The Headspin story: Pop-up books in a digital age

Dean Johnson, Creative Director, Brandwidth

The world is coming to terms with the existence of the iPad and as we head towards the Christmas buying frenzy, rival tablet devices begin to take their first tentative steps into the Apple-generated marketplace. When we began our initial investigations last year into appropriate digital publishing content for larger mobile devices, one of the first concerns was how to sensitively translate print to pixel.

Some material requires little more than a cover-to-cover page turner, whilst other titles merit fresh thought from the ground up. Publishing is undergoing an incredible transformation and the app is driving the revolution. The concept of the book no longer means a strict adherence to the definition of a number of ‘pages’ contained between two ‘covers’.

Several projects have entered our development programme following our initial digital dissection, however, I’d like to take the opportunity to expand on a personal favourite that I’ve touched on in my own blog, Design Week and presentations at this year’s Tools of Change in Frankfurt – pop-up books.

When considering the theatre and interaction afforded by a printed book, pop-ups sit at the top of the heap. Some exist to provide an animated treat on each spread (such as the Raymond Briggs’ classic Fungus the Bogeyman Plop-up Book) whilst others deliver a complete three dimensional environment (Commander Nova’s Pop-up Alien Space Station, by Nick Denchfield and Steve Cox).

We were keen to demonstrate to publishers that a straight conversion from paper to pixel would result in a product that just wasn’t as good as the original. Our best proof of concept would lie in our ability to publish something ourselves to show the market was still hungry for the charm of a pop-up book, yet include features that would satisfy the demands of a savvy app market. The result was Headspin: Storybook.

Not technically a direct response to the brief (more an ideal fit) as the original award-winning game of the same name existed as an online Flash game designed and developed by State of Play Games, with whom Brandwidth had worked on many occasions. They were looking for the skills, marketing experience and industry knowledge to get their game to market and we wanted an engaging digital experience that ticked boxes for us, the consumer and potential clients.

After many months of planning and several weeks of intense development, testing and submission to the App Store, Headspin: Storybook made its debut on 1 October 2010. Whereas our future publications will major on storyline and visual charm, Headspin leads with a simple, yet addictive spot-the-difference game that weaves a narrative around the action. This immediately appeals to a wider established audience and helps to draw in a ‘readership’ that may have otherwise turned away from a book.

Throughout the process, three main points have been essential to observe:

Visual quality

The original game was developed for an online experience at 72dpi. The entire graphic library was recreated to showcase the individual pop-up elements, each page spread and the intricate mechanical backgrounds for the glorious iPad and Retina displays – now closer to print resolution! The original was forced to rely on the limitations of Flash for all animated content, not so with the new publication. We replaced the old sequences with full-screen HD video to transition into the game and introduce other menu items.

Interaction

Multitouch is king and Headspin had to work exactly as the user expected it to. We like to think we know all the interactive tricks but the feedback from users continues to prove invaluable and forms the greatest virtual focus group you’ll have – as long as updates keep the audience happy.

Communication

One of the most frustrating things about a purchase from any online or mobile store is the lack of communication after the transaction. Our aim was to provide an attentive and friendly backup via Twitter for all technical queries and suggestions for future updates to the app. Following release, a few technical issues were brought to our attention having slipped through our testing programme. These were addressed and users were informed on an individual basis that an update would improve performance and to await Apple’s notification of the new build. The personal service works – it’s not just for show as both sides benefit.  The flip-side of the App store is that the rate and review system is a one way notice board. Whilst not being able to thank for a 5 star review, it can be frustrating when you lose the ability to counter a damaging 1 star rating – that’s the nature of the beast. If a user has downloaded a universal app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch for 59p and still thinks it isn’t worth the money or they’re expecting something more that the detailed description has outlined, we can only hope the exceptional 5 star ratings counter this.

When we set out to develop Headspin: Storybook for Apple’s devices, we weren’t expecting to have an enormous hit on our hands, but it’s a bonus that we’re making a mark in an increasing number of countries. We unleashed the app on the gaming market yet this was always intended as a prelude to the next generation of pop-up literature, whereby games and problem-solving become an integral part of the experience.

We didn’t just want to target those already interested in books (printed, digital or otherwise) and this rule applies to all publishers – don’t be fooled into thinking the app market is anything like the e-book market, so be prepared to address a new and demanding audience.

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