Illustrator and author Maurice Sendak, creator of “Where the Wild Things Are”, “In the Night Kitchen” and “Outside, Over There” has passed away at 83. It is an impossible task to catalogue the countless ways Sendak has contributed to our culture. His work is so unique it seeded itself into the smallest cracks of our consciousness when we were young and now yields strange, wonderful things.
But in one thing I am certain; ask any graphic or interface designer who designs for children if they have been personally influenced by Sendak’s work, you will likely meet an emphatic “Yes”.
This is not a simple matter of aping style or technique. While Sendak’s illustrative craft is masterful, it is something deeper those of us who design respond to.
Sendak himself said, “I don’t write for children. I write, and they tell me it’s for children.”
I believe that is the ideal philosophy by which to approach creating any sort of character, interface or design with children intended as the end users. What Sendak did so admirably is understand that kids are as complex, contradictory and philosophical as any adult. While the twin pressures of deadlines and creating a polished product make it is easy to fall into a default design mode of all bright colors and smooth edges, it is worth remembering that it is the rough edges that catch the corners of a child’s imagination. Kids are endlessly questioning, and as such, are often pleased to be confronted with something a little different. To have something a little scary, something a little strange and something a little honest about the world can go far in keeping a child’s attention where it might otherwise stray.
Now all that said; interface design exists in service to instructional design. It is the gelatin that suspends the delicious marshmallows of knowledge in the final product salad. It is not the role of graphic design for children’s software to diverge into confrontational and unsettling places. It must be approachable, easily understood and must not drown out the lessons or curriculum presented. It is not meant to be a ‘Wild Rumpus’.
But there are countless ways, little touches that you can include into a design that tells kids; you know that they know.
Maurice Sendak was instrumental to my childhood. But I’m astounded now, as a parent and a graphic designer who works on projects aimed at school kids, how instrumental he is to me as an adult.
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