What is Toy design ?

Toys are more than just playthings. They are essential tools for child development and learning, and their design plays a crucial role in their effectiveness.

How important is the Design of a toy?

The design of a toy is critical in ensuring that it is safe, effective, and engaging for children. A well-designed toy can help children develop their cognitive, motor, and social skills, while a poorly designed toy can be frustrating, unsafe, or even harmful.

The Origins of toy.

According to the Fleet Science Center, the world oldest toy is the Spinning Top. Dated to be about six thousand years old, a wooden top was found in King Tut’s tomb. But the origin of toy is probably prehistoric.

Encyclopedia Britannica mentions « objects with human and animal forms have been found in deposits from ancient Sumer dating to 2600 BCE. The earliest-known written historical mention of a toy comes from about 500 BCE in a Greek reference to yo-yos made from wood, metal, or painted terra-cotta. It is believed, however, that the yo-yo originated in China at a much earlier date. In addition, the kite, still a popular plaything in China, existed as a toy there at least as early as 1000 BCE. In India, clay animal-figures on wheels and other animal toys date to about 2500 BCE. Later, brass and bronze horses and elephants were common playthings among Indian children from wealthy families.« 

Toy design Icons.

Toys started to be a « Business » from the 1830s, when distribution of manufactured goods was made possible through steamboats and steam trains. Early toymakers used wood, tin, or cast iron to fashion horses, soldiers, wagons, and other simple toys. Since that toys have evolved with technology, trends and most importantly through innovation. (We will have a look at the history of three Toy Icons, many others could have been described, I just went with what I thought were the most relevant for this article).


Fast forward to 1947, the LEGO company was the first in Denmark to use a plastic injection molding machine for making toys. Five years later, the redesigned parts were renamed « LEGO Bricks » and the word LEGO was registered as a trademark in Denmark, allowing the company to launch the « LEGO System of Play » with 28 sets and 8 vehicles. The introduction of the mini figures in 1978 made Lego game-plays limitless. Since that it’s been hard to encounter a kid that has not hold once in its hands a lego and the brand has gone well beyond plastic toys: from video games based do movies they now have conquered our screens making LEGO a worldwide icon that goes beyond any age consideration.

LEGO Brick – Mister Potato Head – Barbie Doll

Mr Potato Head

In 1949, a designer named George Lerner, came up with a disruptive idea: a toy that children could design themselves. His set did not include a toy per se but a range of accessories (eyes, noses, mouths, hats, eyeglasses and a pipe) that children would use on an actual potato. The sales of the product as the world exited World War II. Later on in 1951 Hasbro saw a great potential in George Lerner ideas, the company bought the rights to Mr. Potato Head for $7,000, $500 in advance and 5 percent royalties for every set sold. 

The decades after that the toy saw many iterations, new design and new family members made it even more popular. By the late sixties, the first child safety laws were passed in the United States (the Child Protection Act of 196, and the 1969 Child Protection and Toy Safety Act). It gave the Federal Drug and Safety administration the ability to ban unsafe toys. Therefore Mr. Potato Head’s small parts of plastic with sharp points and pins on them were considered unsafe for small children. At the same time, parents complained that they kept finding moldy potatoes under their kids’ beds. Today, Hasbro still manufactures Mr. Potato Head, still responding to cultural changes with special kits for licenses such as Marvel or Star Wars demonstrating that Mr. Potato Head has become a staple of American culture over the years.

Barbie Dolls

In 1959, Ruth Handler, an American inventor, created a that she would name after her daughter Barbara. The Barbie doll was born. Handler was the co-founder of Mattel, a toy manufacturer made famous in 1955 with their burp gun. The company introduced Barbie to skeptical toy buyers at the annual Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. The new doll was very unlike the toddler dolls that were popular at the time. This was a doll with an adult body.

It’s by watching her daughter Barbara and friends playing with paper dolls that the « mother of Barbie » draw her inspiration. The children used dolls to project themselves having roles as college students, cheerleaders, and adults with careers. During trip to Switzerland, Handler saw the German-made Bild Lilli doll in a Swiss shop and bought one; she used it as the basis for her design. Barbie’s first boyfriend, the Ken Doll, debuted two years after Barbie in 1961 (named after her son).

“Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices. Even in her early years, Barbie did not have to settle for only being Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper. She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer. I believe the choices Barbie represents helped the doll catch on initially, not just with daughters—who would one day make up the first major wave of women in management and professionals—but also with mothers.” Ruth Handler

Source : thought.com

Being a toy designer.

A toy designer is a professional who specializes in designing product for children that can be both fun and educational ( and sometimes just fun). In the first case scenario, they work for a company, with a team of engineers, marketers, and child development experts to create toys that meet specific target audiences’ needs. But toy designers can also work on their own or as part of an independent team that tries to push some boundaries, or redefine a category of product. Most often this second group is referred as « Inventors », which only speak about the fact that create new toys. It is very different from the European or French idea of what an Inventor really is.

How is designing a toy different from other products?

Designing a toy is different from designing other products in several ways. For example, toys must be designed to be safe for children, which means that they must meet strict safety standards (for examples : EN71 in Europe, ASTM F963 for the USA, and ISO 8124). They cover age appropriateness, sharp points and edges, durability, noise level, drop test, flammability etc. Toys must be designed to be durable enough to withstand the wear and tear of play.

Additionally, toys have to be engaging and fun, which requires a deep understanding of child development and play. Studying children in order to develop a new product can be very hard in the sense that they can’t express their feeling the same way as adults would do. Designer also have to acknowledge the fact that even if a child is the end user of a toy, he is not the buyer. The product has to appeal to the parents first, they have to quickly understand what the toy will bring to there kid.

Unlike other product being over simplistic or minimalistic is not the goal here. The idea being that (most) toys have to stimulate children. Colors, textures, sounds, volumes, contrasts are your best friends. Depending on the brief, a toy can have some anthropomorphism elements that may help the user engage with the product. So, don’t expect to be the Dieter Rams of toy, as you would most likely fail being attractive enough for you customers (both the buyer and the end user).

Encyclopedia Britannica writes « the earliest types of play probably developed from the instinct for self-preservation. In many human cultures one of the first things taught to the young was the use of weapons, and the simple stick or club was the prototype of later military instruments of play, such as swords and guns. (…) By the Middle Ages, war-related objects—such as miniature soldiers and weapons were considered to be toys, however. In modern times the latest developments in warfare are represented among contemporary toys, as are those weapons and war machines fantasized in science fiction and motion pictures.« 

Toy play-patterns are divided into two types : imitative and instructive. A toy can be one or the other, or both. Imitating an adult, working, cooking, driving etc. allows the children to identify themselves as part of group, « I do it too, I am like you ». Educating toys on the other end gives children the tools to communicate with a common langage, it can be letters, words, numbers or even notions of volumes and shapes.

What to Look for in a Toy Designer?

When looking for a toy designer, there are several qualities to consider. A good toy designer should have a deep understanding of child development and psychology. They should also have experience designing toys that passed any if not all of the safety standards. Meaning that those constraints are not to be disregarded for any aesthetic reason. The way toys are created is very iterative, after the first manufacturing costs are reviewed it’s most likely that the product will be re-worked on order to bring the cost down. There is no place for personal ego, the designers should always have the children well being in mind.

Everyday life, jobs and activities were once the main focus of toys. We saw that toys, now considered icons, were born from either a technical innovation, a new game-play, or by studying user behaviors. Today, toys create new ways of living and teach kids to adapt to changing technologies and medias inspiring our children to follow their passions.

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