Chris Phillips ’03 and his two ad-agency colleagues knew the iPad was a game-changer the moment they touched it, after waiting several rainy hours in line outside Chicago’s Apple store in April 2010.
But it wasn’t until their kids got a hold of it back at their hotel did the light bulbs really go off. All three were in the communications business, and here was this device that even a child could navigate with ease.
“That’s been our job, what we learned in school, to make design intuitive and approachable and easy to use,” Phillips said. “And this device did it—just like that. A 3-year-old kid knew exactly what to do.”
Three years later, the iPad has changed the game—especially for Phillips and his two partners at Spinlight Studio, Matt Hutton and John Turner. In that short time, they’ve morphed their Champaign-based ad agency into one of the most decorated educational app developers in the business, pumping out intuitive, high-quality and best-selling games that seamlessly fuse learning and fun.
For Phillips, an Illinois State graphic design alum from St. Joseph, app-building fulfills both his creative side and his inner engineer. He’s an analytical problem-solver by nature with a background in science and math, but a nudge from a high school teacher pushed him toward art—and ISU. (He even designed Spinlight’s new office in north Champaign, a homey mix of floor-to-ceiling glass, concrete and steel.)
He was hired in 2003 as a designer at the old ad agency, which had a 12-year run. After toying with app development throughout 2010 and having a successful first attempt with the mix-and-match game Swapsies, Hutton and the team made the “happy discovery” that they were actually pretty good at it.
After a few years doing it part-time, in February they shut down the ad agency and devoted all their time to apps. It’s still just the three of them, along with Hutton’s wife, Candace, Spinlight’s “chief mom officer.” Hutton serves as CEO, Phillips as chief operating officer, and Turner as chief marketing officer.
They’re off to a good start. Spinlight has earned numerous Parents’ Choice Awards, Best App Ever titles, and a Children’s Technology Review Editor’s Choice Award. Their best-seller to date, the action-packed math game TallyTots for iPad, is one of the top education apps in Apple’s App Store, where Spinlight is routinely promoted in Apple’s coveted “featured” positions. And all 10 of the apps they’ve made have hit the Top 100 in their App Store category—a rare feat.
Spinlight’s apps came preloaded on the new Toys R Us Tabeo tablet last fall, right next to Angry Birds. They’ve been plugged on Fox News and parenting blogs, and sold 15,000 apps (at a discount) direct to schools all over the U.S.
“Quality is really underestimated in the kids (app) category. People underestimate the savviness of kids,” Hutton said. “They can tell if the graphics are junk, or if the graphics are good.”
The graphics are top-notch on Geography Drive USA, one of Spinlight’s newest apps, which challenges kids 8 and up to cross the country by answering geography questions correctly. Spinlight came up with the idea for it after realizing that not many developers were making games about geography.
Since launching in November, the Geography Drive USA app has already been a Top 10 education seller in the App Store, featured on Fox News, and Spinlight’s only app to win both a Gold Parents’ Choice Award and the Children’s Technology Review Editor’s Choice Award.
Hutton storyboarded the game’s core map concept, while Turner got to work on the 750 state trivia questions that kids would race through. Once Hutton got to work on programming, Phillips did the visuals, crafting individual graphics (or “assets”) to go with each of Turner’s 750 questions and other parts of the game.
“There are just gobs of assets in this thing compared to a lot of our other apps,” said Phillips, father of three boys and husband to Amelia, a teacher.
Phillips is used to having plenty on his plate, just like his days at Illinois State. He praised the School of Art’s graphic design program for preparing him well, singling out design professors Julie Johnson and Peter Bushell.
And the critical thinking skills he honed in Professor Al Bowman’s Foundations of Inquiry course continue to get a workout at Spinlight. On Geography Drive USA, they hit a roadblock during development: If a kid doesn’t know the answer to one of these questions, how do they keep playing? So they built from scratch a new Visitor’s Center tool—an in-game encyclopedia where kids can do research.
They again struck that perfect balance between education and fun.
“We’re not making a game for a game’s sake. We’re making games to teach children,” Turner said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.