For kids the world over, being a toy designer is the ultimate job. Richard Heayes gives his advice on the skills needed to cut the mustard in this space.
Toy designer is the ultimate job. What kid doesn’t fantasise about this? Spending all day inventing new playthings is the holy grail of employment, right?
SPOILER ALERT! Like all jobs, the reality of working life in a role often doesn’t match the perception. Every job comes with annoyances, and the toy design industry is no exception.
That said, designing toys is a lot of fun. The culture it breeds attracts highly creative, playfully minded people.
I’m often asked, “How do I break into the toy business? What qualifications do I need?” So here’s my advice for finding a job as a designer, or hiring your next designer.
Toy design is multi-dimensional.
Having hired many designers over the years, the key qualities I look for are (a) creative flexibility and (b) creative resilience.
Most toys start as a blank sheet, so the skills you used last time aren’t always the skills you need this time. This makes it an interesting business to be a part of, but can also mean a challenging creative process finding that elusive, ‘x-factor’ toy or game.
Often, it’s harder than it might sound to survive that process, and that’s why resilience can make or break your career. You must be able to develop hundreds of concepts and - harsh reality check! - expect most of those to never make it beyond concept.
Learning to rapidly create, refine, bin and start over is the key skill possessed by exceptional designers.
A typical starting point for working in the toy industry is a product/industrial/graphic design degree, but there are other ways. Any design or creative degree helps to inform the overall creative process, helping newbies to the industry to understand that their dream profession is a fluid one (Essentially, it’s akin to navigating white water rapids; strap in, scream as loud as you need to but, whatever you do, DON’T DROWN!).
Great designers respect that they are (usually) not designing for themselves, but for a unique, fickle consumer who won’t follow the instructions. Or use the product how they’re supposed to. This all-knowing consumer has a very different value system for deciding if a product is good. Welcome to the world of designing for kids!
Increasingly, licensed products are a huge part of our business. It’s essential for good creatives to respect those licenses. Learning to embrace a license, and to add value to it so the end result feels authentic, often delivers the most successful (and financially fruitful) products. If you’ve got an interview coming up, look smart by developing portfolio ideas for licenses the company has rights to.
Toy designers often collaborate with colleagues around the globe. Therefore, excellent visual and written communication skills are huge plusses. They’re the difference between an idea falling completely flat or coming to life.
Likewise, an appreciation of cultural differences – especially when they affect how children learn and play around the world – really distinguishes a good designer from an incredible one.
Designing toys is a demanding career, but also a creative and rewarding one. Nothing beats the feeling of seeing a child in a toy store, begging their parents to buy them the product that you shed blood, sweat and tears over.
Can you understand and tell stories? Do you have (or can you learn) the technical skills that bring ideas to life? Can you spin ideas as fast as a spider spins a web? (And not freak out when they’re dusted away and forgotten?)
Do you believe that play can change the world?
Then the toy world needs you. Go for it.