Fraggle Rock and Product Vision

Fraggle Rock is a show about the the interconnectedness of all things in the the world. Created by Jim Henson, almost all of its characters are puppets of some kind. It aired from 1983 to 1987 on HBO (and various other channels), and ended with a trio of episodes that are among my favorite endings on television.

I would like, perhaps surprisingly, to talk about Fraggle Rock in relation to product design.

What am I talking about when I write “product design?” I use the term broadly, covering the design and production of, well, practically anything. In my life, that means working on a product team that is responsible for some aspects of a very large, complicated website. We have embraced lean startup methodology, meaning that we are on a cycle of quickly thinking of design ideas intended to advance some sort of business goal, validating them with actual evidence, and then deciding whether to advance them to production.

Fraggle Rock is, of course, a product that was designed and produced by a large group of very talented people. As a user experience professional, I collaborate with a large group of talented people to build websites. It’s a rather facile observation to say that there are similarities in how people come together to work on big projects.

While I think it would be fascinating to dig into the history of how it was made over the course of four seasons and pre-production, but what I would like to focus on here is how its creator, Jim Henson, gave the show direction before turning it over to the people that would make it.

Fraggle Rock was created by Jim Henson’s production company, which had previously created The Muppet Show and were ready to take on a new project.

This new show came together as a production of British, Canadian, and American television companies. They intentionally set out to create a show that could be easily localized to different countries, in different languages; to that end, they planned for the bulk of each episode to feature puppets that could be dubbed over, and for a few minutes of segments featuring a human that could be filmed in each country.

Although Jim Henson himself wouldn’t be involved in the day to day production of Fraggle Rock, he still set the direction for the show. Given the material circumstances of the show—that it would be made with the very direct intention of localization in different countries—he challenged the product team to make a show that would stop war.

This is a detail that I absolutely love. Because how can a show about puppets end war? Clearly, war is still with us. But a vision doesn’t have to be something that you can reach. Maybe it’s better if it’s something that’s always going to be beyond your grasp, because it is in trying to achieve that vision that you do something great.

The creative decisions about the show fell into line with that vision—it became a show about conflict resolution and the interconnectedness of things in our world between the different levels of scale (in this way, it is a great embodiment of “as above, so below”).

With any product, “what are we trying to do” is a great starting point. What’s your product for?