Mastering an “X” Word

This is the second post in a series showcasing the process and ideation behind a system of over 100 achievement badges created for Vocabulary.com


What is Vocabulary.com?

Vocabulary.com is an adaptive, online learning system that teaches students new words (thereby improving their vocabulary, literacy, and test scores). Algorithms assess a student’s ability as they play (all activities center around the concept of play), and the system adjusts to the level of the student. As students progress, the system starts serving up more difficult words, so that students are continually pushing the boundaries of their vocabulary knowledge.

What does it mean to master a word?

To master a word, students must demonstrate an understanding of the word in 4 or more different contexts. As you may well know, English is a complicated language, and many words have more than one meaning. Mastering a word provides a much stronger signal to our algorithms than just one correct answer to a question.

Within this category of achievement, we have two series: Mastered an “X” Word, and Number of Words Mastered. I’m going to share with you the process work behind a select number from the former series. I will share the behind-the-scenes work from the latter series in another post.


Initial Explorations

These badges show that a student has mastered a word that starts with the letter on the badge. For example, a student masters the word “Aardvark,” and earns a badge for the letter A. Next, they master the word “Alliteration,” and acquire additional points that are applied toward advancing within the A badge itself.

We knew that this series would need to be typographical in nature. Initial ideas included featuring each letter on stamps, wreaths, and applying some sort of visual treatment to each letter. None of these ideas were strong enough, and the visual treatment (like the hairy letter you see down below) lacked a conceptual connection.

Sketches for Mastering a "X" Word

An artistic concept

After multiple rounds of brainstorming, a much stronger concept emerged: basing the aesthetic of each letter off of an artistic movement / famous artist / work of art. We decided to include a range of styles—the masters like Monet, contemporary artists, historical movements, and strove to include art from different cultures.

The result is a fairly cultured set of letters—if I may say so—that ideally will get students and teachers to wonder “what does this style reference?”


Mastered an “A” Word

The Art Deco style came into vogue in France just prior to World War I, and its influence was as felt as far away as New York. The Chrysler Building and other skyscrapers built in the 1920s and 30s are iconic embodiments of the style. The art deco movement has been brought back to life in recent times with remade films such as The Great Gatsby. We created a badge for the letter A that embodied this style.


Mastered a “C” Word

Abstract expressionism was the source of inspiration for this badge (think Jackson Pollock). It was a challenge to reference famous works of art, without blatantly copying them. We also had technical considerations to keep in mind, like file size (every badge was output in SVG, and so we had to work to keep file size down).


Mastered an “F” Word

The art of Jeff Koons was the inspiration for this badge—specifically his balloon pieces (this is what he’s most famous for).


Mastered an “H” Word

A close cousin to Art Deco, the movement known as Art Nouveau was the source of inspiration for our Mastered an H Word badge. This style came into vogue around the same time, but was much more organic, and really inspired by natural forms. The end result is simple, elegant, and representative of the style.


Mastered a “J” Word

This is one my favorite badges—the style can only be described as “1990s Trapper–Keeper.” Ok, it’s probably more accurately labeled as “European New Wave Design.” The art of graphic artist April Greiman was a great source of inspiration for this style… I like to describe her work as a cross between Futurism and 50s retro Pop Art.


Mastered an “L” Word

Piet Mondrian, one of the great pioneers of abstract art, was the inspiration for this badge. You can see the leap from his work to ours… it’s pretty straightforward.


Mastered a “Q” Word

Surrealism was borne out of the Dada movement in Paris during WWI, with Salvadore Dali emerging as a leading artist. Our Mastered a Q Word badge is based directly off of his famous work The Persistence Of Memory. We ideated and iterated many times on what movement this particular letter should reference, and in the end it turned out the Q was the perfect fit.


Mastered a “Z” Word

The final badge in this series was inspired by Pop Art—specifically the work of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Imagine you’re in a diner or pulling up to the car wash in 1950s suburban America. This is the Z that you would expect to see.


The complete set

The complete set of typographical badges are below—from A to Z, inspired by dozens of artists and art movements throughout history. I hope the students playing on Vocabulary.com enjoy them, and I hope you do as well.

Series of Mastered an "X" Word badges

Thank you to the talented illustrator Mario Jacome for illustrating all of these fantastic badges.

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