Lessons from Jim Henson (@jdblundell) #SXSW

I’m spending some time in Austin, Texas this weekend for South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi). Saturday I enjoyed a great session with usability guru Russ Unger, Muppets to Mastery: UX Principles from Jim Henson.

ProjectGuide2ECover_v3Unger is a User Experience professional and the co-author of the book “A Project Guide to UX Design.” He is co-authoring the book “Designing the Conversation” with Dan Willis and Brad Nunnally, due out in early this year.

And for those not familiar with Henson, he was the genius behind The Muppets and other characters like those on Sesame Street and Fragel Rock.

While Unger’s session was great for those working specifically with usability and user interface, I also saw a number of applications for Digidisciples no matter what their specific discipline.

  • Jim Henson followed his passion to make a difference in the world around him. He didn’t let conventional wisdom distract him from his passion or from making a difference.
  • Henson didn’t seek perfection before shipping. The original Kermit the Frog puppet wasn’t much of a frog at all. Kermit was made from a green jacket and two golf balls and for many years he was much more of a sock puppet than anything else.
  • Even though Henson didn’t seek perfection before shipping, he iterated, iterated, iterated, iterated and iterated. He always knew he could do better. Over the years, Kermit went through 13 major design changes before becoming the friendly frog we know and love today.
  • Henson realized a good experience is invisible. If you give the audience enough to work with, they’ll do the rest for you. Henson’s work helped the audience suspend their understanding of both puppetry and reality and join the two together.
  • Henson was always thinking visually. Pictures say much more than words alone. “I’ve always been most intrigued by what can be done with the visual image. I feel that is what is strongest about the work I do… the visual image,” said Henson
  • Henson was always sketching and storyboarding. Henson started sketching early on and would keep his old sketches and keep sketching until the right idea developed.
  • Henson would sketch when he could and prototype when he needed to. He knew the difference. In pitching one of his shows he didn’t spend the money on computer graphics or set designers when a simple still image would tell the same story.
  • Henson made great use of patterns. The original Muppets were designed so that six different Muppets could easily be made from a single design.
  • Henson was willing to hack things together to solve problems. Unger shared photos of the Big Bird character which was built with a TV monitor and cooling fan built into the suit. Unger also showed how despite advice to use animatronics or other means, Henson built a small submarine in order to do the puppeteering of Kermit in his now famous Rainbow Connection song from the Muppet Movie

So what does all this teach us as Digidisciples? Here’s a few things I picked up:

  • Follow your passions and you can make a difference through them.
  • Don’t let seeking perfection hold you back. Be willing to ship even if you know you can do better in the future.
  • Keep working to improve your processes. I’ve written before – everything is an experiment.

Always work towards making the process or product better for all involved.

  • Let your audience participate in the process. Don’t fill in every blank for them but give them enough information they can jump in and feel a part of the journey.
  • Think visually. While visual thinking may not come naturally to everyone, at least writing down key concepts can often make a big difference. Simply moving your thoughts from mind to paper can make a huge difference in your thought process.
  • Keep journaling your ideas. Whether you record them in a memo file on your phone, snap photos and save them to Evernote, keep sketch books or write in a journal, keep tracking your ideas as they come to you. And don’t forget to keep going back through them to see what may spark your next idea.
  • Don’t spend time building a full working solution before you have buy in from all the key players, especially when drawings, sketches or other means may be far easier, faster and just as useful in sharing your vision.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Be willing to reuse ideas and concepts from other projects or other people.
  • Be willing to hack together solutions when other solutions are impractical or hurt the project or mission. And be willing to think outside the box to do so.

What other lessons do you see for Digidisciples?

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About Jonathan D. Blundell

Jonathan Blundell is a husband, father, blogger, podcaster, author and media geek who is hoping to live a simple life and follow The Way. You can find him and links to his numerous projects at jdblundell.com or follow him on Twitter: @jdblundell or circle him on G+.