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What it’s like to design for Sesame Workshop

Digital design director Breonna Rodriguez talks to Doreen Lorenzo about the biggest challenge of working at Sesame Workshop, the particulars of designing for toddlers, and why it’s a great time to be a woman.

What it’s like to design for Sesame Workshop
[Photo: Sesame Workshop]

Breonna Rodriguez is the digital design director at Sesame Workshop. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

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Doreen Lorenzo: How did you end up at Sesame Workshop?

Breonna Rodriguez: I have always been designing for as long as I can remember. My parents were constantly asking me, “Where’s the tape,” or, “Where’s the scissors?” I was just always making things. I even remember one day . . . I think I was about 8 . . . when I decided that I wanted to start driving next to my mom whenever she was in the car (as if I could do such a thing). So, I went into my dad’s office and I grabbed two storage box lids, a bunch of paper and tape, and just made my own steering wheel and driving pedals. The next day, before we left for my grandmother’s house, and I waltz out of my room, all proud with my cardboard. And my mom sees me and asks, “What is this?” just cracking up. She still talks about it to this day. In some way, shape, or form, I’ve always just been a designer.

DL: Does working with children change the design problem?

BR: Digital products for toddlers are definitely designed differently than for adults. For instance, you can’t use words, because toddlers can’t read. So your iconography, your usability, it all has to be on point. And they also physically use devices differently. Their tiny arms and hands usually mean they’re placing the iPad on a flat surface and leaning on it with their wrists. So we avoid using navigation and buttons on the lower third of a device, so the child’s experience isn’t interrupted accidentally. So, it’s little things like that; just supporting our design decisions with a lot of research on how a child prefers to use technology.

DL: Do you do testing? How did you learn all this?

BR: Sesame Workshop has always been a company that’s steeped in research. So when I came in, the basic rules for designing for toddlers were pretty well-established. But coming from an agency background, I was able to find ways to push the brand to take more risks, but only once I understood the research. For instance, we used to be very into making buttons look physically like buttons you’d see in the real world. Our research had shown that was a very important visual cue that helped a child know the element on the page could be interacted with. But this was also around the same time flat design became a leading trend in design. And after waiting two years, I was able to make the argument to upgrade the realistic button style to match the trend. By then, flat design was the only design a toddler was familiar with since every icon in their parent’s iPhone carried that design style. So, we began to experiment, and it totally worked. Kids knew exactly what to do. Even though a lot of research is just well known, over time you still have to iterate and you play with it to sync up with the rest of world around you.

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DL: Tell me about some projects you’ve worked on that made you smile.

BR: I love SesameStreetinCommunities.org. It’s a platform specifically for parents and providers (like caregivers, grandparents, social workers, medical professionals) with tools to help families navigate the milestones within a child’s development. The site has just so many tips, games, and videos that are fascinating and helpful. Hands down, my favorite project.

DL: I would imagine Sesame Street is one of the few brands people have immediate warm feelings for. What are some of the challenges with designing for such a nostalgic brand?

BR: The biggest thing with having such a fluffy brand that everyone loves is the way that people remember it. It’s so personal to everyone. And sometimes people want to design for their memory of the brand, but not necessarily for the brand we are today. For example, sometimes we will work with an outside agency, and they will send me something with a ton of the characters all over the design. And we laugh because we totally get it–it’s hard not to get carried away when you have a high-res photo of Big Bird and the Count and Cookie Monster to play with. You almost build room for that magic to happen in the schedule, so a vendor can get it out of their system, experience the joy, and then get back to designing for the actual task at hand. Which usually only requires one of the characters, not all of them. It’s really heartwarming to watch.

DL: What’s your management style?

BR: I trust my team. Trust is my management style–and I think that makes a huge difference. If one of my designers is not hitting the mark and we have to go through 12, 13 rounds of design, it’s fine. There’s always a design challenge that stumps us all. But because my team never doubts in my unwavering belief that they can do anything, they handle my pushback well. They know it’s about the design challenge–not what I think about their design ability. And I think that level of chill makes a huge difference to your team, because it allows them the space to grow and to communicate and express themselves. They stay around longer and invest more into their work.

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DL: Do you think being a woman makes your job harder? Easier? Or does it make a difference?

BR: Look, I’m a woman. I’m half black. I’m half Puerto Rican. I’m smart and I am not afraid to speak my truth. So, I think the combination of all of those things, plus my talent and my ambition, could make anything harder or easier depending on how you look at it. But personally I choose not to look at it. Someone trying to compute who I am based on my physical appearance is just not my problem. Being a woman of color, you witness from a very early age how people calculate what you’re capable of based on your appearance. And there’s always been this sense to just put myself out there regardless of what anyone thinks. Because people come and go, but I’m stuck with me. And I’m here to do something. So I’ve always just focused on that and I just do me.

However, I do think it’s an amazing time to be a woman. For a long time, the world has been very good at convincing us that things should be hard for us. That there isn’t an opportunity at the top for all of us and we must compete with each other for our abundance. And we must avoid carbs, wear a size four, and contour our cheeks, too–or else! Right now, we are watching women break through those social conditions, and it’s a reckoning that’s long overdue. The future is going to be so bright, for our daughters–and sons by the time this fight is over. And thank god. This earth is a better place when we’re all treated as equals and with love and respect.

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