Idea #6: The tension between word and image is a force. Use it!

A first-principle of children’s books is that the words tell only half the story. Experts confirm that children build literacy by observing pictures closely and narrating the action through them.  Therefore, readers of kids’ books expect the illustrations to include Easter-egg surprises of all sorts. Jokes emerge between what the text says and the picture reveals. The tension between word and image is where much of a book’s fun happens – and it’s the source of richness with repeated readings. This tension could be a goldmine of opportunity for designers working for adult audiences – yet it’s rarely exploited to its full potential.

Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch by Nancy Willard and illustrated by the Dillons demonstrates this point nicely. It’s about Bosch’s housekeeper who – aggrieved by the weird imaginary creatures interfering with her housework – leaves the artist in a huff. She’s tempted home by the pleading of creatures who hide in her suitcase: “a three-legged dish, the pickle-winged fish and a head wearing claws”. Each illustration is packed with monstrous creatures and funny details that go unmentioned in the text. It suggests a world overflowing with life, spilling beyond the page corners. Each illustration in Pish, Posh is encased with a baroque frame; you wonder what teeming activity hides just out of view.

The illustrative style doesn’t have to be complicated to achieve these effects. In Hug Machine by Scott Campbell the narrator dubs himself a super-hero of hugging. Super-heros, of course, crave challenges. At one point, he meets a prickly armadillo who announces: “What about me? I am so spiky. No one ever hugs me.” The next page finds the Hug Machine hugging the armadillo while wearing oven mitts and hockey mask to protect himself. The caption reads: “They are missing out!”

Idea #7: Pictures manifest processes beautifully.

Have we reached Peak Infographics yet? Maybe. Despite an infographics-glut, readers still hunger for visuals that organize information and draw them into deeper engagement. Consumers also demand greater transparency into how products are made. In marketing, content is king – which makes a discernable, engaging narrative queen. If a process diagram or infographic makes sense for your next project, these children’s books can offer you great ideas.

Tatu and Patu are the brain-children of Finnish duo Sami Toivonen and Aino Havukainen; sadly, their books aren’t available in English. (Below is the cover of Tatu & Patu & Their Crazy Machines in German). But these books illustrate process more intelligently than any children’s book author I’ve seen since the immortal Richard Scarry. Tatu and Patu invent loopy, Rube-Goldberg-esque machines to do silly work. My favorite is the “Mini-Mach”, the “Mini-Maker”, an enormous contraption tapering to an impossibly small instrument capable of tattooing a Barbie-doll or trimming a flea’s nails.

Speaking of Richard Scarry, he’s the past-master of great process illustrations. In What Do People Do All Day? he explains adult jobs to children with remarkable clarity, from making bread, building a new house, or paving a road. It’s an object lesson in simplicity and salient details, an ideal primer for infographic design thinking.

Idea #8: Plumb history and myth for extra aura.

Great design innovates, but also taps into a sense of history. Novelty wears off, but a new design with roots stretching into a past – real or imagined – feels grounded and credible.

Heckedy Peg by Audrey and Don Wood spins a new tale that feels like an old fable. I won’t spoil its many surprises. Suffice it to say that the story adeptly incorporates folklore elements—chiefly, a cackling witch who eats children. The illustration feels sure-handed, with sepia color palette mellowed by time. Its expert use of design elements suggesting folklore makes it an instant classic.

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Alice & Martin Provensen, shows how an homage to the past can lend a project greater depth. As the subtitle suggests, this book collects nonsense rhymes in the spirit of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, including clever reinterpretations of Blake’s drawing style. Not every corporate design project allows for such free literary allusions, of course. But even a whiff of a pre-existing cultural icon can help a design exert more force.

Idea #9: Widen the purview.

I am a huge fan of Arnold Lobel’s lesser-known books Owl at Home and Mouse Soup. Both collections of stories are quietly exhilarating, enlarging one’s sense of what’s possible in a children’s book. Take “Tear-Water Tea” in Owl at Home. Owl sits down to prepare tea-water tea, whose recipe is exactly what the name implies. He thinks about all sorts of sad-making things – broken pencils, beautiful dawns that everybody slept through – as his tears steadily fill the pot. He drinks it down, then feels better again. The strange, paradoxically true lesson: it’s healthy to have a good cry now and then.

We all face design projects that fail to inspire. The product seems humdrum and the emotional need inert. But “boring” products like healthcare, insurance, financial services often provide foundational support to life. It’s almost startling how deep those human needs go. Plumbing the emotional depths of such a product might not immediately result in client-ready design work. But going emotionally deep during your creative process can unearth fresh angles and feelings, even upsetting ones, that educate you for the project at hand.

What children’s books are you reading—and more importantly, borrowing from to make your design work great?


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