How Crayola Crayons Gave Its Century-Old Product Renewed Relevance in the Age of iPads

With adult coloring books, co-branded lipstick, an app and more

Despite having 120 colors, Crayola uses only 12 different colors of wrappers.
Raquel Beauchamp

As global executive creative director of design firm Jones Knowles Ritchie, Tosh Hall has one of the most coveted design jobs in the world. But though Hall holds two college degrees and experience drawn from stints at Revlon and Landor, his education actually began when he was a toddler—with crayons.

(L. to r.) Eight shades of green, 1961. Beginning in 1903, the basic box had eight colors, and still does. The famous 64 pack debuted in 1958. Edwin Binney manufactured charcoal before starting a new company with his nephew. While the duo would win awards for its carbon black tire filler and dustless chalk, crayons would be their lasting legacy. Binney & Smith changed its name to Crayola in 2007.
Courtesy of Crayola

Seeking to encourage her son’s creative proclivities, Hall’s mother not only bought him crayons, but let him run free with them. “Her response to my eagerness to color was to cover the walls with paper,” he recalled. “I went crazy and drew on everything.”

Hall’s permission to scrawl on the walls was unusual, but not his being given crayons. By the time the average American kid turns 10, he’ll have colored his way through 720 crayons—and since it has 80 percent of the market, it’s a good bet Crayola is the name on most of the wrappers. As you might surmise, Crayola makes a lot of crayons: 650 a minute and 3 billion a year. And this week, as 50 million kids head back to school, Crayola will be knocking around in countless backpacks.

The name: Crayola sells 120 different colors, most with names like Red Orange that are easy to decipher. Others, like Timberwolf, less so. The wrapper: Despite having 120 colors, Crayola uses only 12 different colors of wrappers. They’re made by another vendor of vat-dyed construction paper. The pith: Though Crayola guards its recipe closely, the main components are pigment and wax, which holds its shape and is easy to sharpen.
Raquel Beauchamp

It might be a small miracle that Crayola crayons are still around at all: Aren’t kids doodling on iPads now? Well, sure, but Crayola has given its century-old product a contemporary relevance—most recently with Color Alive, which lets kids color cartoons, scan them, then watch as an app animates them. Crayola also led the adult coloring book craze with its Crayola Color Escapes. “Even in this digital age,” said communications manager Karen Kelly, “kids and people of all ages still enjoy the fun, relaxing experience of putting crayon to paper.”

Though the crayon itself has changed little in a century, Crayola has launched a slew of new products to keep its brand apace with the times, including (l. to r., above) Crayola Color Escapes adult coloring books, crayon-hued lipsticks co-branded with Clinique, and the Color Alive series, which uses a proprietary app that brings kids’ drawings to life via augmented reality.

They have for 114 years now. The Crayola story began in 1885, when industrialist Edwin Binney went into business with his nephew C. Harold Smith. At first they made carbon black for automotive tires and red oxides for barn paint. By 1902, the pair expanded into school supplies: pencils and blackboard chalk. It was Binney’s wife Alice, a schoolteacher, who suggested that the duo manufacture crayons, which at the time were costly imports from Europe. Binney and Smith tinkered with the formula—replacing oil with paraffin—and introduced the kid-friendly Crayola in 1903. (The brand name took the French word “craie”—meaning a stick of chalk—and added the suffix “ola,” derived from “oleaginous,” or oily.)

With the exception of introducing new colors with suitably avant-garde names (Scream Green and Razzmatazz are part of the present lineup), not a whole lot has changed about crayons—mainly because nothing has to. They’re inexpensive, non-toxic and as versatile as a child’s imagination. Just ask Hall, whose mom saved a lot of those big sheets of paper he drew on as a kid. “I don’t know how you start a career at age 3 with a crayon,” he said. “But in retrospect, it seems to make sense.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.