I grew up with Mr. Rogers. Nearly every morning, I would turn the dial (literally) to PBS and there he was, welcoming me into his neighbourhood. Nearly all of the characters, human and puppet, resonated with me. But I remember being fascinated with two characters in particular: Elaine, the scary aunt that had too much blush on her face (or was permanently flushed), and Kitty, the genderless personification of Fred Rogers himself.
I loved the simplicity of the sets, the message that I could be anyone that I wanted to be, and the calm, quiet demeanour of all of the stories. That tranquility and equanimity of both set and story had a huge influence on me. And I can honestly say that my current design practice was very likely forged in some way by Mr. Rogers and his furry friends and cardboard castles.
The documentary Welcome to My Neighbourhood presents the singular vision of Fred Rogers and condenses his very full life and career into an hour and half. And I use the word “magic” very deliberately — in many ways, Rogers appears to have lived in his very own dreamlike world where children are at the very centre of the universe.
A number of reviewers of the movie have called this vision of Rogers’ “radical”. I believe that assessment is true. If we invert the adult-centric world and make children our past, present, and future, our moral and political compass changes. True north shifts and we adults present as mere shepherds or sherpas.
With children first, the largest issues that we confront today — climate change, overdevelopment, poverty, inequality, surveillance — are no longer “challenges” that need “solutions”. Sustainability is no longer a project of scientists and responsibility is no longer an extract of religion or ethics.
If we put children first, there is always already a promise of a bountiful future. Our adult lives must be lived because of them and not in spite of us. If the needs of children are placed before that of adults, our consumption habits change and we collectively work on building resilient economies, communities, and networks. If we put children at the forefront of our minds, we shore up our work around kindness, empathy, and critical thinking. If we put children above all else, we also demonstrate our commitments to reducing violence, despair, exploitation, and all forms of physical and psychological slavery.
Medium Meets Message
Along with Marshall McLuhan, Fred Rogers recognized in the 1960s that the medium is the message. He took the new technology of television and defined its boundaries in a very deliberate way — slow, thoughtful, quiet, calm and magical. The visual and narrative systems he created for television supported the idea of putting children first. No quick cutaways, lots of silence, and the dramatic narrative unfolds slowly and gently even when there is no resolution.
How fortunate was I was to grow up on this kind of television? Very. Perhaps it’s why, to this day, I still prefer slow, even grinding emotional dramas and minimal visual spaces. And visually, I connect with coherent, slow-moving systems over fast, action-packed, or decorative ones. Rogers’ minimalism in sound and image is one of the keys to my own work and, I would argue, the key to our putting children first.