Toys are special things. They ignite children’s imaginations and provide them with enjoyment and discovery. Even when adults are asked what their favorite toy was growing up, you see a smile that could only come from a fond memory.
We all have our favorites, whether it was a Barbie doll, LEGO building blocks, or a Slinky. But, how often do we consider what makes a toy great?
Great toys stimulate our senses, and for children, open new doors to learning and entertainment. The smell of Play-Doh, the bright and colorful images on a View-Master, and the soft feel of a teddy bear immediately spark emotional connections between toy and child and inspire play.
The National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong museum in Rochester, New York, recognizes the popular toys and games that have inspired creative play for generations. Each year, the Hall of Fame inducts new toy honorees and showcases them.
“Toys we call icons have a lot of visual and emotional ties,” says Christopher Bensch, vice president for collections at The Strong. “They are also innovators that changed the landscape of play and include toys from cardboard boxes and sticks to the [Nintendo] Game Boy.”
To date, 44 toys and games have made it into the Toy Hall of Fame. In addition to the cardboard box, stick, and Game Boy, the list includes the Atari 2600 game system, Crayola crayons, Etch A Sketch, jack-in-the-box, and Tonka Trucks. Criteria for induction include: icon-status, longevity, how the toy fosters learning, creativity or discovery through play, and whether the toy profoundly changed play or toy design.
The toys can be nominated by anyone. The Toy Hall of Fame receives thousands of toy nominations through mail and email annually. The Hall of Fame chooses 12 finalists that best meet their criteria to go on to a national selection committee. Only two of the finalists are chosen for the Hall.
This year’s nominees include Cabbage Patch Kids, chess, dominoes, Hot Wheels, playing cards, and the Rubik’s Cube.
Bensch says the Toy Hall of Fame is also making an effort to collect papers, documents, and prototypes of toy inventors to provide visitors with a glimpse of the creative process of making toys.
The Toy Designers’ Process
For toy designers, the process of making toys involves taking the elements that people like about toys and coming up with a safe and durable product that will sell.
Toy designers advance toys from concept to consumer shelves. They have technical skills, creativity, and an ability to relate to children’s interests. Sometimes designers modify existing games and toys and other times they create new types of toys.
Peter Wachtel, chief creative “KID” and founder of KID Toyology, says toy design involves fun and function.
“As a toy designer, you need to think about the idea around the toy you are creating and what the ‘wow’ factor is,” Wachtel explains. “You also need to make sure the toy is functional and safe.”
The process of creating a toy includes drawing, sketching, making a computer model of the concept, and then making a prototype of the toy. Many toy designers have backgrounds in graphic design, interactive design, and industrial design. The toy industry is competitive and getting started in toy design can be tough.
Chris Lauria, a self-employed toy designer and illustrator, got started on his toy design career in the early 1990s, shortly after he graduated from The Art Institute of Philadelphia with a degree in Visual Communications. He says a formal education helps, but actual work experience offers the most valuable lessons.
“I did not know anything about toy design,” he says. “I had no idea it was a career path. I had done graphic design and comic book illustration and I found out those skills can lend themselves to toy design.”
After graduating from art school, Lauria landed a job at Larami Toys, the company that first sold the Super Soaker brand of water gun. It was there that Lauria was introduced to the many facets of the toy business. He eventually moved on to other toy companies, honing his design and business skills along the way.
Toy designers often work on developing someone else’s concept, but they also have the opportunity to turn their innovative ideas into actual toys.
“When you do service work, you are embellishing on something that exists,” Lauria says. “You still have creativity but it is within a specific framework. When you invent, you start out blue sky.”
Innovation is one of the keys to success for toy designers. Wachtel calls innovating with invention in mind “innovention.”
“Anyone can come up with an idea,” he offers. “The secret is the feature of a toy – it has to be magical and special.”
Thinking of a great toy idea is wonderful, but then the concept has to be sold. Designers are often required to meet with manufacturers to try to market their ideas or concepts for a new toy.
What sells is innovation – technology, features, applications, and presenting products in ways that have never been presented before, says Alan Cusolito, academic director of Industrial Design at The Art Institute of California - Orange County.
Finding out what types of toys could be developed to meet end-user needs involves interacting with children and adults. It is especially important for toy designers to understand child development and play patterns.
Play is a critical part of childhood development. It helps children relate to others and understand their place in the world.
“Toys allow children to interact socially, develop their personalities, and work out their problems,” says Cusolito, who has worked as a designer for a variety of toy companies including top brands Hasbro and Mattel. “A toy is a necessary luxury. Although it is a luxury, it is a developmental necessity.”
Open-ended play allows children to define the play scenarios and be more inventive, while structured play is more guided and planned.
“An action figure or doll offers an open-ended play pattern, while a game has a structured play pattern,” Cusolito explains. “Crayons are open-ended play because you can give children a box of crayons and they can create for hours.”
Toy designers are required to possess a variety of professional skills and perform many creative tasks. Being skilled in design and business is critical to success in a competitive toy industry.
“The more you know the better you can be,” Cusolito offers. You have to understand design, marketing, and some engineering. As a toy designer, strive for creativity and innovation.”
Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.