How Duolingo created its in-house animation ‘engine’

Acquiring Detroit studio Gunner has revolutionised how the language learning app approaches animation. Duolingo tells CR why bringing the business in-house was the right decision

In the space of two years, Detroit animation and illustration studio Gunner has gone from external collaborator to being an integral part of Duolingo, with the education business announcing its acquisition at the end of 2022. As a result, the language learning app almost doubled the headcount of its creative team overnight.

It’s something that Duolingo VP of design Ryan Sims says might have been challenging to achieve otherwise, explaining that “being based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [meant] we were going to struggle to grow as fast as we expected to grow. We’re not exactly in the middle of a big tech or a giant creative melting pot,” he says. “So we bring a lot of people to Pittsburgh to work on the creative projects that we have.”

According to Sims, the creative team pre-Gunner acquisition only had five dedicated illustrators or animators, for an app that counted millions of daily active users. “We knew that we needed to grow the team internally,” he tells CR, “and we were sceptical that we could do that at hyperspeed over the next few years…. If you looked at the three- to five-year roadmap, there was no way we could do everything we needed to do internally, and we were going to need to supplement with external help.”