Simplicity, drifting, relearning.
Many years ago, when I was just moving into children’s programming, I saw what was then Tell-Tale Productions (veterans Iain Lauchlan, Karl Woolley and Will Brenton) pitching a show called Where’s Boo? at the Cartoon Forum. They discussed the design and how their research showed that the simple shapes, clear colours and heavy lines made the character much easier to read for small children. Now sometimes people make outlandish claims at the Forum but this made sense to me and the (now ex) Tell-Tale guys know their stuff.
In the years that followed, I dug into research on how children perceive visual information and conducted quite a bit of my own testing on show concepts and designs. It was only then that I could truly appreciate how right they were. As adults, many of us tend towards complexity, the details, texture and polish. Many of these things have no relevance to preschool children and may even cause problems.
Young children need clarity. Visual simplicity.
I have written before about how I first found the Fluffy Gardens look – I drew the characters with a mouse. It prevented me from using some of the shapes and details that would be pleasing to me as an adult. I ended up with basic, crude drawings. Almost like those a child might do.
Children reacted so positively to these images and I found they were drawn in particular to the large eyes (hence them getting even larger in refining the look). The flat colours, the hard black lines on the characters and the simple easy-to-read expressions all contributed to it working for children, yet often far from what we look for as adults.
Since making Fluffy Gardens, different shows have had different needs. You can see, I’m sure, how Planet Cosmo is an evolution of the same ideas. Aiming at the higher end of preschool age range, Planet Cosmo needed to demonstrate the wonders of space. It needed to feel a little more beautiful, less crude. And yet still we have basic shapes, large eyes and flat colour on the characters. The balance took a long time to find and, throughout development and production, we had to remind ourselves of our purpose.
Because as we work, we tend to drift.
Often we drift towards old habits, sometimes we drift towards new ones. But we drift. This is across all aspects, not just design. It is why we so often play back old character samples when recording voice work for a show – even the actor who defined a voice can find themselves drifting away from it, just a little bit each recording. In classical animation, it is how characters might change when animating straight ahead, each drawing being just a little different from the previous one.
So it is important to reset.
Important to take us back to an earlier realisation and remind ourselves of what we learned. To relearn it. It is rarely enough to learn something just once.
For me, that means pulling out the very early Fluffy Gardens concepts, even more basic than the actual finished show. Appreciating the simplicity, the lack of details. And recognising that what I’m looking at is very different to what we often strive for or appreciate as adults. And that’s a good thing.
So, when working for young children, never fear simplicity. Keep in mind the drift, no matter what end of the craft you are in – writing, designing, directing, animating. Sometimes in our quest to get better, we can forget what is important to our audience.
Reset and relearn.