Why Toy Design is Special and What You Can Learn From It.

Traditional toy design covers a broad spectrum from infant and baby products, low price collectables, detailed action figures and dolls, construction systems, board & card games, electronic gadgets, outdoor sports – the list goes on and on and on…

From a purely design for manufacture point of view it covers all the bases of normal consumer goods design. However, there is something else that is absent from many normal consumer products. A magic that bubbles up from the inception of the first sketch and shines brightly as the idea evolves through models, testing and into prototypes and business meetings. It is the magic of Playfulness and Storytelling.

I’ve developed dozens of ‘normal’ consumer products before I started in the toy business. A designer’s role on those products is very much seen as someone who can embody the brand character in a three dimensional form. Taking into account all the challenges of mass producing ANY product. Making sure the product stacks up and stands out against the competition and has good user appeal. The reality though for most product designers is that it is an iterative development from a previous product.

Toys however don’t always follow those same rules. The very banner of ‘TOY’ can mean anything that excites, creates or builds on a story or nurtures your imagination. As a designer this is a VERY engaging area to work in. What is more exciting that designing products that stretch a child’s imagination or inspire them with play memories that will carry on into adulthood? Many of my most vivid and happy memories as a child were when I was playing.

Building a huge Lego space port across a six foot trench that were the footings for an extension to my house. Finally beating my beat friend on his TCR racing set, stamping my gran repeatedly on the forehead with an ink pen in a game she was never going to win, at least not by my rules. Going six people across on two skateboards down a 1:6 hill without ANY kind of padding whatsoever (that didn’t go as we had planned)!

Working in toys lets you keep that creative ‘what if’ side alive. That constant ‘dreaming’ to find new ways to play, new ways to let kids unlock their imagination creates what I call Play Thinking. It is a way to take even mundane items and give them a sense of fun and hopefully in turn make then a little more memorable.

UI / UX is something you may not normally associate with toys and tabletop games. However it has ALWAYS been at the heart of their design, the terminology however has not. The best toys have great physical UI. They can be understood by young children who cannot read and just want it to work. Toys with digital components need Designing UX for tabletop games that have mostly been about multi-player. However, players like to change and bend the rules and so the designer has to work with this, in order to design a great experience without the benefits of guided play & patches.

Here are my top three tips to use Play Thinking in your next project

1. Does it have emotional appeal? The best toys hit you there first. They immediately put a smile on your face. No different from when you see a great product or cool service you want to engage with as a adult.

2. Does it have a reason to be? What is the story behind the project and does it capture people’s imagination? This is equally important when you are trying to sell the idea internally.

3. Does it match your consumer need? The best toys understand their market. Kids change fast in ability and taste and toy designers have to pay close attention to that. Sure, it has to be cool but it also has to be age appropriate. In a age where the average population is ageing, this is very relevant.

Why not use toy design in your next warm up session? A 15 minute ‘design your dream toy’ is a good way to shake out the everyday and start thinking more laterally even if it is a precursor to planning your next I.T budget!

Richard Heayes is founder of Heayes Design, a design and invention consultancy
with a playful spirit, helping the Play business innovate.
As a Designer & Design Director at Hasbro for over eighteen years Richard led creative
product development on dozens of brands from Monopoly, Scrabble, MB, Trivial Pursuit,
PlayDoh to name a few. He brings an insight and passion for blending design vision
with business insight to create breakthrough products that deliver.