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The pandemic nearly derailed ART-ZOO. Until it found a new way to grow for the future.

13 min read

Could we have a homegrown educational brand as beloved as Sesame Street? The early success of Art-Zoo as an inflatable park and its adorable character showed there was potential. But it was actually the pandemic that gave Art-Zoo the impetus to sharpen its offerings to strengthen its brand for its next stage.  

By Justin Zhuang

ART-ZOO’s wildly popular inflatable park back in 2018. Unfortunately Art-Zoo could no longer depend on the same model to grow its brand due to the pandemic. Photo credit: ART-ZOO

Since launching in 2017, ART-ZOO has brought its experiential inflatable art playground and its adorable cast of characters inspired by animals and plants from Singapore to cities such as Beijing, Kaohsiung and Abu Dhabi. It delighted thousands of children and helped them discover art and nature through play.

However, COVID-19 put a pause on all that. The disruption and the rise of digital-centric play offerings also led the creators of ART-ZOO, Jackson Tan and his creative agency BLACK, to rethink the brand’s experience for the changing times. They embarked on designing a community playground of the future with the support of the DesignSingapore Council’s Good Design Research (GDR) initiative.

How did ART-ZOO become a Good Design Research recipient?

Jackson: ART-ZOO started as a personal lifelong “dream” to create an imaginary world filled with colourful creatures and stories that can be built into a global intellectual property brand with multiple mediums and touch points. We started in 2017 with an experiential inflatable playground that did well and even travelled around the world. In early 2020, we started a new team in Taiwan to work full time on ART-ZOO and to develop new content and products as well as expand further into the North Asia market. But COVID-19 struck. Our overseas events were cancelled or postponed indefinitely. The restrictions on physical contact and social distancing meant that the audience would not be able to move and play freely in our inflatable art playgrounds. The disruption to global shipping schedules and cost hikes also made it economically tougher to transport the installations.

At first, we thought that the pandemic will be over within half a year, But as the situation worsened, we realised it was not fruitful to wait it out. We chose to reimagine the ART-ZOO experience as a community playground by applying for Good Design Research and coming up with new touchpoints for the brand.

How did the team research into the future of community playgrounds?

Bernando: With the help of a design thinking consultant, we began interviewing parents and their children and spole with various experts in place-making, child psychology, art therapy and storytelling. They helped us further develop the three pillars we identified in developing community playgrounds of the future: spatial experience; educational framework and meaningful storytelling. With these insights, we tested them out at a workshop with children. We learnt many things, including how children storybooks need a tight plot for them to easily follow. It is one of the things we will look out for when we come up with our future activities for ART-ZOO.

Children participating in a workshop organised to test out ART-ZOO’s research insights. Photo credit: ART-ZOO

But as the pandemic situation worsened, we chose to reimagine the ART-ZOO experience as a community playground by applying for Good Design Research and coming up with new touchpoints for the brand.

Jackson: It was the first time our team conducted such design research. We benefitted from having Low Cheah Hwei as our GDR mentor who has a lot of experience in this from working at Philips and developing many products for families and children. Cheah Hwei could also see things from a brand perspective and shared a lot of invaluable advice at the beginning on how to approach our research.

What are some key research outcomes and how might they reshape ART-ZOO?

Bernando: One of the key insights we gathered was parents see play as a form of “shared time” with their children. Thus, a community playground of the future need not be confined to a particular space but can come in various forms that creates opportunities for families to spend time together. For example, an activity book for parents and children to explore together at home.

Our research helped us rethink the educational value that ART-ZOO can provide too. Parents shared in interviews that they wanted to build their child’s character and develop their curiosity, creativity and empathy instead. We are focussing on achieving these educational goals going forward.

As part of the research, the ART-ZOO team created storybooks to share personal stories on how they each discovered their “superpower”. Photo credit: ART-ZOO

What is next for ART-ZOO?

Jackson: We are currently developing designs for ART-ZOO Blue Ocean, a new edition that will offer more than a playground. There will be related products, events and programming, including storytelling and performances in the form of an immersive theatre. We plan to launch a storybook and event in the second half of 2022 starting from Asia, followed by other programmes and products. We are in discussions with partners in various cities to prepare for this based on their local conditions and pandemic situation.

Spread from an upcoming storybook for ART-ZOO Blue Ocean. Photo credit: Courtesy of ART-ZOO

How do you think Good Design Research has helped ART-ZOO?

Jackson: The research project has been very useful in helping us take stock, including knowing our audience better, examining our strengths and weaknesses and fine-tuning the brand. This process will help us develop new unique concepts and products, brand distinction and a competitive edge. We plan to conduct a similar process every few years to ensure ART-ZOO remains relevant as a brand.

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Singapore’s highest honour for designers and designs across all disciplines
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One of Asia’s premier design festivals that champions design thought leadership
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