The original write up by here.
Designer’s design. And we do so with an extreme focus on the user’s minutest concern, our aim being to give the user’s an unparalleled user experience. We design a solution to cater to the individual’s every need. While we focus on the micro concerns, do we pause and think of the macro concerns? Designing is creating and with creation comes responsibility. To help understand and walk us through this thought-provoking concern, the article below by Faruk Ateş (Product Designer, writer, and developer) explains the impact of design and the reason why we need to always consider the bigger picture while solving the individual concerns.
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What a product does to people psychologically, or how it has the power to transform our society, is hard to measure but increasingly important. Good products improve how people accomplish tasks; great products improve how society operates. If we don’t practice a more sustainable form of product design, we risk harmful side effects to people and society that could have been avoided.
The impact of product design decisions
In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the U.S. Interstate Highway Act into law. Inspired by Germany’s Reichsautobahnen, Eisenhower was determined to develop the cross-country highways that lawmakers had been discussing for years.
During the design of this interstate network, these “open roads of freedom” were often routed directly through cities, intentionally creating an infrastructural segregation that favored affluent neighborhoods at the expense of poor or minority neighborhoods. Roads became boundaries, subtly isolating residents by socioeconomic status; such increasingly visible distinctions encouraged racist views and ultimately devastated neighborhoods. The segmentation systematically diminished opportunities for those residents, heavily impacting people of color and adversely shaping the racial dynamics of American society.
Such widespread negative consequences are not limited to past efforts or malicious intentions. For example, the laudable environmental effort to replace tungsten street lamps with sustainable LEDs is creating a number of significant health and safety problems because the human impact, when applied at scale, was not thought through sufficiently.
In each example, we see evidence of designers who didn’t seriously consider the long-term social and moral impacts their work might have on the very people they were designing for. As a result, people all around suffered significant negative side effects.
The Original discipline
Although the process is rarely identified as such, product design is the oldest practiced discipline in human history. It is also one of the most under-examined; only in relatively recent times have we come to explore the ways products exist in the context they impact.
Designers often seek to control the experience users have with their product, aiming to polish each interaction and every detail, crafting it to give a positive—even emotional—experience to the individual. But we must be cautious of imbalance; a laser focus on the micro can draw attention and care away from the macro. Retaining a big-picture view of the product can provide meaning, not only for the user’s tasks, but for her as a person, and for her environment.
Dieter Ram’s ninth principle says that good design is environmentally friendly; it is sustainable. This is generally interpreted to mean the material resources and costs involved inthe production, but products also affect the immaterial: the social, economic, and cognitive world the user inhabits while considering and using the product.
At a high level, there is an easy way to think about this: your product and your users do not exist in a vacuum. Your algorithms are not fair or neutral. Your careful touch is not pristine.
Your life experiences instill certain values and biases into your way of thinking. These, in turn, color your design process and leave an imprint behind in the product. It’s essentially the DNA of your decisions, something embedded deeply in the fabric of your work, and visible only under extremely close inspection.
Unlike our DNA, we can consciously control the decisions that shape our products and strive to ensure they have a positive impact, even the myriad subtle and non-obvious ways we might not anticipate. Let’s learn to solve the problems we can’t yet see when designing our products.
Design for inclusion
When we set out to design a product, we generally have a target audience in mind. But there are distinctions between functional target audiences and holistic ones. To create products that embrace long-term positive impacts, we must embrace inclusive thinking as comprehensively as we can.
Conduct research into racial and gender politics to broaden your awareness of the social structures that impact your customers’ lives. These structures alter people’s priorities and affect their decision-making process, so design for as many social and societal considerations as possible. Sometimes people who fall outside the “target audience” are overlooked simply because their priorities for your product come in second place in their lives. Design your product to bridge such gaps, rather than ignoring them.
Listen to the voices of people expressing concern and learn to see the pain points they experience, even if they don’t articulate them as such. Step up to your responsibilities as a designer, curator, entrepreneur, or platform owner. You may not be an elected official, but when you offer products you still have responsibility over the roles they play in people’s lives and experiences—so govern accordingly.
Read studies that examine human psychology to understand how people’s biases may be exacerbated by your product. Learn about microaggressions so you can consciously design around them. Extrapolate how people with nefarious goals—from hackers to authoritarian governments—could exploit or abuse your features or the data you collect.
Work with data and let it inform you, but remember that data is suggestive, not authoritative; the data we gather is always a myopic subset of the entirety that exists but cannot possibly be measured. Enrich your process and viewpoint with information, but let your heart drive your design process.
These principles are more than “nice-to-haves”—they help you design with an ethical and moral code as inherent throughout the product as the design system used to build it.
Foster positivity and civility
When we use a product frequently, the DNA of its design process can leave a psychological imprint on us. Facebook knows it can affect people’s moods by putting more positive items in their feeds. When news broke that it did so, people were upset about this manipulation. In actuality, our lives are constantly being manipulated by algorithms anyway; we’re just not very conscious of it. Often, even the people who designed the algorithms aren’t conscious of the deeper manipulative impacts.
Features like upvotes and downvotes may seem like a balanced solution for people to express opinions, but the downvote’s only purpose is to feed and perpetuate negativity; it can be avoided or removed entirely without harmful consequences.
Don’t give angry people shortcuts to wield negative power; make them either articulate their anger or deal with it in more constructive ways. Social media platforms never benefit from angry, biased groups suppressing messages (often positive and constructive) from people they despise. In those scenarios, everyone loses—so why design the option into your product?
Any feature that petty, time-rich people can abuse to game your product’s ranking or discovery algorithms is a feature that eventually serves up toxic behaviors (regardless of the person’s politics) and is best left out.
Also avoid features that simply waste time, because when people waste time they feel less happy than when they do something productive or constructive. And of course, don’t deliberately design time-wasters into your product and offer users a premium fee to avoid them; that’s just not civil.
To foster positive behavior and encourage civility, you can reward good behavior and hold bad behavior accountable. Holding bad behavior accountable is crucial to establishing a credible community or platform—but no rewards for good behavior risks creating a fear-driven atmosphere.
A great example of designing consciously like this is Nextdoor, a platform for local communities. Nextdoor made a purposeful effort to reduce racial profiling by users by redesigning a small part of their product. For example, when reporting “suspicious activity,” new follow-up questions like “What are they doing that’s suspicious?” are required fields, so that users can no longer simply accuse people of color of “being suspicious.” The resulting 75 percent reduction in racial profiling is great for obvious reasons, but it also has the effect that users are actively being trained to no longer associate the two as interchangeable.
Design to avoid vectors of abuse; strive to encourage positive interactions and, wherever possible, challenge and transform existing biases.
Boost confidence and courage
People likely use your product to accomplish something, whether it’s a leisure task or a professional one. A user who repeats certain tasks with your product is effectively practicing her interactions; find the opportunities therein to help her grow as a person, not just succeed as a worker.
For example, when my cofounder and I set out to create Presentate, our goal wasn’t merely to create a web-based version of Keynote or PowerPoint—we set out to help people lose their fear of public speaking, to prevent audiences from experiencing “Death by PowerPoint,” and to create the fastest, most effective presentation software and sharing platform available on any device.
Our business effort was cut short, but our product design goals were achieved even with our alpha software: our users—the presenters—felt more confident and relaxed, found it easier to focus their energies on their talks, and spent far less time creating the presentations (leaving more time to rehearse). Plus, their audiences didn’t suffer through the dreaded stack of bullet points and a monotonous presentation.
Instead of seeing our product as a combination of features and UI, we considered it a tool that could empower people far beyond the scope of their tasks. Your product can do the same if you think about how it could strengthen related skills (in our case, public speaking) the more someone “practices” by using it.
Think about features and insights that encourage people in positive ways; teach them knowledge you have that they might not, perhaps as imposingly as by embedding its principles as features themselves.
Your user is likely a busy person with a million things on her plate—and on her mind. She won’t sit down and think introspectively about how your product affects her life, but you as the designer or developer can and should do precisely that.
You can spend the extra time upfront thinking about how to inform or teach your users new insights or techniques that help build the confidence they are looking for. Empowerment isn’t just the facilitation of a new ability—it’s the emotional and mental strengthening of confidence in your customer when she meets a challenge and accomplishes something impressive.
Strengthen emotional fortitude
Emotional fortitude is the foundation that helps you to be courageous and honest, and to better withstand setbacks. A person who feels emotionally secure has an easier time finding the courage to admit failure or mistakes, which creates opportunities for them to learn and grow. Conversely, emotional fragility erodes a person’s confidence and obstructs personal growth.
People’s emotional states are influenced heavily by external factors. Our environment plays a role in shaping how we see the world, its opportunities, and its problems. But while there’s been extensive research into the role of legislation on our lives, there’s comparatively little research examining the role that products play in our environment. This is becoming pressing as software and technology communicate with us, to us, and about us as frequently as other people do; they now have as much of an effect on our lives as laws and regulations.
Behavioral science and nudge theory strongly suggest that behaviors can be positively influenced by conscious efforts. For instance, rather than mandating certain actions, you could encourage better decisions or actions by making them more prominent or appealing. This kind of influence can and often does extend beyond behaviors and into our states of mind.
To be clear, this is not a deterministic argument—technology and products don’t inherently make us sad or happy, confident or anxious. Rather, this is an argument that products have the potential to influence us in emotional ways, and that the greater a product’s user base and its daily use of the product, the more impactful its effects can be on how they see and experience the world.
The strongest case for this is made by a variety of studies that show that our current social media platforms make people less happy. But what if those platforms had the opposite effect, instead of making people happier and more confident about their lives?
One way is to take a teaching approach with your users. When enforcing Terms of Service, for instance, just saying “your actions are unacceptable and violate our ToS” doesn’t explain what was not okay or why you don’t want that kind of behavior. It also doesn’t suggest which behaviors you are looking to see from users. The former approach causes people to feel emotionally insecure, so focus on the latter—on positive kinds of interactions you wish to foster on your platform. They can be actual conversations, or simply part of your marketing and messaging.
Products can also affect our psychological and emotional well-being through the types of behaviors they facilitate and foster. For example, features that can be exploited by petty individuals may result in a great amount of petty behavior on your platform or within your community; we know this behavior creates emotional fragility, not fortitude. On the other hand, features that surprise and delight users (a tenet of great emotional design) can have a fortifying effect on a person’s emotional state.
When designing Presentate, our goal wasn’t “to make slideware”; our goal was to make presenters more confident in their presentation and have greater confidence as speakers. Our means of achieving that goal was to design a slideware product that would accomplish both.
Another fine example is Tesla, a company that makes electric vehicles and associated technology. As its CEO and founder Elon Musk repeats at many of their product announcements, Tesla’s goal—its mission—is to transform us into a renewable-energy human society. In setting its goal accordingly (and explicitly!), Tesla operates on the premise that it needs to do more than simply make a product; it needs to change people’s views and how they feel about their existing products. At the Solar Roof announcement, Musk reiterated that “the key is to make it desirable,” to make something people want regardless of its role in the energy revolution. Similarly, Tesla’s Model S car outperforms many a muscle car in drag races, legitimizing the electric vehicle as a high-performance option for speed enthusiasts. This approach helps to change people’s wider perceptions, extending beyond the products themselves.
When we set our goals not just to create great products, but products that help transform how we think, we can tackle underlying biases and prejudices that people may have but would be happy to be eased out of. We strengthen their confidence and character, and address problems that go well beyond the scope of any one product. And while none of us are solely responsible for fixing major problems in society, each of us, when designing a product, has an opportunity to make it part of the solution.
Or as Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia said, when asked about why they changed their design:
We don’t think Nextdoor can stamp out racism, but we feel a moral and business obligation to be part of the solution.
Recreate social mores
There is no digital duality, no “real world” separated from our environment online. Generally, every avatar you talk with on a screen has one or more real people behind it—people with real feelings you can hurt as easily online as you could to their face. You just don’t see it, which shows that we do miss out on a number of social cues when interacting on screen: things like tone, sarcasm, playfulness, hurt feelings—or disapproving frowns from our peers.
A street harasser exploits the lack of a social circle that pressures them to behave decently. Oftentimes this is out of ignorance, not malice, including when the harasser is in the company of others who often are equally unaware that such behavior is unwelcome and uncivil. Many, of course, are in denial and shout catcalls at women despite knowing better—and wouldn’t dare catcall a woman in front of their mothers, for example.
In the digital environment, those external social pressures to behave are often lost, so unless they come to you from the strength you have within, it’s all too easy to slip into behavior you wouldn’t engage in while speaking with someone face to face. Let’s be honest: we’ve all said things to people online at some point or another that we would be ashamed to repeat in person.
From a product perspective, that means we have to rely on mechanisms that either invoke those social mores to encourage civil and fruitful interactions or outright enforce them. We have to design a simulated social circle of peer pressuring friends into the products we make. Nextdoor did it with form fields that asked follow-up questions. What can your product do?
See the best in people (but be realistic)
People prefer being good and happy over being mean-spirited or awful. You can design your products to encourage the best sides of people, to let them shine in their brilliance, to help them learn and grow while doing their work. But don’t mistake seeing the best in people as a reason not to anticipate harmful behaviors or exploitation of your features.
As product designers, we deliberately craft solutions to envisioned problems. We should practice expanding our view to encompass and understand more people and the problems they are experiencing. We should strive to make our work a part of the solution, in ways that scale up to millions of users without harmful side effects.
You’ve read this far. That means you’re eager and ready to think bigger, more holistically, and more empathetically about the work that you do. Armed with these principles, you’re ready to take your product design to the next level.
We can’t wait to see what you’ll create!
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The original write up by Faruk Ateş here.
The iPad for the longest time has been a glorified media machine, being used to watch content on and occasionally work with. In fact, sales even dwindled post the launch of the iPad Mini, and tablets soon became less and less appealing. The iPad Pro, and its focus on creators helped rekindle the world’s interests in the iPad, so much so that the number of iPads sold just last year beats the number of notebooks sold by any company worldwide! The point Apple is trying to make is that the iPad Pro is capable of dethroning the laptop. It did so with an incredibly strong GPU, CPU, and a battery that promised to last all day. It also came with Apple’s pencil, a powerful tool that allowed you to use this magical slab of glass as a canvas to create some absolutely mesmeric artpieces (all of Apple’s custom logos for their October event were made on the iPad).
The iPad Pro, however, came with a few flaws that wouldn’t slide with Jobs. It didn’t look different from the regular iPad. It just had higher specs, cost a whole lot more, and came with an Apple Pencil that could only be charged by sticking its end into the iPad… something that’s still considered to be one of the biggest design crimes ever. The camera lacked pizzazz, and there wasn’t a place to store the pencil when not in use. Today, everything changed dramatically for the better. The new iPad Pro is refreshing, beautiful, and shows that Apple is still capable of making some really well-designed hardware.
Tim referred to the iPad as a magical piece of glass and the redesign truly feels like it. At just 5.9mm, it’s gloriously thin, and comes with a screen that stretches all the way to the ends. No home button, no bezel, just a bunch of really bright pixels that make it feel like you’re carrying light. The new screen is a Liquid Retina screen (just like in the iPhone XR) and sits at 11 inches. The home button is sent bags-a-packin and the new uniformly thick bezel integrates Apple’s FaceID camera right into it. The iPad comes with four speakers on all four corners, instead of two at its base, allowing it to give you an expansive audio experience, and also allowing you to use the iPad in any orientation without worrying about its audio being muffled. Another massive update is the fact that the iPad Pro, recognizing that it needs to dethrone notebooks, ditches the lightning charger for a USB-C port (more on that further below!)
A new iPad means a new Apple Pencil too. The revamped pencil comes with a unibody cylindrical design and a flat edge. The flat edge serves two purposes. It allows the pencil to magnetically dock to the side of the iPad Pro, giving you the ability to carry the pencil and tablet together rather than separately. That magnetic snap also allows the Pencil to instantly pair with the iPad and even establish a wireless charging connection, which means you don’t need to shove the Pencil up the iPad’s rear every time it dies out, and also means your Pencil is always ambiently charging while snapped to the side of your iPad. The new solution is neat, elegant, and would have been the norm had Jobs been around when the iPad Pro dropped two years ago. Nevertheless, it’s good to know Apple still has it in them to craft elegant solutions. On the flip side, there’s no headphone jack.
Now to the USB-C. Apple’s decision to change the port on the iPad Pro means you can now connect your iPad to anything from a DSLR, to a MIDI controller, to even an external screen. Apple went a step further and even built a feature into the iPad that lets you connect it to your iPhone and charge it! Yes. You can charge your iPhone with your iPad! This heavy-lifting makes the iPad a strong competitor in not just the tablet market, but the notebook market too. Apple says that the new iPad Pro is faster and better than 92% of all existing notebooks.
The new iPad comes with Apple’s A12X bionic chip, giving it the ability to run augmented reality as well as match the performance of an Xbox One S in the graphics department. With an 8 core CPU and a 7 core GPU, the iPad Pro is quite literally a beast, and is even capable of viewing extremely detailed and heavy AutoCAD files as well as handling desktop-style Photoshop, resplendent with every single feature, working with PSD files without breaking a sweat… and it does all this while retaining the iPad’s promise of a full day’s worth of battery.
In every which way, the iPad Pro 2018 would make Jobs proud. It looks spectacular, feels spectacular, comes with conscientious design details like the magnetic-snap Pencil, the four speakers, and the ability to connect your iPad to a variety of devices (and even charge your iPhone)… and lastly, does all this while quite possibly showing a very Jobsian middle finger to its competitors by boasting of a performance that can quite literally blow the competition out of the water. Oh, did I mention, it’s completely environment-friendly too?
I remember the very first time I walked into a Herman Miller outlet. I walked right past the Aeron chair, Yves Behar’s SAYL chair, and even probably the most iconic thing in the room… the Eames Lounge Chair. I walked past all these hallmarks of great industrial design, because I had my eyes affixed on the most interesting object in the room. I say object because you couldn’t really call it a chair. It was an experience. It was the Spun.
“There was no intention to design a chair”, says Thomas Heatherwick in the video above. The Spun was the result of an experiment, rather than a conscious decision to make a seating device. This experiment finally evolved into a chair that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was the furniture-equivalent of a rollercoaster ride. You feel uncertainty, surprise, thrill, joy, euphoria, in a matter of seconds, which is more than you can say of any seating device on this planet. Designed as an unstable seating device that could rotate on its rim and axis, the Spun literally spins you around, tilting you ever so gently that you get this feeling of almost falling over, but never actually ever falling over, thanks to some incredibly precise design engineering. The spinning action gives you a quick burst of adrenaline and a release of endorphins that bring about childlike joy no matter how old you are. The minute you complete half a rotation, there’s a sudden awareness as you feel you’re about to topple backward, but you never do. The immediate relief of anxiety is quite literally a stress buster, and the cycle continues with each subsequent rotation.
The Spun Chair was designed back in 2010 by Thomas Heatherwick of Heatherwick Studios for Magis (eventually finding a home in Herman Miller too). Stand it upright and it doesn’t look like a chair at all… it only becomes a chair when you incline it. The rotationally symmetrical Spun is a rare type of chair that finds itself fitting perfectly into domestic as well as commercial spaces, and indoors as well as outdoors. Made using rotational molding (so it’s hollow on the inside) with polyethylene, the Spun comes with bands or lines across its surface that serve multiple purposes. The lines form a texture that prevents you from slipping off the chair. They provide a gripping surface not just for your backside, but also your hands that are bound to grip the chair as you find yourself feeling stable at one moment and unstable at another. Forming an element of CMF, the ribbed lines give the Spun a distinct play of light and shade, while also quite literally making it look like blur-lines from the spinning chair!
Watch the video above where Thomas Heatherwick breaks down the creation process for Spun in a video directed by Juriaan Booij.
I’ve been rather verbose in my appreciation of Huawei’s experimentation with smartphone aesthetics. First came the stunning metallic gradients, then came the Mate 20, with its unique square shaped 3-lens-plus-flash arrangement, and a metallic gradient that was even richer than before. Porsche Design put a spin on this particular model in Huawei’s line-up, and the Mate 20 RS was born.
The Mate 20 RS is worth talking about because it’s no secret that smartphones are looking almost eerily similar nowadays. An industry that once prided itself in some wildly designed phones that went on to become icons of their times (the Moto Razr and Nokia N.Gage come to mind) is now filled with an eerily similar suspect line-up of phones, where the user literally spends hours trying to tell apart phones and sort the good from the bad. In getting Porsche Design on board, Huawei doesn’t just push the envelope, it also shows that smartphone companies should, once in a while, look outside their hardware design teams to work on aesthetics and detailing (take Philippe Starck’s Xiaomi Mi Mix 2 for instance). Porsche Design’s reinterpretation of the Huawei Mate 20 RS involves a leather and glass construction. With leather on two sides, you’ve got a phone that is great to grip and doesn’t slip easily off your palms. The glass strip running across the center forms a canvas for reflections and highlights to give the phone its mirror-finish appeal. It also looks like a racing stripe, giving the phone a sportscar vibe. Lastly, the presence of the glass strip allows the phone to charge wirelessly (at breakneck speeds of 70% in half an hour) too.
The Mate 20 RS makes a great case for getting product and industrial design studios and professionals (with interdisciplinary experience) on board to design smartphones, possibly making them stand out again, and ushering in the second golden era of mobile phone design!
It’s rare to come across someone who’s so intensely passionate about something, it spills over. You wouldn’t expect a 27 (turning 28 in January) year old man to be enraptured by plush toys, but just talking to Marissa Louie for a bit has me emotionally invested in the Animoodles, a series of stuffed toy animals with magnetically detachable limbs and heads that can be swapped to create animal hybrids.
I met Marissa through Designer’s Guild, a forum created by her on Facebook for designers to interact with one another, bounce ideas off each other, collaborate, and critique work as a healthy collective. The group is nearing 15 thousand members with as many as 100 people joining each week, and has stalwarts of the industry all the way from Don Norman to Chris Do. Marissa herself has a world of design experience too… A former Principal Designer at Yahoo and then an Art Director at Apple, Marissa moved onto found Portola Plush and create its first product, the Animoodles. Scroll below to read our conversation with her, where we talk about the Animoodles, her journey, the need for storytelling in design, the joy of kickstarting your designs, entrepreneurship advice for designers, and the much needed increase of women in designer and executive roles.
The Animoodles 2 launched on the 15th of October on Kickstarter and reached its funding goal in less than 48 hours! Check out its Kickstarter page here, or follow its Facebook page for updates. You can click here to join the Designer’s Guild on Facebook.
Yanko Design: Hey Marissa! Let’s begin by getting to know you a bit! Tell us a bit about you, your interests, where you’re from…
Marissa Louie: I was born in San Francisco, California with a gray teddy bear named Wuggie by my side. I collected hundreds of stuffed animals when I was a kid, and paid close attention to all of their details and features. I also created stories starring stuffed animals with my family on a daily basis. Stuffed animals were my first introduction to design and storytelling. Eventually, I became an art director, interaction designer, and product designer.
YD: Talk us through your professional journey!
ML: I’m a self-taught designer: I didn’t go to design school, but learned on my own. I started out in interaction and product design at various tech startups and companies including Ness, Apple, and Yahoo. I also founded a few tech startups of my own. Through these varied experiences, I developed a broad skillset that has design as a foundation, but also includes marketing, PR, and sales. This came in handy when I decided to create Animoodles.
YD: How did you plan your career in design? Was there a consistent impulse to be a part of the creative industry?
ML: I’ve always paid attention the aesthetics and details. When I was growing up, I always gravitated towards drawing, and arts and crafts. Then I developed an interest in fashion design and photography. I’ve always had a creative impulse, but didn’t know that I would take it seriously until after I graduated from college.
YD: What was working at Yahoo and then Apple like? Was there a definitive moment that triggered the switch to designing the Animoodles?
ML: At Yahoo, I developed the ability to design for the scale of a billion users, as a Principal Designer for Yahoo.com and Yahoo Search. At Apple, I developed the ability to design simple and elegant solutions to problems as an Art Director. Though working in corporate was comfortable, I found myself wondering whether I could make a bigger impact outside of digital design. I woke up one day while holding the gray teddy bear I was born with, and I knew the answer: my true passion since childhood was for stuffed animals. I thought, “What if I applied the design thinking I developed while designing apps and websites to designing stuffed animals?”
YD: Did that switch feel like a paradigm shift of sorts? How did your design education and work experience prepare you for your new role?
ML: It was definitely a paradigm shift. I had to learn a lot in order to be able to create Animoodles, but my design foundation prepared me for what I needed to learn. I approach designing stuffed animals from the perspective of design fundamentals: the first requirement is designing stuffed animals that people want, so I sketched over 50 ideas, and prototyped some of them. Instead of designing pixels, I learned how to sew from professionals. Then I applied my previous experience in conducting user testing for apps and websites to playtest stuffed animal prototypes with kids. Once I felt like I was nearing a product that people loved, I developed the Animoodles brand over the course of 3 months, resulting in a brand book of over 300 pages.
I also knew that designing Animoodles would require character design and illustration skills, so I took several courses in these areas so that I could work better with my future team. Once I started working with artists who formerly worked at Disney and Pixar, I continued to learn from them.
YD: Where did the idea for the Animoodles (and their interchangeable limbs) come from?! How did the idea evolve from the initial spark to the final product?
ML: I started out asking myself what unique or appealing stuffed animals could be created. I sketched many ideas and noticed that a lot of my ideas had hybrid animals. At dinner with my husband, I envisioned stuffed animal limbs detaching and switching around with each other, as if they were dancing.
I immediately knew it might be the seed of a good idea. Next, I considered different materials and methods to use in order to detach the limbs, such as Velcro; nothing seemed as simple as magnets.
I made rough prototypes of stuffed animals with magnetic limbs, and tested them with kids. Initially, the response wasn’t as positive as I thought it could be. So I worked with Dan Holland to do proper character design, and a stuffed animal prototyper to turn the character design into plush form.
I tested prototypes with magnet joints as well as Velcro joints with over 50 kids across the US. The magnet jointed stuffed animals that had cute character design were the clear winner. So I made tweaks to the magnet jointed stuffed animals based on feedback from kids, and the end product became Animoodles.
YD: I believe that the Animoodles are a great case for storytelling through design (especially given your story-focused target audience)… How important do you think it is to connect to an audience emotionally?
ML: With every Animoodle, we develop both the character design and the character personality. We think about the role the character plays in the Animoodles world. We ask who the character is, what their dreams and motivations are, what things they aren’t good at. We follow a rigorous story development and character design process, because it is so important to connect emotionally with customers.
It is so important for designers to understand what their audiences want. People want stuffed animals to be cute, so we dived deeper into what makes characters cute: the shapes and the personalities that are appealing yet unique. We make our characters have human-like qualities so that people can relate to their stories. Ultimately, we want people to fall in love with our characters so that they are emotionally invested in the stories and world we create. If we didn’t prioritize storytelling, I truly believe that Animoodles would not be as appealing.
YD: Talk us through the development of the Animoodles plush dolls. What were the constraints, concerns, challenges, while building prototypes and then going into mass production?
ML: The key difference between Animoodles and other stuffed animals is their magnetic joints. It was very important for us to get the magnetic joints right. The magnets had to have the right strength, had to be enclosed safely inside each plush part, and had to be durable enough to last for years.
We developed the magnet housing to not only be strong and secure, but also to be easy to manufacture. Everything represented in our prototypes has to be translated into manufacturing: we need to scale the materials and manufacturing methods for every aspect of Animoodles.
Making products for mass production requires that we make tradeoffs, since the exact materials used in our prototypes may not be available in large quantities. I stay in close communication with our manufacturing team to choose final colors and materials, to ensure our customers get well-designed products that stay true to our original vision for each character.
YD: I imagine the entire experience had a lot to offer in terms of professional growth. Anything you absolutely wish you knew back in design school? Any out-of-design skills you picked up?
ML: Some skills I wish I knew in design school are how to design products that can command a healthy price margin, and how to interpret design and market trends as new products. The key non-design skills I’ve developed while working on Animoodles include manufacturing and time management. I’m a very hands-on CEO, so I like to be competent in every key area that is required to bring Animoodles to market and to help it succeed.
YD: Designers aren’t traditionally taught to be entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of creative decision-making in what we do, but we seldom see Designers transition into Entrepreneurs. What advice do you have for designers who are looking to set up their own practices?
ML: Entrepreneurship is something you have to be very serious about, if you want to be good at it. It requires a very different skill set than design. I advise physical product designers who are interested in running their own businesses to learn about a diverse set of skills that includes leadership, marketing and PR, sales, finance, and manufacturing. It took me many years to develop competency in these skills, but I am able to confidently lead all aspects of my company because of my early investment in broadening my skill set beyond design.
YD: A lot of student/personal design projects never make it past the concept stage. What advice would you want to give to designers to help them bring their concepts to life?
ML: Producing physical products can be incredibly difficult for anyone who doesn’t have prior knowledge.
A few pieces of advice:
Test your prototypes with your target end users, and refine your product based on their feedback.
Develop manufacturing and sales contacts that are specific to your product. These relationships can take years to build, so plan ahead and do it before you need them.
Ask retailers and distributors what price they would pay for your product, and what price they would sell it to customers at. Make sure you can manufacture at the desired wholesale price before going into production.
YD: I remember you made a very important observation a while ago, about how every CEOs of the top 20 toy companies were men. I believe there’s a large deficit of women designers in our industry too… What has your experience been like? What are your thougths?
ML: It’s just not right that the CEOs of the top toy companies are ALL men. Even if the individuals are well-intentioned people who promote women to leadership ranks, the men are still at the very top. It sends the wrong signal to everyone in their companies and in the toy industry. It’s about time that this gets shaken up. Young girls need examples at the very top to look up to. And it doesn’t make sense for the CEOs of the top toy companies to be all men, despite the customers who purchase toys being primarily women and mothers. I hope that the next generation of top toy industry leaders will be diverse.
YD: You’ve just launched the second iteration of the Animoodles, with a new series of animal plushes. How did you build on the original series? Did you do anything differently this time?
ML: The Animoodles storyline continues on from the previous collection, where the characters of Animoodles Collection 1: Wild Jungle arrive at Storytale Forest, where every Animoodle has a different storytelling ability including singing, acting, directing, crafting, painting, and story writing. Animoodles Collection 2: Storytale Forest is comprised of 6 brand new Animoodles characters that are compatible with all Animoodles. We developed this collection because our fans requested it. And they specifically requested the characters included in it! These new characters aren’t just cute, but their fur is even softer than before. We have also developed the magnet joints further so that their magnetic strength is higher than before. Lastly, Animoodles Collection 2: Storytale Forest is available to back on Kickstarter now, and we will be shipping orders in the US before Christmas. It took us around 6 months to develop and launch Animoodles Collection 2.
YD: This interview is far from over! Where can readers with questions reach you? Or do you plan to become a recluse in the Storytale Forest!
YD: We also look forward to your editorials on YD where you give us pointers on how to transform a design concept into a retail-worthy product that brings in money! Hope you drop a lot of tips and truth-bombs!
ML: I look forward to it, too! I welcome any suggestions for topics to cover.