maandag 25 februari 2013

Children's Puzzle Games

In March 2004 I got a telephone call from the art director of Algemeen Dagblad, the newspaper I'd been frequently making illustrations for since 1993. The art director wondered if I was interested in making puzzles games for the children's page. The newspaper had bought a license to reuse puzzles that had been published before in a puzzle magazine for children. However, the art director wasn't that pleased with the artistic composition of these puzzles. The exuberant use of clip art made their appearance rather dull, to say the least. My challenge would be to make these puzzles more visually attractive for children. It seemed a fun job to do, so naturally I accepted the commission.
I received a fax from the newspaper which contained examples of puzzles that needed some improvement. Like this one:
Before I begin with what I think could be improved about this puzzle, it would be better to translate the text at the top first. That way the purpose of this puzzle will become much clearer for those who are not familiar with the Dutch language. Mind you, I'm not a professional translator, but I'll do my best. I think you'll get the drift anyway.

"Marieke goes on vacation to France. She's already looking forward to play on the beach, but she can only get there by following the letters that spell the word France. Would you like to help her out?"

Although vacation is the subject of this puzzle, its appearance doesn't have the feel of the holidays at all. One has to look twice to perceive that the scribbled lines underneath the palm tree suggest the presence of a beach. Another thing is the palm tree itself. Even though palm trees are known to vegetate in the south of France, it's far more likely they'll make you think of the tropics. Well, that's the thing with clip art, isn't it? You search for an image of a beach, preferably a French one, but the best you can find is a palm tree. To make the most of it you'll draw a few lines beneath the palm tree that will represent that beach and - hey presto! - it looks just as if the drawing is especially made for this puzzle. I'm awfully sorry to disappoint those who think so. Clip art might be cheaper than a bespoke illustration, but the end result will quite often look cheap too.
I haven't mentioned the troll-like figures on the right of the puzzle yet. To be honest, I really don't know what to think of these ugly drawn creatures. I'm not even sure why they're pictured in the puzzle. They don't have any relation with the subject at all. What's more, they're way out of proportion with the girl on the left. So what's the idea behind this visual torture, I keep on asking myself. I find it hard to restrain someone in his creative outings, but to the maker of these monstrosities I would like to say: if you like to draw in your spare time, feel free to do so. But please don't make it public ever again!!!

In other words, dear blog reader, there was a lot which could be improved about this puzzle to make it more appealing. However, I have to admit that it was quite a bonus that I could make use of colours to achieve this. Here's what I made of it:
In case of the puzzle pictured above I could more or less use the basis of the example that had been faxed to me. With other puzzles this was quite a hopeless undertaking. Not only were the images plain ugly - I'm sorry to say so - but also the chosen sceneries were as dull as ditchwater. It was better to start from scratch. Such was the case with the spot the same puzzle I made next.
Now, it's easy to disparage someone else's drawing skills and lack of imagination. I'm fully aware of that. Nevertheless, I still had to show that I could do it better. To begin with I asked myself what kind of images were appealing to children. I don't have children myself to ask, but I still have a vivid memory which kind of imagery I liked as a kid. One of the first things which came to mind were the chewing gum sticker cards with baseball playing monsters my sister collected way back in the 1970s. Although I haven't seen these monsters cards for over 30 years, they were a great inspiration for this puzzle:
I didn't search the internet for images of the baseball playing monsters cards at the time I was making this puzzle. I only had a dial-up connection to my disposal in 2004, which was terribly slow. This annoyed me to such an extent, that I avoided using the internet as much as possible. It wasn't that important either. After all, I only wanted to make something in the spirit of these baseball playing monsters, not an exact copy.
Whilst preparing this blog entry, I thought it would be fun to see if I could find something about these chewing gum cards on the internet after all. Sure enough, I almost immediately found a blog which had published the complete set. When I saw these cards again after all those years, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they were just as good and funny as I remembered them. Reading the blog entry I learned that this set of chewing gum cards are called Awesome All Stars, created by B.K. Taylor.
You can see the complete set on Branded in the Eighties.

In my childhood years I was very fond of spooky things. I also liked maze puzzles, so why not combine them together? Exclusive of the clip art on the example given by the newspaper, the labyrinth itself was a solid frame for making this eerie maze:
Another classic children's puzzle is the so called connect the dots. It wasn't that easy to make such a puzzle myself, as I learned whilst doing so. I wanted it to look visually attractive, but that's rather difficult if the biggest part of the surface has to be filled with only dots and numbers. To avoid the puzzle becoming too boring to look at, I filled in some of the details myself. However, I had to be aware that I didn't reveal too much of what the image would look like once the dots were connected.
I hit another snag making this puzzle. Have you ever tried to make a drawing of something in one line, without lifting your pen or pencil and without drawing double lines? Quite a hard task, isn't it? Yet I had to make such a drawing in order to get the points and numbers in the right place. Maybe filling in some details in the connect the dots puzzle beforehand might be considered somewhat as cheating, but it sure helps to get a recognizable image once some diligent kid has connected all the dots together.
It would have been a lot easier if I would have had more space. I had approximately 15 cm x 12 cm to my disposal for these puzzles. To make the puzzle more challenging for children, it would be best to make the connect the dots drawing as detailed as possible. But with the limited space I had I could only make a rather simplified drawing. Otherwise I would get a muddle of dots and numbers which would be very confusing indeed. Taking all this in consideration, I came up with this as a result:
I guess that most of you will be familiar with the spot the difference puzzle. In trying to spot the differences in that kind of puzzle, I always have great difficulty finding the very last one. The most remarkable thing is that even now I've made such a puzzle myself, I'm still having a hard time to spot the very last difference. After a period of time, that is (it would become really precarious if I couldn't do so just after completing my own puzzle).
Despite of that, being able to use a lot of my imagination in depicting the scenery, making a spot the difference puzzle is great fun!
The Dutch word for jigsaw puzzle is legpuzzel. However, this isn't a literal translation. The translation of the word leg in legpuzzel is to lay (in the sense of to place or to put). Dutch people call it a legpuzzel because you have to put the pieces in the right place.
Why am I telling all this, you might wonder. Well, it's all about the next puzzle I restyled which was called legpuzzel. It wasn't really a jigsaw puzzle though. The purpose of this puzzle was to place a number of given words in such order that they would fit into each other, hence the name leg-puzzel.
Because of the name of this puzzle I thought it would be appropriate to make a visual link with an actual jigsaw puzzle, notably the jigsaw puzzles I've been collecting for many years now. These particular puzzles are of British origin and were made in the midst of the twentieth century. The reason why I started to buy these puzzles - besides that actually making them is a very relaxing pastime - was their outstanding graphic design. I find the striking use of primary colours (red, yellow and blue) on the boxes of these jigsaw puzzles very appealing. With these colours in mind I made this puzzle:
And here's one of such jigsaw puzzles that inspired me:
Not too long after the last puzzle was published in the newspaper, I got another telephone call from the art director. She was a little worried that the puzzles I had made so far were a little bit too boyish (except for the first one). Girls who also would like to do the puzzles on the children's page might feel somewhat neglected. At first I didn't agree. After all, it was my sister who collected the chewing gum baseball monsters cards, not me. If she liked monsters and other 'boyish' topics, why wouldn't other girls do also? But then I thought about it again. My argumentation could just as easily be reversed; why wouldn't there be boys who were fond of typical girlie things? In other words, my line of reasoning for not making outspoken girl-themed puzzles didn't stand any ground.
There is a lesson to be learned from this; always listen carefully to your client, keep an open mind and don't be too stubborn. Chances are that you might loose sight of the bigger picture. A good interaction with your client can get the better out of you and will get the best result.
Self-evidently, the same is valid the other way around. Some clients can be very peculiar in their personal preferences. These can even conflict with the actual result the client eventually aspires, which makes such a commission a hell of a job to accomplish.
Although I've had my share of such clients, Algemeen Dagblad most certainly wasn't one of them. In fact, I've always enjoyed working for this newspaper.

To return to the subject of the boy/girl puzzles: I took the suggestion of the art director to heart and made this girl friendly maze game picturing Mister Mole coming for tea at Mrs. Rabbit's residence:
The next spot the difference puzzle is a little bit more adventurous than the tea visit labyrinth, but still very much focused on girls.
You may have noticed that I didn't use any black outlines in this image. Trying out different styles and techniques certainly improves one's skills. It also keeps your work interesting and challenging. However, from a commercial point of view, it's not the smartest thing to do. The shortest way to fame and fortune seems to be the 'more of the same' formula. Once noted that a particular style or even a theme or a single character appeals to a major public, it's best to stick to that to become successful. Any sidetrack experimentations with different styles - even if they turn out well - will be a waste of time really, for there will be no demand for it. Not by the majority anyway.
It seems a bit silly that I'm not sticking to that 'more of the same' formula myself, now isn't it? Well, first of all, I was never tempted to do so, for I still haven't found that particular style, theme or character that could be commercially exploited to that extent. Secondly, enjoying my work by keeping it as interesting and challenging as possible has always been more important to me than gathering large quantities of money. I know, I'm a lousy businessman.
As challenging as it may be, experimenting with other styles takes time and not every experiment will turn out for the best. This can be a risk if you have to work with a deadline. Your creative experiment might not turn out the way you want, which can become quite tricky when you run out of time meeting your deadline. However, I had already been experimenting with making drawings without outlines before, so I was sure I wouldn't get into trouble using this particular style for this puzzle. In all modesty, I think this puzzle turned out rather well and I'm very pleased with the result.

Here's another connect the the dots puzzle. This time I succeeded in making a visually attractive image. However, in doing so, I'm afraid I might have given away just a bit too much of the hidden image between the dots. If the opportunity ever occurs again, I should really try to make a connect the dots again on a larger scale. With enough space for lots and lots of dots and numbers - and thus a far more detailed 'hidden' image - children will have way more fun making the puzzle.
The next one I made was a spot the same puzzle:
Looking at this puzzle again, I suddenly remembered that I had drawn a warlock like this before. I made that warlock for a mini flyer the size of a visiting-card. I don't have the original digital file anymore. Sadly enough, that file got lost when my computer broke down many years ago. So I had to make a scan of the flyer itself. Its print quality is rather poor, so the best I can show is this somewhat blurry image:
The children's page of October 27, 2004 had a Halloween theme, so the art director asked me to make a puzzle in the same spirit:
I also got a request to make some small and simple images which could be used as decorative elements to illuminate the Halloween page.
The last children's puzzle I made for Algemeen Dagblad was around Christmas. To celebrate this time of the year the children's page was made in a matching spirit and naturally I could only link up.
Again I was asked to make some decorative elements for this page.
I have to admit that I was quite disappointed when I found out that none of my decorative elements - even though they had been paid for - were used on this Christmas children's page. But what I found ever so more shocking was that the newspaper had used those dreadful sterile clip art images instead! Sometimes I can't help feeling I'm fighting a losing battle…

Besides this minor setback I'm very glad indeed that the newspaper gave me the opportunity to make these children's puzzles. It's a pity it was only a series of twelve puzzles and I had to stop just when I really got the hang of it, because I enjoyed making them very much!

1 opmerking:

  1. Pieter,een erg interessante blogpost wederom. Ik vind wel dat je een beetje hard bent voor de arme sloeber die de 'troll-like figures' heeft getekend in het eerste plaatje ;-) Verder: prachtig tekenwerk!