Joost Bonsen prides himself on having “snuck a fart machine into a design museum.” But this was no prank: the curators of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York chose to display “The Happy Hippo” as an example of hands-on science education. The comic-book-style story teaches kids how to build a device that allows them to “capture the acoustic aura of the mighty hippo” by sitting in a chair and “shifting their mass.” It’s just one of 15 “Howtoon” comics collected in Howtoons: The Possibilities Are Endless!
Howtoons, which feature the fictional siblings Tucker and Celine, got their start at MIT in the spring of 2003, when Bonsen ‘90, SM ‘06, and Saul Griffith, SM ‘01, PhD ‘04, were grad students. Bonsen, who had learned to read by paging through comic books in Dutch and English, told Griffith that he dreamed of making do-it-yourself cartoons for kids. Griffith reached up to his bookshelf for his collection of century-old illustrated how-to books, saying he’d long wanted to update them. Griffith soon drew up some plans for a soda-bottle rocket, and the pair hosted the first of what would be several parties where children tested their designs. Later that year, they hired Marvel Comics artist Nick Dragotta to turn their scribbled drawings and directions into professional-quality comics. Although Bonsen is now a lecturer and researcher at the Media Lab and Griffith is a MacArthur “genius grant” winner and entrepreneur, the three collaborators continue to collect projects and create comics that show kids how to build them.
Most of the cartoons are narratives rather than step-by-step instructions, and they encourage kids to adapt the project designs. In “The Infamous Marshmallow Shooter,” for example, a beaming Celine brandishes a five-barreled version of the shooter and says, “You know, the possibilities are endless.”
“We really are trying to be the anti-textbook,” says Griffith. People “are programming kids a little to do scripted play,” he adds. “We say, Here’s this toy, and here are the instructions on how to use it. I think, really, the most important thing is unscripted play.”
Howtoons’ creators routinely change their designs as they go along. Dragotta, who describes himself as “all thumbs,” often serves as the guinea pig. “Before I draw them, I build every one–and go back and yell at Saul and Joost about how they could make it better,” he says. “I build them all 10 times,” Griffith counters, laughing.
Their design process shows up in the story “The Righteous Stuff,” where Tucker and Celine compete to design their own rockets. “Celine’s launcher [made of wooden blocks] was Saul’s design, and Tucker’s [coat-hanger launcher] was my design,” Bonsen says, “and both of ours failed in the ways that are illustrated.” The characters go back to the drawing board and combine their approaches.
The group’s adventures continue as they work on a second book, due out in 2009.