Alex Wolf on creativity, play, and educating children


About Alex Wolf

aboutalexAlex Wolf developed one side of her brain at Exeter and the other side at RISD, and has been integrating both sides, and connecting the many dots through smart design and art ever since. She was dismayed at the toys and games available for her daughter to learn about plants and animals. She got to work making a new line of elegant, simple, intuitive and fun things to change that. Language, type/calligraphy, textures, light and color systems are tools Wolf uses to translate ideas herself and for other creatives. How we learn visually, and how those visual learning systems create a feedback loop helping us understand what and how we learn are core questions of Wolf’s own work. She first explored visual learning in children’s series on anthropomorphizing the alphabet and is now teaching about nature through games. Her current mission is to drop the delivery age on nature learning from 12 to 4-6, and to shake up science learning through apps, games, and interactive toys. Nature hates a vacuum. “Toys are actually sculptures which you can play with. When well done, you learn from them.”

Interview transcript


EB:  Let’s begin by getting to know your story and the why behind what you do.

Alex:  I am an artist and a designer.  I went to RISD and I had a very fortunate group of people with me.  It was a very fertile time to be at RISD.  There were extremely talented artists doing some wonderful things all in their career.  When I graduated I wasn’t sure exactly which direction I wanted to go.  I ran a gallery that I started for a while.   I worked creating packaging and promotions for other artists which is an extension of having a gallery, but more into putting their work together for them to present to the world.

All around, going through and working with creative people in freelance way, I secretly started realizing that I truly wanted to spend time with children.  I wanted to go and be a teacher, but I didn’t really like the school system and the hierarchy.  I ended up staying in the freelance place so that I would be able to control what happened when I had a child.  I didn’t know when that was going to happen, but I started working towards that.

I worked on some children’s book.  I started a whole line which I have yet to publish.  A lot of work has gone into that.  It’s an enormous whole series for children – teaching them about the alphabet and anthropomorphizing the letters.  It’s called The Story of X.   Possibly in the future I’ll get some time to work on that.  That would be great to put in an EBook.

The whole idea of working in these different fields and especially starting to tap into children got me to think about how we learn and how being playful and creative really connects.  I started realizing that once I was a parent, this was going to be a super exciting time for me.  Fast forward to the moment when that happens, and I basically realized that there was a lot of great stuff that I had taken with me to be a parent such as all of these toys and games.  But then there was this disconnect regarding all the new stuff.  Where’s the great new stuff?

The structure of flowers and how nature makes color in flowers are things that I really want to be able to explain to a child.  I had to go through a bunch of research to connect the dots between a child who’s quite young and explaining how nature builds things.  One of the things that I really enjoyed was the inventing of kindergarten.  Friedrich Froebel had put together these gifts and they were a successive child’s set of cumulative things.  You start with something very simple for a one-year-old, then you move to a two-year-old, then you keep moving on.

There’s so much structure in the way we learn in kindergarten. It was a fascinating connection for me to realize that you give a one-year-old blocks, but you give a two year old individual blocks, so they build and pile them.  You don’t give a bigger block until two because they’re really starting to understand the whole idea of propositions.  They’re basically building a framework to think about how the world works.  The basic idea of successive knowledge is you start with very simple ones first and then you can build into how they become more complex piece by piece.  This became really interesting for me.

My complete disappointment with new toys and games in the nature category combined with my understanding of how you can really start showing people how things are put together, in a simple visual way was how it started.  I realized that I had the tools to do this and I was very excited to start designing for children.  Even though I backed into this and pulled in lots of different skills that I had from different parts of my art and design toolbox, it really came all together as defining my passion.  I discovered what I wanted to do with my life and this was just tremendously exciting.



EB:  Tell us about your latest project, Ani-gram-it.   It fits into the philosophy of learning from nature and teaching kids.

Alex:  Ani-gram-it is a board game that’s a crossword style game.  I’m not allowed to use any big brand names, but it’s like that game that you play with a crossword.  Instead of using letters to build a word, you use body parts to build an animal.  I can show a little bit of what the thing is. Here, for example you’ve got antennae, shell, spineless, wing, and that’s a beetle.  On the other side there are words so you can figure out which thing it is.  It’s all divided into how to classify how an animal moves around.  Those are all in green, so those are your limbs, tail, fin, and wings.   Anything that’s on a bilateral organism, like limbs, will come out as a pair.  If you have one tile for limbs, then that’s actually two.  Although the fins are a little bit different because there are dorsal fins and there’s only one.   Then you have seeing, hearing, and finding your way around.  These would be antennae, eyes, ears, sonar, etc.  Then how they eat are in red.  Basically, I’m trying to take familiar gameplay and throw it into a little bit of a new situation.

You’re now building an animal from these body parts.   Because you have a picture, you can have a pre-reader playing this.  You can actually get this down to a three- or four-year old because if you know what a cat looks like, you can put it together giving it two sets of limbs, and ears, and eyes.   On all of the tiles, there are different animals featured.   We have a human eye, we’ve got a nautilus, a cat, a lizard, etc.  Now you’re seeing all examples of how nature makes eyes that are giving you ideas.

Once you move down a certain line, you can add to somebody else’s animal.  The body parts will return to just an anagram, so it’s just a jumble of body parts.  If you have a four-legged thing that doesn’t have a body covering such as hair or scales on it yet, and then you put scales on it, suddenly you’re not going to make a mammal.  You’re going to make it a reptile or you’re going to make it slimy, so you’re going to make a frog.  This is an amphibian.  This is a way of starting to realize how these animals group together and that there are choices where suddenly you go down the end and that’s it.

However, you could cross an animal.  You could go to the end of somebody’s four-legged animal that has limbs and wings.  It could have been a bird, but if it doesn’t have a beak on it yet you could put sonar on it and you could make a bat.  You could cross a dolphin and you could make a dolphin as well, so you would score for both points.

A lot of people don’t know these different features.  Some do and some don’t, it really depends.  Or you might know about one type of animal but not the other.  If you’ve got four sets of limbs you could have a spider, or you could have an octopus.  The person who’s going to go and put beak on and claim it’s an octopus are going to make people say, “Wait.  An octopus has a beak?  A platypus has stingers?”  That’s the whole way to start the discussion and really just to play this because not everybody knows about every single animal unless of course you’re with PhD’s.  Everyone can play at a different level.   You can have a preschooler play with their older brother, cousin, parent, or grandparent and each one of them are going to bring a different set of knowledge and creativity to this.



EB:  That’s a really nice way of learning about animals and nature.

Alex:  It’s a social way.  Play is a very social thing.  One of my favorites is Sugata Mitra on TED talking about the SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment).  It’s not organized learning environments.  To me the game is really a soul in itself.  It’s a group-learning situation, but it’s not just group learning.   It’s play.  You’re tricking people into learning, which I like.  The whole thing is that when you play, you’re engaging in creative thought.  That’s something that I think is an extremely powerful thing.  We underestimate how freely we think under those conditions.  Problem-solving, that’s something our brains love.  They love these puzzles and finding these new connections.

There is a counterpart to Ani-gram-it.  In Ani-gram-it, you’re going to construct an animal from body parts.  We’ve been working on an app, which we have to re-name because somebody took the name, called the Ani-maker.   As the working title, the thing that will be Ani-maker is actually a huge idea and it came about as a very funny situation.  When I started designing toys, I really needed to find out how I was going to find my way around 1.7 million species and how I was going to get the stories so that you can figure out what’s exciting.

For example, I designed a card game called Old Maid.  The old maid is the gingko tree in the card game.  It’s made with trees, and it’s because she has no children.  She’s a living fossil.  She didn’t go on to have all of these other different types of things come from her like magnolia and angiosperms.  It’s just ginkgo, ginkgo, ginkgo all the way down Linnaean taxonomy with different Latin names.  In trying to figure out my way around this, I was looking for a cheat sheet that botanists or zoologists might have to classify all of these animals and there was nothing.  So here I am a total outsider.  I’m an artist and a designer and I have to find my way around so I can design these toys and really pick and choose from different types.  I want to go into how nature makes patterns, how she makes structures, how she makes colors.  This is a decade of work at least to be able to take a 4-year-old to a 14-year-old and through toys, games, and apps be able to teach them the tree of life so that they can zoom in and out like Google Earth with the speed and go down the tree.

What ended up happening was that I made a cheat sheet for myself.   I actually had the luxury of showing Edward Tufte this work.  He’s a big data visualization guy.  He’s sort of the father of all of this.  You don’t get an audience with him every day of the week.  I showed him the game and I showed him the system that I was building it on.  He said that this was a really big idea.  He realized how big this is.  My cheat sheet was a periodic table for botany and for zoology so that now the same way you can make NaCl to be the formula for salt, you can now actually make a formula for a snow leopard or for a chameleon.  When I showed it to him he said, “Do you realize how much work this is going to be?  This is insane.”

I said “Yes.”

He said, “Well if you do it then you really will have moved the needle forward.”

This was a very exciting thing.  He mentioned some big prize that I might get in science and I almost fell over.  The thing that was exciting about this was the way I started realizing that I really was an inventor. That’s what they call people in the gaming industry – a game inventor.  I was an inventor because I had taken this thing and thought what am I going to do with this?  Do we print this up and make it like the periodic table?  How are people going to use it?

Then I thought, it’s a game.  It’s an IPad game and we’ll be releasing it in December.  Instead of building the animal, you’re deconstructing.  If you take a snow leopard, then you have to decide how it is inside.  Is it vertebrate or invertebrate?   What is its outside like?  Is it hairy or scaly or spiny or feathered?  There are pictures on it as well so everything again goes back to visual reasoning and being able to put these concepts together just by seeing.  The whole idea is that if you can see it, then you can start understanding it.  You can start grouping it together in your mind, and then you can start this dialog between how you’re conceiving it and what’s out there.

The ultimate idea was to take very small children and help them learn the world around them.  My daughter is four.  You get a random fact about a spider, for example.  Where do you pile all of that information?  I started thinking that this classification system would be a way for children who have great access to their own minds and really understand where everything fits to organize their brains, slot in all of these facts, and start making all the connections in between them so that they can really build something.  Then they can start thinking.

Knowledge is a bunch of stuff.  What you do with it is what happens after.  I think we spend so much time in education stuffing the stuff in that that’s the primary activity.  If we can make the acquisition of knowledge easy and elegantly structured in your mind, then you can start the real work.  That’s when you start having the fun.  The whole idea was to take a biology class from a 12-year-old and drop it down to a four-year-old.  That’s when they really want to know all this stuff.



EB:  Let’s talk about the design side.  What’s your design philosophy?

Alex:  I really feel that there are a lot of missed opportunities.  Multi-use things are one of my big passions.  I want to be able to get you to use things in many different ways.  In games, for example, that would be called an open-ended game and that’s why to a certain extent I don’t like these games where they shove you down a funnel to get some prize at the end.  I like a game with a diving board that lets you open out to many different things.  The best design in my mind has simplicity and within that simplicity a sort of elegance, but also an expansiveness which is a more profound thing.  What could this be?  How is it functioning with its environment?

Part of my design philosophy is coming from sculpture, and that’s a very sensual type of activity.  You are physically in space with something even if it’s the performance that’s light.  You’re having a physical reaction to it.  I was coached many years by Jerry Colonna who is great at identifying what people are.  He said that I am a sensualist.  It makes so much sense to me.  When I was making sculpture, I used rich colors and textures – I wanted the user to have a feeling in their hand or body through seeing something that would make them want to touch this object.

There’s a lot of art that you can’t touch, but I only ever wanted to make the art that you can touch.  For my senior thesis at RISD I made a fake fur room with a carpet and walls and had this gorgeous girl lying on a chaise lounge covered in different laces.  It was very bright colors.  Sensuality is the key.  Also, there’s the playfulness of design.  I think that design should wink at you.  It should have a sense of humor even if it has gravity.  I think that balance of the yin and yang, and finding the integrity of those kinds of things in the work is very important.



EB:  You talk about playfulness and colors.  How do you choose colors and how do you know if you have chosen the right color?

Alex:  I was very super 3-D when I was growing up.  When I was 12 I was taken out to do skeet shooting and I was a 7 out of 10 shot which is very high for a girl.  Girls who have this hyper 3-D are very rare.  Hyper 3-D is a very interesting thing.  I was an athlete so I had a lot of kinetic experiencing of things.  I think that’s also probably a reason that sculpture attracted me a lot.

The next thing to connect that to is that when I went to RISD to study sculpture, I had just declared my major and I found out that I had an eye condition which children have called strabismus.  When you see a child with a patch on one eye, it means it’s starting to stray either inward or outward.  It’s a muscular condition.  This is actually what Picasso had.  This is where Cubism comes from.  There was a great show at the Guggenheim this winter on Picasso. To me, the way he sees is very natural.  I see two of everything now.

This is something that happened in art school.   I was in a 3-D profession, I was a hyper 3-D child, and now I have to be waived from perspective drawing because I can’t actually reproduce it for you.  I’m seeing two of everything all the time.  I figured out a way to reorganize my brain.  I’d always been very good at color.  You can get varying degrees of how good at color vision you are.  What ended up happening for me was that I put together the color understanding with the lack of the 3-D that I was having and I made myself a way to understand the space more by really understanding how the color was reacting to the light.



EB:  What does your work space look like?  Is it clean and organized, messy and chaotic, or somewhere in between?

Alex:  We have it very clean.  You’re looking at the work space here.  I work at home, and this is something that a lot of people can manage quite happily and others cannot at all.  When we’re not in massive project mode, we try to keep it so that we can actually see the bottom of the dining room table.  It’s a small, clean, very bright, fun space.  We’re high up and have light on two sides and a little outdoor space.

There’s something exciting about the space.  In making a home, you get to a point where your life is not separable from your work.  At least if you are coming up with ideas the way that I am.  I don’t need that separation.  It’s too messy to pull apart.  This whole concept of the work-life balance that Jerry Colonna talks about, to me it’s all just thrown into a great blob.  It’s nice to be able to see the personal intertwined with the work.



EB:  What are some productivity hacks that you follow?  You need to be able to juggle a lot of things. 

Alex:  I think that you have to choose as few things as you can get by with and make them really smart.  For example, we are an all Apple household.  We have a bunch of different laptops and the iPad and the iPhones.  There are a lot of other things happening with Android.  I really don’t have the desire to have to hack my own phone, so I’m pretty happy with what Apple does.  That’s good enough for me.

Another productivity hack is just not having a lot of stuff.  My productivity hack is that you don’t need a spatula and a cheese slicer.  You just need a cheese slicer that you can use as a spatula.  We don’t need as many things as we think we need.  We’re all drowning in stuff.  Half of that is because if you don’t look hard enough to solve not just a single problem, but maybe many problems at once.  If you have that open-ended look to something, then you realize that you can use it for something else.  Then you won’t be drowning in stuff.



EB:  Can you share one ultimate bit of wisdom that you have learned throughout the years?

Alex:  Play has been where we are at heart.  The more I become involved in the thinking of game and toy design, new forms of learning, how we’re engaging children at school, how we’re engaging them at home, how they connect with their peers, and how we connect with them , the more I realize that play is really core.  Animals that play successfully are the ones who survive better.

It goes a little bit deeper than that.  Play in the end is the place where we need to move our modern thinking if we’re all going to be talking about, and reading articles about, and worried about creating a generation that can think creatively, that can problem solve, that has the excitement and the energy to do something.  It has to be playful.  Part of that is because it has to be fun.  The interesting thing is that the way we think and the way we really engage our minds, that excitement is what gets us going.  That’s what gets us up every morning to do the work that we do.  If you’re not having fun you’re not joining.

Like you rightly say, the world is walking towards creativity and it is time we alter the foundation of education to that platform as well! Thank you for taking the time, Alex. It was a pleasure!

Real Leaders Team