Jelly Flood! The world of design, seen through the lens of a kids’ cartoon

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation that parenthood brought, but Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom was one of my favourite TV shows whilst my children were younger. It was funny and smart, and had some wry comments about class and royalty.

I chanced upon an episode recently, and I saw a few parallels with the design industry, and how different professions see each other.

The Fairies, from Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom

These are the Fairies. They live in a castle, and can do magic. They can make trees walk, turn people into frogs, and all sorts of other fantastical things.

The Elves, from Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom

These are the Elves. They value hard work, industry and engineering.

The Fairies tend to look down on the Elves, because of their adherence to rules, reliance on physics, and refusal to cut corners.

The Elves tend to look down on the Fairies, because of their disdain for the laws of physics, their apparent laziness, and the fact their big ideas can get out of hand.

Both races are highly skilled in their own areas. The young fairies have to do wand practice, and experienced fairies teach them the importance of responsible magic-ship. Young elves learn vital skills like growing food, and building machines.

Despite their differences, they inhabit the same world, go on adventures, and help each other out. The titular Ben & Holly are best friends, and don’t really understand the prejudices the adults tend to hold.

So what does this have to do with design?

There are many professions within design, but in my experience, the furthest apart in approach, are brand, and digital product design — even though their respective work intersects massively in the eyes, hands and minds of users.

OK, bear with me here…

First, we have brand specialists. They value differentiation, bold creative statements, and Big Ideas™. Design is about evoking the right emotional reaction, in order to influence behaviour. They tend to listen to what people say, in order to arrive at a decision.

Then, we have digital product designers. They value iteration, testing and data. Design is about presenting the right information and options, at the right time, in order to influence behaviour. They tend to observe what people do, in order to arrive at a decision.

Brand specialists can look down on digital product designers, because of their staunch adherence to usability and accessibility, their refusal to ‘go with their gut’, and insistence on testing and performance.

Digital product designers can look down on brand specialists, because they see accessibility as an inconvenience, their tendency to change things for the sake of it, and concepts that look good in presentations, but are impossible to implement in reality.

Never the twain shall meet?

Of course, neither of the above descriptions are entirely fair, but I’ve had enough conversations and experiences over the years to say confidently that opinions like these exist.

I’ve been the stick-in-the-mud usability guy in the brand vision presentation. I’ve been the arty-farty brand guy in the interaction design review. I’ve had to push back on ideas that would seriously harm people’s ability to use something. I’ve had to assert the importance of graphical details as essential to the success of a digital product, despite the lack of expressed user needs.

Of course, just like the Fairies and Elves, things turn out best when the two disciplines work in harmony, and understand the advantages both bring.

Brand specialists cannot do effective work without truly understanding the digital environments in which people will discover it.

Interaction designers cannot pretend brands don’t exist. A strong brand can and should inform how digital products and services can work for users. It can help frame people’s understanding and expectations as they interact with a product, and the values that underpin the brand should be the same values designers have in mind when conducting user-centred design.

Brand folk need to understand that usability labs are a goldmine for understanding how people feel about a subject, and can reveal much more than a focus group ever could.

Interaction folk need to understand that not everything can be measured, and things which are less tangible, are no less important.

Working together

Ultimately, things would work much better for users if these two disciplines could run more concurrently. Sadly, brand design is often done at an abstract level, removed from the daily workings of, say, an in-house interaction design team building a service. Outside of startup land, where brand and product often develop at the same time (just look at Bulb’s lovely new design system), things just don’t work out like that. However, that’s just when it’s all the more important to understand and work with the intersection.

Common goals (user needs) and recognition of respective disciplines and approaches are the way forward. We could learn a lot from Ben & Holly.

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