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Why I design for children

I fell in love with designing objects for children immediately after I did my first user test with a child. It was a children’s subscription box company I was working for at the time, and I’d designed a DIY shadow puppetry screen. For many people, children’s smiles really light up their lives. For me, it wasn’t joy that captured my heart, it was because this child just didn’t like what I made, at all, and had no problems saying it. This was brilliant.

Most adults have no clue what they want or why. If they don’t like something, there are so many filters and conditions you have to get past to really understand them. Children, on the other hand, are clear. They are the most honest critics of design. Either it’s amazing and they want to hug it, hold it and take it everywhere with them, or they absolutely do not care for your design. Over the years I’ve made toys, games, curriculum, apps, illustrations, instruction manuals, activities and written content for all the ages up to which you can be considered a child. While they may not know what exactly is wrong with what’s been made, they know if it’s good or bad within a short while of interacting with it.

Image credits: Upamanyu Bhattacharyya

Of course, you have to be wary when it comes to flashy or popular characters placed in front of children. They would eat up the most terrible things if their idol endorsed it (1990s Popeye and canned spinach: I’m talking to you). As a designer interested in getting honest feedback, I would try to keep my prototypes rough enough for a child to give honest feedback and nice enough to bring some joy. It’s a bit of a balance, but in a few tries, you get used to it. And then the real work starts.

The long term impact of making something for a child is both empowering and humbling. Think of those things you loved as a kid: I cannot forget the first doll I loved- she had a triangular purple body and green hair. All those days spent playing Business (Indian Monopoly with cities like Patna and Chandigarh instead of Pall Mall and whatever else the original Monopoly has) with my friends on the street and the beloved tokens and plastic houses that were part of the set. The hand-me-down Tetris game on a fat yellow plastic block the size of a big Dairy Milk Silk, with its worn out buttons and greenish screen. I learnt so much from these items, both alone and with my friends and siblings. When I was a child, time stretched infinitely on, and my mind was a sponge, but razor sharp. Each year that has passed after I left school has flown past. I hardly remember what happened last week, but my childhood memories are crisp and fresh.

Now imagine the impact an object I design can have on such a mind. It could shape the kind of adult this child becomes. It could teach her the wrong thing, or inspire her to amazing things. Isn’t that powerful? Isn’t that scary?

The most satisfying thing for me is figuring out why something doesn’t work for a child - it’s a real challenge. When it works, it sparks something in them. The pure, unadulterated (pun intended) enthusiasm they show for this silly thing you made — it’s everything.

More than anything, this is fun! Making up games was what we all did as kids, for nothing more than the fun of it. I get to do that as a job. I get to decide what all the kids play and occasionally play with them too. Come to think of it, I was a really shy child, mostly playing what everyone else wanted to play, so this may be my way of getting back at my childhood friends. ( Just kidding, boys and girls. Or am I?)

Obviously, over the course of the last few years of work, I’ve learnt a few things. I was recently reading an article about UI/UX design principles for kids, which was littered with comments about the short attention spans of children, the size of their little fingers and optimising text for their reading levels. All valid but more technical details. What the article lacked was the personality of the writer and the personality of the children she designed for, and I believe that the writer did love what she did. This made me think of writing about my learnings, musings and frustrations or to put it simply, my love for design for children.

Children are sometimes discussed as not-fully-formed adults, but I don’t believe that the end goal of childhood is to grow up. Can you imagine a world where everyone is fully grown up? The movie ‘Children of Men’ does just this quite beautifully (and scarily). Adults need children and childhoods as much as children need adults. I recognise this fact and want to keep childhoods for children intact. We as adults do have a responsibility to pass on the knowledge we have and the learnings we’ve learnt to the next generation, but we tend to forget our childhoods and why they were great. I think finding fun, inventive, engaging, child-like ways of telling our children about the world is an important and worthwhile pastime.

What would you, dear reader, like to know about design for children? The next thing I think I’ll write about is what I think about education, design, play and making and why I think children should be making more. What else would you like to hear about? Waiting to hear back from you. :)

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