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Inspired Instructional Design: Lessons from the Muppets

Rowlf the Dog once said, « I don’t eat dinner, I just have a few laps before bedtime. » While that may work for a canine comedian, most of us instructional designers can’t simply lick up inspiration from the floor. No, we need to actively seek out unexpected muses to jolt us out of our predictable patterns and standard eLearning templates.

And who better to shake up our traditional training approaches than the delightfully zany mentors of The Muppet Show?

As Michelle Lentz, Senior Learning Strategist at ELB Learning, reminded us in an insightful webinar, Jim Henson’s lovable yet anarchic puppet troupe has volumes to teach us about crafting engaging, human-centered learning experiences. Sure, they were a couch-throwing, pun-slinging bunch of fur and feathers. But beneath their madcap spirit lies profound wisdom on design thinking, creative processes, and connecting with your audience. 

It’s time to awaken your inner Muppet spirit and let the wild lessons begin!

Build Empathy

The first lesson from this webinar was that we need to develop empathy for our learners by deeply understanding their unique motivations, pain points, and perspectives. Just as the laid-back amphibian could charm both kids and late-night TV hosts, we must intimately grasp each of our audience’s individual « life movies » to make the training relatable and resonant. That means getting out of our instructional bubbles through discussions, job shadowing, and maybe even a bit of playacting to « become » the learner.


Speaking of bubbles, we need to courageously « pop » our perfectionistic tendencies by embracing an iterative design process. Just look at the many faces of Kermit over the decades – reimagined and revised from Jim Henson’s mother’s humble coat remnants into the globally recognized icon we know today. 

Quit agonizing over every last detail and instead rapidly prototype and pilot test concepts. Shared early and shared often, even the roughest drafts provide a kernel to evolve and refine based on real feedback.  It’s « sharer, rinse, repeat » until you have sustainable excellence!


Of course, what creative journey would be complete without channeling the Muppets’ talent for wild, unconstrained visual thinking? From Jim Henson’s intricate storyboard sketches to modern mind-mapping tools, visualizing ideas stimulates our brains to break free from linear thought patterns and organically connect concepts in innovative ways. Don’t be afraid to doodle out that gamified learning flow. Let your crayons and pencils go wild!


Once you’ve nailed down a compelling concept, take inspiration from the Muppets’ ultimate skill – reuse, recycle, repurpose! With their interchangeable eyes, noses, wigs and wardrobe pieces, the same core puppet could be effortlessly reimagined into an endless cast of characters. We too can mix-and-match our own reusable assets – templates, characters, activities, iconography – to accelerate development while maintaining a cohesive, authentic brand experience. 


Michelle also revealed the art of illusion and « black box » magic that brought scenes like Kermit’s serene log singing to vivid life. While viewers saw a peaceful lake portrait, the actual production involved Henson frantically puppeteering from an underwater air capsule, doing whatever it took to sell the grand illusion. Similarly, your learners may never glimpse the countless hours of orchestration and multimedia choreography required to craft a seamless « wow » moment of epiphany and immersion. But they’ll be enchanted all the same!

Think Outside the Box

At the end of the webinar, Michelle’s core challenge resonated loud and clear – seek inspiration everywhere by stepping outside your training bubble. Video games, comedy, nature, cooking, YouTube influencers…the most electrifying « aha » moments often spark from the most unexpected places. Jim Henson stumbled into puppeteering from a home economics major, after all! With an open spirit of curiosity and controlled chaos, who knows what innovative experiences you may unleash?

So go ahead, release your inner Animal (and Kermit too)! Let the Muppet energy inspire you to build profound empathy with learners, iterate bravely, visualize limitlessly, reuse voraciously, and orchestrate immersive illusions that spark delighted comprehension. As Kermit’s iconic song reminds us: « Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending! » 

Embrace that ethos of creativity through « play, » and there’s no limit to the engaging wonderlands you can manifest. The Muppets have shown us the way – now it’s your turn!