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Lessons about design from a mouse on a tricycle

Amidst a blur of recent and ongoing construction work, the sprawling area around Kings Cross has further elevated its status as a prominent creative hub within the capital. Gleaming new architecture disrupts its historic surrounds, painting a colourful picture in which hides the modestly proportioned – but immaculately presented – House of Illustration. Nestled fittingly alongside an iconic creative institution in Central Saint Martins, this relative newcomer to London’s gallery scene has served to showcase some of the finest minds from the rich history of illustration and graphic design since its inception in 2014.

At the time of my much overdue visit, I was delighted to find an exhibition by legendary illustrator Quentin Blake. Though I’ve been only a casual admirer of Blake’s work through his illustrious collaboration with Roald Dahl, he is one of a very few illustrators who can lay claim to being a genuine household name – as well as the man I later discovered to be this gallery’s founder.

Pondering Blake’s collection of familiar childhood characters alongside contemporary and unseen works, all lovingly composed in his unmistakably characterful style, I found myself amused by one sketch in particular. The image featured a mouse atop a curiously diminutive tricycle, pedalling past a particularly bothered onlooker. Happily, I discovered that a whole series of such illustrations had been produced, compiled neatly into a book.

Though often compelled by a desire to conceive something disruptive, hitting the palette with a fresh and delightful twist, our ambitions usually require the grounding influence of familiarity to fully materialise this goal.

In it, we find the same delightfully dexterous mouse riding the same tiny tricycle past a diverse series of onlookers. As one might imagine, such a remarkable sight triggers quite the mixed response among its audience. Some leap away in horror, while the more curious stare in fascination. One man shouts in anger, whilst others glare, unimpressed. Some don’t even notice the mouse pass by, but one young boy displays a childish intent to squash it.

The colourful spectrum of emotions we see through this deceptively simple family of sketches owes its roots to the observers not expecting the mouse’s arrival, therefore illustrating the less rational, more instinctive, primal side of being human. However, we might prefer to believe the contrary, we are not beings instinctively prone to rational investigation. That tricky and most mysterious level of cognitive processing follows later, if indeed at all, once our immediate reaction to a situation has manifested itself according to how we’re individually wired.

Though the subject matter of this short and delightful book is of course entirely contrived, it does bring to light a fundamental characteristic of how we’re wired as humans; we cannot be expected to act in a predictable way when presented with a situation we’re not used to.

At least to my apparently easily distracted eyes where charming illustrations of small animals are involved, this seems to neatly encapsulate the essence of designing experiences. Designers work exhaustively to construct intuitive products and services which we hope to quickly establish value among their relevant user base. Though often compelled by a desire to conceive something disruptive, hitting the palette with a fresh and delightful twist, our ambitions usually require the grounding influence of familiarity to fully materialise this goal. It is naive to suggest that surprises to the user should always be avoided, but these must be realised as carefully engineered moments of delight, and not of bewilderment. Investigating what’s already familiar may not be as alluring as our dreams of ingenious new solutions to a problem but is often equally instrumental in the design process of robust, predictable, and delightful experiences – and mitigating the danger of inventing another mouse on a tricycle.

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