Cartoon Network creative director Michael Ouweleen reveals the secrets to successful design for children and kids' TV.

Designing for children can be a challenge, one that both Lego and Cartoon Network seem to have figured out to a T. After all, what began back in 1932 with some tiny building bricks in a small carpenter's workshop has now become the world's third largest manufacturer of toys, with around 80 Lego pieces for every single person on the planet. And, since its launch in 1992, Cartoon Network has been home to some of hugely popular kids TV shows, including The Powerpuff Girls, Regular Show, Adventure Time and Ben 10.

So what's the secret? To find out, we spoke with Michael Ouweleen, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim Senior Vice President Executive Creative Director and leader of Cartoon Network's "Creative Group" in-house ad agency, which has been working to launch a new collaboration with Lego called Mixels.

How children see design

During the interview, Michael explained to Digital Arts that, while there are no hard and fast rules to designing for children and kids' TV, there are some key things to remember.

"Kids are like other human beings, only more so," he tells us. "They are more attuned to design than adults, because the sheer number of highly designed images that have hit their eyeballs since birth is greater than the average adult's."

"They understand the history of design to some extent too, thanks to their understanding of the evolution of video games, and their weird innate knowledge of 8bit to now," Michael continues. "It's the same for their understanding of animation. They don't just know what's out now; they have a pretty good grasp of the sweep of history of animation from say the 40s (Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny) to now."

Kids know bad design when they see it

With this in mind, it's important to remember that kids are in no way ignorant when it comes to design – they know bad design when they see it.

"Kids like ideas, they like surprise, they like attention to detail," Michael says. "They really appreciate good timing. They aren't naturally attracted to "krazy" type or hand drawn lettering. Why would they like that when they've seen tons of great type and design in every game they've played and every show they've ever watched?"

"It's always boggled my mind that people think stuff aimed at kids needs to be dumbed down or 'kidified' - that's crazy. They are more sophisticated consumers of media than almost anyone out there," he adds.

Kids look for humour in design

One of the key elements to successful design for children and children's TV is humour, Michael says.

"Humour is a huge trigger for kids. It's what they most look for," he explains. "While adults sometimes use drama to escape their day-to-day, kids use humour to, I think, process their day-to-day. It's a way for them to appreciate, celebrate and even get a handle on what they're experiencing."

Perhaps even more difficult than designing for kids is making sure that design will stay relevant. Michael says that there are two main ways that you can keep a kid's brand relevant for 20 years. The first is to know your audience: "Make sure that you are talking to them in ways that aren't counter to what they think or who they are. Your childhood is not necessarily theirs," he says.

The second is to know who you are. "Have core principles, design and otherwise, that are who you are. Give them stuff that comes from knowing that, and just make sure it doesn’t violate point number one – knowing who they are."

Staying relevant 

Michael draws on the Cartoon Network logo as an example. "The foundation of the design for Cartoon Network for the last five years have been very classic foundational design things: a grid, black, and white, CMY," he highlights. "It should never go out of style, and yet we are able to use those limited elements to refresh our look every year."

"If you have good characters, let them lead. Speak through them," Michael adds. "Be true to who they are. That's what the audience is relating to. Design shouldn't get in the way of that."

Characters are the main focus in the new Mixels franchise created as collaboration between Cartoon Network and LEGO. They began life at Lego's Billund headquarters as mixable and combinable creatures made from Lego pieces, and were soon picked up by Cartoon Network to become animated characters too. They star in videos, in an app, in an interactive website and online game and more, in addition to being available to buy as part of a figure series.

It was Michael and the Creative Group's job to work with Lego to develop the overall look of the Mixels brand, including how it looks on TV, on packaging and in certain lines of consumer products.

"What we at Creative Group did was help establish a cohesive brand look for Mixels," Michael tells us. "We built a style guide that influenced how Mixels looks across all platforms, on pack, every expression of it. We basically built a brand guide that everyone works off of."

"This was a hugely needed thing because the development of this property (shorts, game, toys) was all compressed into something like a year," Michael adds. "If there weren't a consistent way to treat the brand graphically, it would have easily developed into a shapeless jumble."

"Luckily, across all these wildly different expressions – some physical, some animated, some digital, some 2D and some 3D – the graphics and branding help hold it all together," he concludes.