Twenty One Toys founder and lead designer Illana Ben-Ari explains how she launched the Empathy Toy, a puzzle game that challenges players to understand other ways of communicating and thinking.

DIARY OF AN INVENTOR: Ilana Ben-Ari and Twenty One Toys

The idea for Twenty One Toys started as an industrial design project in my final year at Carleton University.

Assigned the task of designing a navigational aid for the visually impaired, I developed a tactile puzzle that challenges players to provide clear directions within a disorienting situation.

The game concept is simple – a blindfolded player is given a pattern built out of 3D puzzle pieces. They describe this nameless shape to another blindfolded player, who reproduce it out of a set of loose puzzle pieces.

It quickly gained the nickname ‘Empathy Toy’ because players do the best when they seek to understand the reactions of the person they were playing with.

What started as a game to help blind and sighted students better understand each other quickly grew into something much more.

Because the game was so simple, it allowed the complexities of the players to shine through. As a result, I was inundated with an ever-increasing list of applications proposed by the toy’s early testers: corporate leadership training, conflict resolution, marriage counselling, design thinking exercises – one sociology teacher even used it to teach social constructions of gender!

This huge range of applications actually posed a significant challenge for getting this toy to market – in an age of the tweetable value prop, how could I describe the complexity bound up in my little wooden toy?

Adding to that communication challenge was the fact that the intricately designed puzzle pieces were prohibitively expensive to produce. Handcrafted in a local woodshop in Toronto, the first edition of the toy retailed for over $400.

A school board gave us our first big break by ordering 30 sets – and that manna from heaven gave my business partner and I pretty clear indication that we should focus our messaging on the K-12 education market. That order also permitted us to hire an in-house educator to frame the value of the toy in teacher-speak, and an amazing web designer to help spread that message to the world.

With a team in place and messaging getting tighter by the day, we turned to the latest in digital marketing to sell our wooden toys.

In late 2013 we managed to sell pre-orders of the Empathy Toy to educators in 23 countries through a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The money we raised has been invested in mass-production overseas, which will dramatically reduce the cost of the toys, and has presented another set of challenges to solve – but that’s what makes my work so rewarding.

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