What designers have in common with Jim Henson.

A few years ago I dated a guy that listened to Mike Doughty; there was one of his songs in particular that I loved, “Frog and Banjo,” obviously inspired by the Top 40 hit, “Rainbow Connection,” which my boyfriend also liked, a lot…too much maybe.

So this “Frog and Banjo” is about nothing in the whole world being sadder than a frog plucking a banjo. While I don’t agree so much, I find it very, very funny.

What’s that got to do with design? That part, nothing. But, recently I was listing to the “Stuff You Should Know” podcast and Muppets came up; because heck yeah, we should know something about Muppets and now I know a lot, and there ain’t nothin sad about em, banjo or otherwise.

Like most great designs, Muppets were created by one person with a vision and the desire to invent something new, that person was of course, Mr. Jim Henson. He started out with a sketch, and from there built a version of the Muppet we know today as Kermit The Frog.

There are all kinds of Muppets: live-hand Muppets, hand-and-rod Muppets, big huge full-bodied Muppets. All seems simple enough, but making a Muppet is serious business and operating a Muppet is actually a bit like rocket science, minus the rocket part. Ever wonder how Muppets just seem to be walking around? Or, how Muppets seem to be just chillin out, say inside a garbage can?

The secret is in the banjo. Not really, but check this out…in the opening sequence of “The Muppet Movie”, Kermit sits on a log in the swamp, playing the banjo and singing “Rainbow Connection”. The water in the swamp is real, so is the banjo, and the camera moves 360 degrees around him, how is that possible? You’d better sit down for this; Jim Henson operated Kermit through a rubber sleeve while squeezed into a tiny cramped chamber built underneath the water, with a small tube to the surface so he could breathe. One more time–Jim Henson was operating Kermit from an underwater coffin, more or less. And that’s just one example…holy !@#$%! There are Muppetteers hunkered down in trenches, at the base of platform stages, sometimes two to a Muppet, some inside the very belly of a Muppet, a la Big Bird. It’s crazy, and I like it…too much maybe.

Personally I think Kermie was giving a shout out to designers in that swamp when he sang so endearingly about “the dreamers.” Designers are indeed a community of dreamers and like Henson, we work hard to bring our best ideas to life, using some of the same processes that Muppetteers use today.

Mike Doughty might encourage us to “contemplate the sadness” but instead let us contemplate the great design that is the Muppet.

Learn all about how Muppets are designed and operated here.

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