Hundreds of wannabe-magicians walk down a cobblestone street, lugging bags filled with wands, robes, and plush three-headed dogs. A dragon breathes fire atop a giant bank, where animatronic goblins lead visitors--some probably crying after waiting on a four-hour line--to a massive thrill ride, in which they have to smuggle gold past evil wizards without throwing up all the butterbeer they just drank.
This is the recently opened Diagon Alley theme park in Orlando, Florida, a real-world re-creation of the magical shopping district described in J.K. Rowling’s books. It's the newest expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened four years ago at the Universal Studios Orlando Resort, and already includes a re-creation of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with several rides. Millions of dollars went into building Diagon Alley and a not insignificant chunk of that went toward producing its meticulously detailed graphic and product design.
To create the visuals, Universal Studios tapped MinaLima, a London-based design firm made up of Miraphora Mina (a witchy Rowling-esque name if we’ve ever heard one) and Eduardo Lima. The pair was the natural pick, as they’d already spent 10 years designing graphics for all eight Harry Potter films. They met on the set of The Chamber of Secrets and have worked together since, creating everything from the Marauders’ Map to The Daily Prophet newspaper.
They reused much of their work from the films for the Diagon Alley theme park, but had to expand on these designs to create functional real-world shops. Their challenge was in designing a theme park that wouldn’t feel like a theme park--to keep notoriously obsessive Harry Potter fans happy, the visuals had to be detailed enough to feel like an authentic equivalent of Diagon Alley, not some hokey facsimile in Florida.
In the Harry Potter books, Rowling gives surprisingly little detail about how the graphics on various magical items or places looked--she often leaves specifics like color, lettering, and materials up to her readers’ imaginations. When it came to making an authentic-feeling re-creation of Diagon Alley, this meant there wasn’t a lot of written instruction to go on. “Rowling captures the essence of an object, but we were given free reign to create all the details,” Mina says. They had to ask themselves questions to choose visual styles--what kind of character designed this, and when, and what were they trying to communicate?
To make a convincing re-creation of Weasley Wizard Wheezes, for example--the joke shop run by mischievous teenage twins Fred and George--MinaLima had to convey the sense that the products were designed by 16-year-old boys, not creative professionals. “We used all kinds of rudimentary printing techniques and clashing graphics for the Weasleys’ products,” Mina says--products like Skiving Snackbox, the Decoy Detonator, the Mad Blocks Potion, and U-No-Poo, filling the four-levels of the store. “We drew inspiration from childishly designed things like firecracker packaging.” They intentionally opted for a mismatched, chaotic aesthetic.
Diagon Alley is a jumble of as many contrasting aesthetics. To create these varied styles required researching different periods of design history for inspiration. “Harry Potter's world includes Gothic, Victorian, Soviet elements, ‘70s and ‘80s influences,” Lima says. ”When we designed The Daily Prophet, we knew it needed to be quite imposing-looking as a newspaper from the Ministry of Magic’s totalitarian state, so we looked at Soviet propaganda images and mimicked their look.”
Their designs also had to convey Diagon Alley’s age--it’s not a brand-new mall, it’s a historical shopping district dating back centuries (some fans estimate Ollivander’s Wand Shop started in the 4th Century BC). MinaLima made much of their signage look intentionally weathered, with ghost-lettering, faded paint, and vintage wood. But they had to ensure that the signs don’t actually become weathered--in windy Florida, they all had to be hurricane-proofed.