Design Tips

What Children Can Teach Us About Design


2 Jan , 2018  

Funny thing about children, they always seem to assume the rules of just about anything, don’t apply them. Screaming just about anywhere because there’s no reason to assume the presence of other people. Chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a perfectly acceptable diet plan. And of course, coloring an apple purple or a banana blue is perfectly in order.

When it comes to design or any creative domain, we’re often made to work within a set of constraints that limit the creative output of our work. Between what we form in our minds to what goes on the drawing board is a filter formed by expectations, biases and past experiences that hold back what we envision. But kids tend to not be held back by these. As bizarre as a purple apple sounds, it’s nice to not worry about the judgment that follows poor color choices.

In the midst of a debate over the best way to redesign a room, a 10-year-old boy decides to throw in his two cents. Ignoring the requests for a Star Wars themed room, a wall-sized TV for his PlayStation, and a zip line to his imaginary treehouse, there’s something to be learned from his wishlist. As impractical as the ideas seem, it’s important to patiently hear them out. The unbridled imagination and the openness of a child can be just the inspiration we need sometimes to spark an innovative idea.

Here’s what I picked up during my intellectually stimulating conversation with that 5th grader.

Candylicious by Studio EM

Role-playing is fun, and it helps you design better

Make believe is a fun way to put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re designing for. Empathy is an important aspect of the human-centered design process and it helps design spaces and products that truly connect with its intended users. When you role-play, you get to factor in several elements – how users and occupants engage with others and with the space in general and will help translate needs that your clients may or may not know how to communicate during meetings. Asking the right questions is critical to turning a good design into a great one.  

Explaining concepts and complex topics, keep it simple

On the note of communication needs, here’s an observation I made: when speaking with children, we tend to use a different tone and register compered to what we’d normally do with people within the same age. It may be hard for children to communicate what they want simply because they may not have the necessary vocabulary to verbalize what they want. Younger kids prefer showing us pictures and pointing to things to convey intent.

I’d like to think some version of this exists when designing a project on a larger scale. Beyond beautifully crafted presentations and visuals, it’s important to focus on explaining how the concepts translate into a real-world context. Even as adults we have a hard time explaining what we want. Some call it ‘innovation zones’, others call it ideation rooms, but what everyone really wants is just a collaborative area and the accompanying furniture that comes with it.

What Children can Teach us about Design
Smart Dubai Office by DWP

Thinking like a child: A disregard for convention leads to some interesting stuff

As we grow older, our thought process becomes more and more rigid. Logic, rules and social paradigms and behavioral norms end up defining a framework within which we base our decisions. That’s why we face so many creative blocks when we have to create or design, we see the consequences more vividly than the final product.  

Children have no regard for convention, lack any fear when asking questions, and will optimistically offer even the most ludicrous solution to any problem. The result is a spontaneous mind powered by an overactive imagination, and the result is some out-of-the-box thinking. When everything is play and not work, there exists no pressure on the mind. Some of the best designers in the world are able to create magic because of this. There most definitely will be constraints on every design and project, but that doesn’t mean your imagination can’t run wild. The open-mindedness is what leads to some eclectic design; when you think like a child, you see the world with a fresh perspective every time. 

It reminds me of something Ieva Sidaraite (Senior Interior Design at Perkins+Will) once told me, “Firstly, new designers need to enjoy what they’re doing. They need to have fun working with the client and project team. They shouldn’t be afraid to propose solutions. Even if they might sound silly, they could lead to something great. Focus, test your ideas, research them and believe in your design. Your conviction will help you sell it to the team and the client.”

Be open to learning anything and everything, even if you can’t foresee an immediate need

“Children are designed by evolution to be extremely good learners -to be able to learn about anything that’s interesting and important in the world around them,” says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. Gopnik explains that over time, our sense of curiosity dies. Instead of being attracted to and wanting to explore anything new and exciting, we begin to hone in on only the things that we know are relevant to us—thus, developing a narrow-minded approach towards learning. Letting your curiosity die is one of the worst things you can do to yourself. 

Even if something won’t apply to you in the near future, learn it anyway. Travel makes the best case for this, learning about other cultures and people will never fail you. It opens your mind to new experiences and things you traditionally wouldn’t if you stuck to your own little bubble. During a conversation on life, work, design and everything in between, Diane Thorsen told me, “Be open. Travel. Explore. See the beauty in everything. Open your mind to try something new, it’ll encourage you to understand new ways of looking at the same thing.  Look for the connections and connect the dots. When I travel, I don’t make plans. I explore. This spontaneity is how I’ve ended up with the most extraordinary stories, people, and learning opportunities.”

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