Geppetto had the right idea. Dedicate your life to making toys and some day you might end up with a real boy. Work really hard and perhaps you can craft a small puppet army who will take over the world but will be unable to tell any lies.
OK, maybe this isn’t the right reason to get into the toy design business. Maybe you picture your workplace as a combination of Willy Wonka’s factory and Mr. McGooolagoo’s magicorium emporium, with prototype toys zooming, flying and buzzing about your creative workspace.
Or perhaps the very thought of Santa’s workshop works you into a tizzy, with industrious small people tinkering away on the latest toy designs (which always seem to range from the cutting edge wooden train to the breakthrough idea of the year: the doll. Why are elves never shown making toys that kids actually want?).
Or maybe you really enjoy watching children play – not in a creepy trench coat kind of way – to learn how they interact with shapes, colors and textures.
If any of these are true for you or, more realistically, if you excel at the process of imagining a new and fun idea, designing possibilities, and seeing your projects through to the end, being a Toy Designer might be just the job for you.
The good news in the toy industry is that toys keep making kids happy, and people keep making kids (which is the fun part) and trying to make them happy (less fun). There is also an increasing trend for toys to appear and become wildly popular (ever seen a Wal-Mart stampede on Black Friday?), only to fade into toy-blivion and be replaced with the newest gadget full of blinking lights and beeping horns. This means that the toy market isn’t going to end up at the bottom of the toy box anytime soon, but will continue to see growth, just like the kids who play with them, and occasionally tape firecrackers to them.
If this whole possibility of designing toys makes your head spin like an Exorcist Doll (pea soup not included), you will probably be eager to get started. How can you become one of these manufacturers of mirth, a dream designer? How can your creations fill the spaces between Saturday morning cartoons alongside Fruity Puff-O’s cereal, and make kids around the world run screaming “I want! I want!” to mommy or daddy?
To start off with, you need to be creative. Really creative. Try this test. Take five minutes to think of a new toy idea right now. Think hard. Think about your little sister or your nephew and what they would like to play with. What did you come up with? If the best you could do was Sponge Party or Collection-o-Sticks, you might be on the wrong track. If you think your idea is a good one, ask that little sister or nephew. If they don’t tell you it’s lame, you might be the next great Toy Designer, so read on.
Along with creativity, Toy Designers are usually seriously artistic people who truly understand how children play. They are able to think in shape and color, and know the effects of them on little brains. They can imagine designs in three dimensions, and can use increasingly sophisticated tools to develop ideas from concept to sketch.
The actual development phase of toy fabrication means that, besides creativity and artistic ability, Toy Designers need skills in art and design. These days, toy design is done less and less with sketches and paintbrushes, and more and more with computers and software. Your computer skills will need to be more impressive than being able to update your status to “kickin’ it” or to illegally download a song. You will most likely need to learn various CAD (computer aided design) programs to bring your creative ideas to life and market them to toy companies.
Speaking of marketing, the best toy ideas will follow the pet rock into oblivion if they are never mass produced or distributed to toy stores. This reality means that toy designers will also need business know-how and excellent people skills to be able to present and sell their ideas to companies that can actually mold plastic, paint wood, and exclude batteries from every single box.
So, potential elf, what does it take to join the legendary creative ranks which claim the designers of the Slinky, Silly Putty and the Rubik’s Cube among its members?
Most Toy Designers have at minimum a Bachelor’s degree hanging on the wall. Undergraduate majors in Industrial Design are common, with a sprinkling of Toy Design concentrations available, although these are rare (and may make guidance counselors look at you funny – but press on!). More common are degrees in Art and Design, or combination degrees which include coursework in child psychology or sociology. Some Toy Designers may even take business courses or earn undergraduate or advanced degrees in Business Administration to better understand the marketing and sales facets of the toy world – and so they don’t get ripped off when it comes time to negotiate royalties.
With a degree under your belt, you will have a couple of options. Some Toy Designers are directly employed by toy and game manufacturing companies, working on assigned projects. Others strike out on their own, conceptualizing and inventing their own ideas, which must be pitched to toy companies for production and distribution. A select few toy pioneers take on the entire process from design through manufacture and marketing, and may reap spectacular benefits (or face crushing bankruptcy) based on the toy’s market appeal.
The world of Toy Design is one of the few careers which depends on the wishes and whims of a notoriously unpredictable (and often snot-encrusted) group – kids. While the overall market is stable, some Toy Designers may skyrocket to worldwide desire with a toy that plugs into some current trend or fad. Others may wallow in relative toy oblivion, with their works gathering dust on shelves alongside such spectacular duds as Broccoli Time! and Mr. Mud Head. If creativity, design and marketing are among your strengths, you should toy with the idea of becoming a Toy Designer.