It’s spooky season, and we’re feeling that familiar dread of what to wear, what to make, or even where to find inspiration flood in. At a company where design is close to a religion, coming up with an eye-popping costume is the Holy Grail.
I have always loved the sense of escape that dressing up allows. Ever since I transformed into a cardboard robot at a primary school fair as an 8-year-old (my brother is the blackbird), I have been fascinated by how differently people interact with me when I’m in a seemingly alien state.
The first costume I built for the primary school fair in York, England in the 1980s. I'm the robot; my brother is the blackbird.
That early fascination, coupled with my love of building things, has led me to create elaborate costumes based on Ghostbusters, Edward Scissor hands, and LEGO men, to name a few. And since working in the Play Lab, my costume obsession has truly bloomed. IDEO has a long tradition of extreme costume building, especially for our annual holiday party. Themes over the last few years have included Surrealism, County Fair, and Magical Forest.
(left) London-based "decades" party with my ghostbusting brothers. (right) My 30th birthday "toys and play things" LEGO man costume.
Over the years many people have asked me how I approach costume creation. Here are 8 ways to channel your inner designer:
When it comes to themed events, I look for something on the fringe so there’s no chance I’ll be dressed the same as anyone else. For the surrealism party, Salvador Dali, whose paintings invite the viewer to interpret the work in more than one way, inspired me. I wanted to create a costume morphed two things into each other in black and white to achieve a striking contrast. After listing dozens of possibilities, I chose a zebra and a piano! I was pretty sure no one else would be thinking about mashing those together.
When planning out a costume, I create an inspiration board of potential elements. Then, I explore compositions through quick sketches (often on bumpy commuter trains, forgive the roughness) to get a feel of what they might look like and how to construct them. Below are a couple of early sketches of my Zebra-piano and grasshopper costumes:
Initial sketches for my zebra piano and grasshopper costumes.
I try to simplify the execution as much as possible. Costumes do not need to imitate your reference exactly to create impact; just capture the essence of your theme/character in as simple and bold a way as possible.
Sourcing as many different material options as possible helps you be more creative with combinations and allows unexpected “discoveries” to happen. Don’t forget the fur and fairy dust!
Try not to be too precious or precise as you start building. Try out different methods and do multiple tests. In painting my face to become a zebra I failed many times before I found a good quality paint and method of application. Here’s a picture to prove it!
Face paint failure.
Snazaroo paints are the best when applied with clean fingers, Q-tips, sharp-edged sponges and cereal-box cardboard. Dabbing a layer of powder or, with eyes closed, hairspray onto the paint helps it stay in place for the duration of the night.
Costumes that break the usual form factor of the human body are the most striking and unexpected. For the County Fair event I built a Zoltar fortune-teller machine using laser-cut foam core decorated with acrylic spray paint. Don't have a laser cutter in the garage? Check out a local techshop or other makerspace, ask a friend who's got access to a shop to help out, or do a quick search for local vendors.
The Zoltar costume enclosure, before and after paint.
Make sure you can easily drink and go to the toilet! I’ve made too many costumes that have made both difficult, which admittedly adds a layer of hilarity when you have to rely on complete strangers to help you use the facilities.
Parties are often held in darkened rooms. Adding any level of lighting really helps your costume pop. When building the grasshopper costumes, I found cheap battery-powered LED strip lights on Amazon that brought them to life.
Team up with someone (as I did with my fellow grasshopper) to add clout to your costume. Two is always better—and more fun—than one.
Surrealism party: Zebra piano costume.
County Fair party: Zoltar costume.
Magical Forest party: Grasshopper costumes.