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A designer comments on Squid Game

Karina Youle

After the first episode aired on Netflix in September, Squid Game was the tv show everyone was talking about as the weather started to get colder this year. 

If you’re only getting around to watching it over the Christmas holidays, you’ve probably already heard a considerable amount about the show and its worldwide success. We’ve put together some comments from one of our team’s designers on the design principles behind its appeal. 

Protagonist Seong Gi Hun is a gambling addict who no sooner has managed to mourn his most recent financial loss, before he is white-knuckled on an adrenaline ride towards his next. 

When he’s headhunted by a mysterious underground group, along with 455 others in similar financial straits, he joins a competition for the grand prize of 45.6 billion won (roughly £28 million). 

The sharp awakening for both audience and characters comes when he realises that not only does the competition consist of childhood playground games… the penalty for losing is death. It’s a journey with multiple twists and turns for the characters and has left viewers gripped to their screens. 

While primarily the show’s appeal is as a piece of entertainment, it plays  on core design principles that are applicable to a wide range of other projects. Here’s our designer’s insights on key takeaways in Squid Game’s design and aesthetics. 

1. Juxtaposition

One of the key features of Squid Game is the way in which it pairs opposites together in numerous different ways. This can be as simple as the colour palette (green tracksuits for the contestants/ red jumpsuits for the organisers) to the storyline itself (children’s playground/ brutal murder).

This is a key tool that makes the story compelling, unexpected pairings keep us hooked and wondering what will happen next. But it also makes the narrative feel remarkably fresh and new. 

In itself there is a jarring quality to how the human beings in the game are treated so badly, yet still ultimately decide to continue playing the game. They are forced to sleep in warehouse style bunk beds, which later transforms into a bloody battle ground as the contestants turn on each other.

2. Simplification

“Simplicity before understanding is simplistic, simplicity after understanding is simple” Edward Bond

 

One of the key user experience principles – learnability, can also be applied to Squid Game. This is most obviously true for the games themselves, which need to be simple enough that both the audience and characters can quickly pick up the rules and be able to play/follow the game. 

For the international audience, this also has to make sense given that they might not have grown up playing the same childhood games as children that grew up in South Korea and don’t have the same cultural reference points. 

Making the games simple adds to the heightened atmosphere- everyone has a chance to win, regardless of age or gender. 

In design, keeping things simple makes them accessible and heightens their appeal to a broader range of people.

3. Existing frames of reference

The architecture of both the games and the setting, draws on existing frames of reference for both the audience and the characters. 

For the games themselves this is more true for the characters, who have poignant memories of playing these games in their youth. This acts as a powerful tool for emotional triggers – in both positive and negative stimuli. 

Attaching significance and meaning to design, by giving the user internal triggers is a hefty tool. Obviously, in Squid Game this tool is used for sinister purposes, but in the real world and used ethically, they are a great way for brands to craft a personal connection.

The set design in particular, evokes earlier work by public figures. The stairs that feature as the contests make their way to the games, are reminiscent of M.C Escher’s 1953 Relativity lithograph (see below).

The staircase represents an optical illusion of people meeting at confusing angles, but also symbolises humans’ endless pursuit of moving up in the world and the obsession with hierarchies.

How can we apply this to design projects?

Popular culture has enormous reach across the globe, especially shows such as Squid Game that have a capacity to hook watchers and go viral the world over. 

Fundamentally, the addictive nature of the show and desire to find out what happens next, leading to binge watching, uses the same design techniques as any brand that wants to enrapture an audience. 

While we definitely want to be less dramatic (and more ethical!) in our approach to this in real life, studying what works in popular culture can teach us valuable lessons about how to connect with our audience and increase engagement with our brand. 

These three principles of juxtaposition, simplification and utilizing existing frames of reference, are all design principles that feature in a number of successful campaigns and are applicable to a multitude of different industries. They might just be the key to taking your next campaign from good to great.

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