November 20, 2009

Design and the Play Instinct: Lessons from Toymakers

While design is a serious academic study and professional practice, its goal is often to simply amuse and delight. That was apparent at this year’s Toy Fair in New York City, which included some 7,000 new entrants. Over the course of four days, more than 20,000 attendees saw a spread of 100,000 products covering 350,000 square feet of exhibit space. That’s a lot of playthings—in this case, seriously designed playthings. A few statements from some exhibitors helped explain how they design products and services for people:

“This is all about the out-of-the-box experience.”
Said Michael McNally, Senior Brand Relations Manager for LEGO Systems, Inc. The way something designed subsequently gets packaged, unveiled and ultimately perceived and used by its audience is a big part of the solution itself.

Danny Wen of Iridesco, a maker of web applications, expressed this about the unboxing experience: “When it comes to web apps, the equivalent of the physical un-boxing is the first-time user experience. Despite the lack of physical packaging when it comes to web apps, we still need to pay attention to a positive experience in the virtual un-boxing. In the web app world, there is no ‘ah-ha’ moment that comes with holding the product in hand, so we focus on the immediate user interaction.”

Though web apps are the focus here, striving for an appealing experience before and at the point of engagement is a welcome reminder.

“People treat toys like they treat food.”
This was according to Robert Thungamen, founder of Green Toys. His sentiment reflects the increasing sensitivity to what literally makes a product. The appearance and presentation—the visual composition—matters as much as the raw materials, be they wood, cement or pixels. This is evident in the Tea Set (above) by Green Toys. It’s made out of recycled plastic (from milk jugs) and other environmentally friendly materials.

“People are looking for toys that they played with
when they were a child.”

Said by Ray Dallavecchia of Poof-Slinky Toys, maker of the classic Slinky, the power of memory is never to be under- or overestimated. A memorable product or service is always the goal, from “pre-sales” to “point of purchase” to “maintenance.” A design’s lifespan depends on a performance that’s memorable in a meaningful and positive way.

“People want basic toys.”
Reported by NPR, this was another theme at the fair. It’s not a new one, but it’s magnified in bad economic times. What do the previous mentions of Lego and the Slinky have in common? They’re simple. Simplicity can be both attractive and profitable. The topic of design reflecting its time is an ongoing debate: Complex times equal complex products; or complex times counter complex products. Being uncomplicated is a very strong desire, then and especially now.

The crafting of toys provides re-lessons for designers, of all ages.