Minilab is a new digital production company created to deliver the most beautiful experiences in visual storytelling, learning and play that children can get their hands on. Starting out as the digital R&D of Nobrow and Flying Eye Books, Minilab was set up as a new company in January of 2015 by Nobrow-co-founder Alex Spiro and digital creative James Wilson. At Minilab, we adopt the same basic values of great design of the highest quality that our sister companies are founded upon. We work with teams of talented animators and developers along with expert academics and the best illustrators in the world to ensure that we create the very best digital products for children that parents can rely on. We’ve recently released our first app, Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System.
Professor Astro Cat first appeared in the book Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, by illustrator Ben Newman and quantum physicist Dr Dominic Walliman. Professor Astro Cat and his friends act as a conduit to spread scientific fact in a fun way that children can enjoy. He wants to make learning fun because when done with love and humour, learning is easy.
It has become one of the best-selling books on the Flying Eye Books list, selling 90,00 copies worldwide, having been translated into 13 different languages! With Minilab’s intention to create beautiful, educational, digital content for children and with this proven track record behind it, Professor Astro Cat became the obvious candidate for this new project. James has a background in animation and had previously collaborated with Ben on the creation of animated GIFs of Professor Astro Cat, so it was definitely his first choice for a project too.
One of the earliest stipulations of the digital Astro Cat project was that, even if we were going to be covering similar educational content, the app should not be a straightforward conversion of the book. Astro Cat’s world and mission has been reimagined to create a brand new digital experience. There are plenty of ebooks and enhanced digital books out there that stick to the tropes and practices of print. The end result tends to look and feel like a glorified PDF, which is something that we really weren’t interested in. We thought that if we were going to develop a digital experience that started life as a book, we should offer something that a book can’t.
When designing layout for a book, there is usually only one destination size. For example, in the book, the whole Solar System is shown across a double-page spread.
With an app, the design of the layout needs to be flexible enough to work across a whole range of devices ranging from squarer tablets to wider aspects found in smartphones and smaller devices. With the Solar System in the app, we get to see the planets up close whilst giving the user the understanding that there is more content ‘offstage’. The zoom function is a great example of playing to the strength of the format.
The app was built using Unity 3D, a powerful C# based platform that can run both 3D and 2D animations. Having the facility to use simple 3D models for the planets makes light work of conveying the planets spinning on their axes whilst maintaining the 2D flat aesthetic of Ben’s artwork. This adds another level of information to the illustrations in the book.
Breaking the page was very important. The digital app needs an anchor for all the information to move away and come back to. While a book is a more linear experience in which you physically go back and reference things, if you choose to. It was very interesting to adapt this because you have to design in a very different way. You need to think about what the viewer can’t yet see and how to take them there without the viewer feeling instructed.
Books are what we know and love. They can be wonderfully rich and accessible sources of information, entertainment and inspiration. With a Nobrow/Flying Eye Book we go as far as we can to to offer something that readers can’t get anywhere else. In the Astro Cat book, we’ve presented educational content within a fully illustrated context, demonstrating the power of visuals to illuminate text in print. With mobile devices taking up ever-increasing amounts of eye-time and the devices themselves becoming more and more ubiquitous, the digital revolution is not letting up. Children are both drawn to and adept at this new technology and we want to make that screen time matter. It follows that with our digital offering we should be offering experiences that users can’t get anywhere else. Animation can add an extra element of life to visuals; animating Astro was a great way of expressing his character through motion. But digital experiences really come into their own when there are things a user can affect - making passive consumption OF MEDIA, active. So there’s lots to uncover, prod, swipe, read and also… play. By playing to the strengths of the digital format, we have allowed children to explore their own personalized, beautiful and educational adventure through space.