Designing with Penguins


(This text details a teaching experience with the design of playful artefacts for penguins. Other penguin design experiences are shared in the chapter on Penguins of my PhD thesis. That project can be found here.)

In 2017, 16 students of the MSc in Interaction Design at Malmö University spent one week on a design case that involved the design of playful artefacts for the Magellanic Penguins that currently live in the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California.

I visited this aquarium last summer (while I was in California for a game design course at Laguna College of Art and Design) after I learned that these penguins were hooked on playing Ipad games. I blogged about that visit here.

I hope to return to this aquarium next summer, with some ideas that can help us think about the futures of zoo animals as well as some prototypes for playful artefacts that could become part of the enrichment program of these penguins that live in captivity. One part of this process is to involve other designers and learn from their ideas. And the Interaction Design students did a great job with this last week!

Their assignment asked the students to design lo-fi prototypes (meaning low-fidelity prototypes made out of paper or other material as a first step towards creating a testable prototype later into the process). The goal of this stage was to come up with a collection of interesting ideas that could be discussed, tried out among people, and then later developed further, into artefacts that could be tested by the penguins. This blog post shows a summary of what they came up with:

Group 1:

  • Carlos Mario Rodríguez Perdomo
  • Erica Coria
  • Rebecca Goettert
  • Sena Çerçi

The inspiration for the design ideas of this group was informed by both existing research into the sensory perceptions of penguins as well as material exploration of physical objects. Their research provided inspiring insights about penguins’ eyesight (they have excellent eyesight and can see low wavelengths of blue, green, and violet and have good vision both underwater as well as on land), their hearing (penguins use different sounds to socialize and to identify their parents), and their smell (that indicates where to find prey).

The material exploration that inspired the students happened when they tried out combinations of floating objects in water. They discovered playful qualities in the fact that some objects attach to each other in the water and combined this with the playful qualities of rotating floating objects:

Inspired by this exploration and research, they made a prototype consisting of two (or more) cubes that can be attached together with magnets. The cubes light up in different colours and change colour whenever they are touched (using touch sensors and an Arduino micro computer). Next to that, their designs have a short rope that the penguins could use to pull the cube through the water:

The designer envision a further development of the prototype to be waterproof, rigid, and safely hide the interactive components. The design process of this group of students is a really interesting example of how material exploration and insights on sensory perceptions of penguins can inspire a very open-ended playful artefact that could be appropriated by the penguins in many different ways.

Group 2:

  • Dennis Bücker
  • Katarina Thorstensson
  • Ligia Estera Oprea
  • Marjo Tikkanen

Starting out from quite thorough research into enrichment for zoo animals, this group mentioned that designing playful objects for these penguins could be considered as a bit of a guessing game, since it is very difficult to imagine what these penguins would be interested in. Even though they can do a lot of research into penguin behaviour, they reflected that their prototypes are still built on assumptions, uncertainty, and predictions about how the penguins could eventually appropriate their designs. Next to that, this group reflected quite critically on the concept of a zoo, its function in society, and the question whether zoo enrichment it mostly there to entertain the animal or the zoo visitor. They summarized their initial reflections and questions like this:


In terms of design work, they started their ideation process by brainstorming and sketching out different ideas, some of them deliberately silly and others more seriously possible:


For their final prototype, the students chose to develop a digital version of their concept, consisting of a floating island in the water that both the penguins and the zookeepers can interact with. The island can be moved through the water, it changes color, it can be jumped on and off, and it can be used as a slide:


This prototype was made with Processing software and was used to demonstrate and animate the different ways in which the penguins could interact with the floating island. Interestingly, the designers showed how a digital prototype for a physical object can still allow for some exploration in terms of possible playful interactions with objects. Next to this, the digital prototype functioned as a tool to explain and present their design to other people. The next step in this process would be to design a physical prototype of the island that could be tested together with the penguins.

Group 3:

  • Alice Blot
  • Ana Cecília Martins Barbosa
  • Hannah Weiser
  • Judit Komaromi Haque

This group started their exploration by looking at each of the penguins that currently live in the Aquarium of the Pacific and trying to imagine what could be designed for these specific animals. Furthermore, through general research they found inspiration in knowing more about the penguins’ sensory perception such as eyesight and touch, the use of their beak, their interest in shiny objects and collecting rocks, and their seemingly clumsy way of walking.

They also reflected on the difficulty of trying to design something for an animal that they do not usually come into contact with. They therefore proposed that the next stage of the design process should involve a zookeeper or animal welfare specialist that could help the designers to evaluate their ideas, in order to make further design decisions. For this reason, the designers did not propose one final design idea but presented five different prototypes that could be explored and tried out further:

What was interesting in their design process was the way in which the students used existing research and information about penguin behaviour very specifically as inspiration for each of the five concepts they worked out further. This resulted in five very different prototypes that offer very different types of exploratory playful interaction.

Group 4:

  • Andrea Serra
  • Jody Barton
  • Lisa Rauch
  • Mauricio Struckel Pedrozo Mendes

The challenge of coming up with a useful design process without being able to test out the ideas was also reflected upon by this group of students. Instead they decided to look up existing information about penguins, specifically videos of penguin interacting with objects in a playful way, and draw new ideas from that.


They found that penguins are interested in new objects, collecting items, using their beaks to explore their surroundings. Furthermore, they are interested in shiny objects and they are curious about new floors under their feet. They had many different ideas and chose to work out three concepts in more detail. These include a bubble ring machine (inspired by dolphin play), a playful pinball machine that drops down stones for the penguins to collect, and a tactile floor interface with playful elements such as water fountains, lights, different floor temperatures, and sounds. They started prototyping each of these concepts:

Next to the prototypes, this group provided a quite extensive reflection on the ethical implications for developing enrichment for zoo animals. They are concerned with the idea that their concepts could be used in a way that the penguins are encouraged to become more of a performer or circus artist for the zoo visitors. At the same time, they considered that by taking the animals needs and perspectives into account, designing for zoo enrichment could perhaps provide the animals with a better life quality.


Considering the fact that the students only had one week to become familiar with the Magellanic penguin, formulate design openings, ideate, and develop a prototype, I think that all groups delivered great work. Collectively, they managed to explore different angles from which to approach this assignment, provided basic reflections on the ethical implications of their work, and offered a variety of different ideas and concepts that could be explored further in collaboration with the different stakeholders of this project. I hope that this one-week assignment allowed for an interesting learning process with regard to the challenges that arise in designing playful artefacts for other species.

After this experience, I continued exploring the design of interactive playful artefacts with penguins and I wrote about this in the chapter on Penguins of my PhD thesis. Those experiences can be read about here.