The Challenges of Creating Toys: Idealism, play and commercial design.

My students hard at work in class...

I may have mentioned earlier that this year I am finally teaching a course in toy design. Since leaving the industry over five years ago, it has always been a goal to set up a class exploring play  and what toy design could really be. Quite surprisingly it has been a solid challenge, especially trying to balance the commercial business opportunity with the idealism of play for children.

The greatest challenge within the course is that I wanted to focus on “inventive thinking” rather than traditional design. The difference is subtle to any non-designers, but in fact completely turns design process upside down. Inventive thinking encourages something to emerge from a creative process, rather than seeking a solution to a problem that has been defined through design research. A toy design project is more likely to identify a category, age group, or brand, that requires expansion or updating (almost all toy lines are heavily renewed every year), where as an emergent, inventive process explores the open concept of “play” and looks for opportunities.

Are toys “problems” to be solved?

Photo Credit: brooklinemama - Trying to design a toy better than a cardboard box is an impossible task.

The deep challenge is that most of the problems identified within toy design have nothing to do with play, and everything to do with market driven forces. For my students; hungry, curious and idealistic, this has been a difficult thing to reconcile. Having experienced open ended play with children, and had many play sessions in class, my students challenged whether we needed toys at all. As individuals wanting to craft something for a child to play with, they were struggling with the idea that they could and perhaps should, go find a good cardboard box and co-create with the child.

But what makes a good toy?

Somewhere in the mess of trying to unravel the various challenges and opportunities we had a great debate on what defines a good toy.

Above shows the little character transformation - there are varying levels of complexity, some even leap into the air. Clicking the image will send you to the Bakugan website.

Exhibita A – was Bakugan, an extraordinary market success, these are battle marbles and are really damn cool. The little plastic marbles have a magnetic latch inside them that is released when they roll over a magnetic surface, printed in the form of a playing card. The little orb springs open into an abstract little character and releases their “powers” and has consequences in the battle game. There are hundreds of different designs, including ones that connect and form super characters. There is a game and a cartoon series that goes along with it all and is one of the most successful international brand in it’s category.

On one hand my students love it for the simplicity and open ended gameplay, but can not avoid the fact that millions upon millions of units of little plastic balls wrapped in toxic packaging has been shipped around the world. As good, questioning students, they are struggling with the side effects of a successful products’ environmental impact. While a fun product, it is made at it’s cheapest with no concern for longevity and environmental impact.

Photo Credit: Chris Woebken - clicking on the image sends you to the MoMA website.

Exhibit B – are Animal Superpowers, an incredible project by Chris Woebken, who I met randomly in New York, who made a series of interactive objects that grant children the abilities of animals. The photo above illustrates a child seeing the world from the height of an insect by way of cameras on her hands linked to screens inside her helmet. There is another for a giraffe, that allows a child to see, speak and hear up at the height of a giraffe. These are clever, insightful and inspiring ideas, and the culmination of a lot of hard creative work from Chris, who has been rewarded by invites to speak at TED, and his work featured in MoMA.

On the other hand, the ideas have not been mass produced, and therefore are not accessible to children who are not lucky enough to visit MoMA or participate in any of Chris’s workshop. Alternatively, as one of my students pointed out, the plans and instructions have not been released to the public who might want to recreate these play experiences for themselves, if fortunate enough to have the skills and materials on hand.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

This offers a window into the complexity of being an industrial designer (whatever that means these days) who wishes to make products. If you foster a great idea that has market appeal, you live with the guilt of plundering the earth’s resources for personal gain, which you are increasingly being made aware of by professors such as myself who have done exactly this. On the other hand if you execute your ideas as conceptual art explorations, you miss out on sharing your idea with a broad audience and enjoying the results, and being challenged whether you are ultimately a “designer: (again, whatever that means) at all.

Beyond the University walls

This may be less of an issue for many outside of academia, where the pressing need for earning an income and paying the bills resolves some of these internal conflicts. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy these challenging conversations and am hopefully that the students asking and reflecting on these tough questions are able to find creative ways of reconciling these differences. So far some of these insights have included;

  • open source toy making: making a toy and releasing it to the wild
  • post play life-cycle: making a toy that outlasts the play age of the child, and then designing a journey for it
  • low production run, high quality and durability
  • games that foster co-operation
  • telling Carl to shut up and making something that makes everyone laugh

Thanks to my Teachers

I just want to finish up with a little thanks to the students who have helped co-create the class with me, they have been willing lab rats for the process, and who will hopefully play an active role in developing the class further in the future. I look forward to sharing their ideas as they finalize over the next few weeks.
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