SXSW 2013

SXSW: UX Principles from Jim Henson

Today at the interactive portion of South by Southwest, I attended a panel called Muppets to Mastery: UX Principles from Jim Henson. The Russ Unger, Senior UX Leader at GE Capital, discussed how many of the popular practices among today’s user experience designers were actually used long before UX was considered a discipline but Muppet creator Jim Henson. Here are a few highlights from the panel.

Jim Henson’s Life

Unger started by discussing Henson’s background in art and graphic design and some of his early puppet work. He developed spots for the Today Show and IBM and got his big break when Sesame Street premiered in the 1960s.

Highlights of Henson’s career include The Muppet Show, the various Muppet movies, Fraggle Rock, the Muppet Babies, Labyrinth and even a Muppet cereal. He died at the age of 53, but his legacy lives on in movies and ad campaigns.


Unger pointed out that the UX discipline is pretty young, but people in that field have a role model to look to in Jim Henson. If UX professionals ask themselves “What would Jim Henson do?” here’s what they can learn from him:

Good Experiences are Invisible

A lot of work went into Henson’s product to keep the audience from knowing all the people and technology involved in creating a complicated but seamless experience.

Iterate. Iterate. Iterate

Jim Henson was committed to always evolving, as illustrated by how he changed the character Kermit the Frog over the years. Kermit started as a puppet made from ping pong balls and a sweater and became a sophisticated, perfectly crafted character.

Everything is Connected

Henson also understood how everything is connected, as demonstrated by the intricate worlds he created for shows like Fraggle Rock.

Sketching, Storyboarding and Prototyping

Henson was a visual thinker and started sketching characters as a child. He understood that sketching, storyboarding and prototyping were essential first steps. In Muppets, and in user experience, this step ensures that the final product is organized and works the way you think it will.

Start With Patterns

Henson understood that a few designs, called Whatnots, could serve as the base for endless Muppet iterations. The concept holds true for the design systems and pattern libraries UX pros use.

Be a Hacker

Henson was a hacker. He was constantly thinking of innovative ways to create effects and performances using materials and technology you wouldn’t expect.


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