Category archive: Design


I’m on a plane, on my way back to SF from one incredibly inspiring week in NYC at the Games for Change 11th conference. Directed by Asi Burak and sponsored by, Games for Change is a great opportunity to learn about video games specifically designed to positively impact on people’s behavior. Most of the featured games are designed to increase empathy among people, to sensitize us towards specific problems (take a look at the great Papers, Please), to engage us in potentially enlightening experiences, to heal our souls and bring joy to our hearts. The effort of the speakers and of the organizers is to understand how gaming could become even more pervasive and how we could use the ubiquity of games to make the world a better place. So, forget for a week about IAP, new monetization strategies or technologies: Games for Change is your place to question the reason why you are creating a game and to be inspired about a whole new way to think about games. It may sound idealistic,

but sometimes we need some idealism, don’t we? Pragmatism can only take us so far.

1) #Women

As a result of such a radical perspective shift on gaming, half of the audience was composed by women.

Apparently, women are increasingly more interested in creating a whole new generation of games. Games that allow people to explore emotions, to play collaboratively, to express themselves, games designed to foster behavioral change.

This means two important things: 1) women are not only demanding their right to play, they are demanding the right to design the games they want to play; 2) as huge as the video games market may seem, there’s an incredibly bigger market that’s still untapped because of the lack of diversity within most gaming companies.

Games like “Gone home”, narrated on stage by the wonderful Tracy Fullerton, shed light on an opportunity that’s still to be explored: the adventure within the life fallen into pieces of a young woman who return home one year later her coming out, only to find out her family moved to another place. She’s left alone, wondering in the place she used to call home, and we accompany her as she puts pieces of her story back together through a tough (and sometimes even scary) emotional journey.

Jane McGonigal left us with an advice to speed up the inclusion of women in the gaming industry:

2) #moviegenre

One of the most inspiring presentation was Jenova Chen’s Designing a New Era of Emotional Storytelling Through Games. Jenova outlined a parallel between games and other forms of entertainment. Why do most grown-ups stop playing while they keep watching movies, listening to music, reading books? Why is gaming not perceived as a part of a grown-up’s acceptable cultural life? Jenova’s answer is that the available games only cover specific genres: action, adventure, horror, thriller, sci-fi, sport… whereas most of the people are interested in drama, documentaries, comedy. Why aren’t there more games targeted at people who have these interests?

“Right now, most games feel like summer blockbuster films, all explosions and crappy dialogue,” Chen said. “A big part of the games industry still hasn’t figured out how to give players something new. That’s what I want to do.” (Read the whole interview on the New Yorker)

[In June 2012, Jenova’s pitch convinced Benchmark Capital to invest $5,5M in his company, ThatGameCompany.]

3) #behavior

Games have an impact on people’s behavior whether we like it or not. That’s the power of games and the reason why they are so fascinating. So how can games be used to “fix reality”? That’s the fundamental question that inspired the masterpiece of Jane McGonigal “Reality is broken”.

As Dan Ariely pointed out in his presentation, we like to think that people take decisions based on what’s better for them in the long term. We like to think that if people take bad decisions, that’s because they don’t have enough information: that’s why we put a lot of effort in trying to find new, effective ways to convey the best possible information to the people. The truth is: we don’t work that way. We need to trick ourselves to make the right choices, we need to hack our habits, and we need to keep in mind how rewards and motivation work.

Our good intentions are not enough to design a game that does help people make the right choices. A game that wants to achieve behavioral change needs to understand how and when to give people the right motivation to change their habits. We need to understand why a person has an habit, what triggers that habit and find a way to replace that habit with something new.

A lot of counterintuitive moves happen in the design of a game like this.

4) #empathy

Facebook bought Oculus. That’s one of the “signals from the future” that Jane McGonigal listed in her opening presentation at Games for Change. What are they going to do with Oculus? Jane isolated “empathy” as a key word. She imagined a game to close the empathy gap, a game that could democratize the memoir and help us connect more profoundly with people around us. In her presentation she gave this hypothetic game an awesome name: “Walk my mile”.

5) #sideeffect

A large part of games that are born to have an impact on society are educational games. Ed Tech companies conduct a great deal of tests to prove the positive effects of their games on young minds across the country. But do we measure also side effects? Most of us don’t. We don’t measure side effects because we like to think that our good intentions are enough to protect users from collateral effects. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough. For example, if an educational game is “addictive”, is that good? If it keeps children sitting more than they should, are we happy with it? Are we willing to trade spelling for health? If we measured side effects of the educational games we design, we could probably come up with better solutions.

6) #impact

Dean Karlan from Yale University nailed this topic during his keynote titled “Impact Measurement: You don’t always get what you want.”

There are some tough questions social innovators need to ask themselves:

Professor Karlan stressed the importance of finding ways to create control groups to understand if our games have an impact. We need to create tools to measure behavioral change. One thing that apparently works well is commitment contracts: we need the price of a vice to be HIGH!

7) #wearable

Wearable computers are another of the signals from the future that Jane included in her keynote. We are just at the very beginning of the wearables era, this may be the reason why this far we only have bracelets that show us charts when connected to a smartphone. As beautiful as these charts can be, they’re charts. Boring! This maybe the reason why most people abandon their fitness trackers after 90 days. “How long can you stare at those stats before getting bored?” Jane asks. We totally agree. Wearable computing can connect people, create opportunities for immersive storytelling, help us live better: we’re just not sure that can all fit in a chart.

8) #indie

Both Zach Gage and Paolo Pedercini stressed the importance of democratizing game design. Games can be “for change” only if we help people realize they can create games for a virtually infinite variety of reasons: they can create games to express themselves, to solve a problem, to connect to other people. The culture of makers is crucial to game design as it keeps games diverse, lively, awesome.

9) #lowtech

Noah Falstein, Chief Game Designer at Google, can’t really talk about what he’s working on (and we’re super curious) but he stressed the importance of designing games that can be played on less than state-of-the-art smartphones. Billions of people in the next 5 years are going to be online for the first time. Most of them will connect from developing countries. Games that can run also on less sophisticated phones could make a difference and conquer a huge emerging market.

10) #connection

“Don’t bet against the internet” is the big takeaway from Noah Falstein’s keynote. Games are increasingly used to connect with others in revealing, new ways. Designing games that don’t allow connection just doesn’t seem like a good choice.

Overall, Games for Change was really great. Thanks Jane McGonigal, Asi Burak, Tribeca Film Festival, and all the volunteers for providing us with such an amazing experience. We came back to San Francisco inspired and determined to give our contribute for change.

And if you haven’t yet, check out our newest project: the first animated training program for children Dooper School!

Francesca Cavallo, Co-founder and Creative Director of Timbuktu Labs

Timbuktu is looking for a graphic designer

Hi there! 2014 has just begun, and chances are you are planning for some kind of change in your life.

You want to feel proud of your work, to feel challenged and respected. You’re not afraid of working under pressure, but you want your value to be recognized. You want to learn something new everyday and you’re not afraid of facing unknown challenges. You want to build something that has an impact on people, and you think that creating better products for children can lead to a better, fairer, more beautiful world.


If you have 3+ years of experience in graphic design, you love great illustration and you’re good at it.

If you’ve designed for both paper and web (experience with mobile apps is A BIG PLUS).

If you know InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop like the palm of your hand.

If you wish to feel part of a world class adventure that is changing the face of children’s publishing.

If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, aka you’ve worked on your own projects and have experienced – and enjoyed- leading a team.

If you know what user experience design is, and it changed the way you work.

If you are humble and hard working. But you like the value you produce to be recognized.

If you care for details and can always keep in mind the big picture.

If you like the idea of competing for international awards with your work, and winning them.

If you like to work with a diverse, international team.

If you love the idea of building a company where people are respected for who they are, and are encouraged to express themselves with courage and generosity. (Yes, we said “building”, not “joining”).

If, above all, you care about users more than about yourself and understand that real beauty helps them get through products.

We want to hear from you. Email us at explaining why you’d like to work with us and what you’ve done (links are much appreciated). If we’re interested in your profile, we’ll ask you a follow up. In any case, we’ll try to provide feedback to everyone (unless your email looks like a copy and paste).


Don’t email us if you’ve never heard of Timbuktu and you don’t know what it is. If you don’t want to waste time downloading it and forming an opinion about our products, you probably don’t want this job (looking at the website is NOT enough).

Don’t email us if you think designing for children’s is a series B gig. We understand some people think this way and we’re trying to change that. But we probably wouldn’t like to work with you.

Don’t email us if you don’t want to email us. Sense of duty is rarely a good drive to start a new career.

Do email us if you love Timbuktu, but you think you have some qualifications but not all of them. Explain that in your email. We love honesty and enthusiasm.


There are several projects we’re starting to work on and we’ll discuss salaries and stock options plans according to the project and to your experience.


This can be a work-from-home job. A few travels may be required, and we appreciate your willingness to relocate, in case it should be necessary.

How to create an app for children, with children. In one week

What you are about to read is the diary of the summer camp that Timbuktu organized during the week from 8 to 12 July at the Digital Accademia in Roncade Treviso. The app that we created during the camp is now available in the Apple App Store. If you would like to be notified about our upcoming Timbuktu Camps, sign up to our newsletter.
Why have a summer camp? Because we wanted to open the doors of Timbuktu to a group of 25 children. We gave ourselves an ambitious objective: to create an app together in one week. But we didn’t want to teach the children about the programs used to make an app. Our ambitious objective was that of working together with them like a big editorial team: sharing goals and tasks, taking responsibility and experiencing failures and successes.

We also wanted to put the culture of collaboration, listening and support that we live every day at Timbuktu to the test and we used this occasion to better understand the role that each one of us has in creating our products.

[read more]

5 great examples of Sand Drawing and Animation

As many of you already know, we just released a brand new summer app called “Sand Drawing“. This is why we wanted to inspire you with some of the most beautiful pieces of art that have been produced drawing with sand. Train your sand drawing skills on our app and get ready to show off with your friends when you hit the beach!

1. Silvia Emme, Scenography for “The little prince”

[read more]

GREAT CONTEST: find a name for this character and win a unique t-shirt!

How would you like receiving a unique gift from Timbuktu? Something only you will wear, with the unique design of the great Philip Giordano? And yes, there are vampires on them.

Something like this.

[read more]

In-App Purchases: are developers evil?

There’s been a lot of demonization of developers using in-app purchases inside apps aimed at children. A few days ago Apple had to refund customers in the U.K. when their five-year-old boy accidentally spent $2,500 in in-app purchases in just 15 minutes. The settlement obviously made headlines and the debate followed. Sadly, most of the comments ended up simply reinforcing a widespread misconception: developers who use IAP inside children’s apps are evil and should be banned by Apple.

Since we develop apps for children and one of them uses IAP,  we took some time to clarify a few points. We’re pretty passionate about what we do, and we don’t like poor simplifications.

[read more]

Magazines for kids: history of two great successes

When we started Timbuktu, our goal was creating a digital editorial product that could replicate and enhance the quality of some great magazines for kids we loved as children. We’ve always thought of Timbuktu as a starting point to explore the world using imagination, parents and kids together. Why a magazine? Because historically new disruptive magazines gave voice to one part of humanity that was still neglected, and made it become recognized as a part of civil society.

[read more]

Happy MLK day!

Let’s get ready to celebrate MLK day on monday! Take a look at this infographic and remember why we should all be thankful to this extraordinary men.

[read more]

10 bizarre buildings your kids (and you) would love to visit.

Sometimes, there is really no limit to where imagination, and a certain tendency to dare, will take you. Have a look at what these architects dreamed up; it’s a series of buildings that look like they’re out of a child’s imagination, where we bet your kids would love to go.

1 – The picnic basket building

This is the Longaberger Company main office building. They are in Newark, Ohio, and you guessed it: they make baskets.

[read more]

10 artists, writers and musicians who made great art for kids

Maybe not all artists are children, but many artists have been inspired by childhood to make beautiful art. We had a look at architects, but many writers, visual artists and musicians were inspired to create work for kids too: here are some of our favorites.

1 – Bruno Munari

How not to open with Bruno Munari, an artist who contributed greatly to education and didactic, and whose work, for kids and otherwise, will always be a source of inspiration for us! Remember the series of activities for kids inspired by him we sent out with our newsletter last summer? The list of his work for children is long, but this poster of speaking forks (and the images in the gallery) can give you an idea of his intelligent and playful approach to design.

[read more]