When the toy designer and the CEO of Toyish Labs, Assaf Eshet, finally struck upon his idea for Clixo, he believed he had stumbled across his LEGO brick. In his own words, Clixo ‘is the holy grail of his design journey,’ a concept that brings in the fundamentals of origami with the open ended playfulness of construction toys.
The result, is a toy that has set in motion a desire push back against uniformity, and a years long search and refinement of a idea that celebrates – and encourages – imperfection. For Eshet, play is about exploring concepts, however unstructured they may be, because non-conformity, he believes, is the fuel of innovation.
ToyNews talks to the toy designer about the launch of his origami-construction toy hybrid, Clixo, the changing nature of play, and what the future has in store for the toy industry if it pursues the imperfect.
Can we start off with a bit of an introduction to Assaf – how did you get into the toy industry and what’s the story behind Toyish Labs?
I’ve been interested in design since childhood, and the toy industry specifically for about twenty years. When I was finishing up my education in design, I found that I was drawn in particular to the world of toys because I saw it as one of the most creative spaces. I think that children are the most natural innovators – their brains are literally wired to think in ways that are much more difficult for us to imagine as adults. I became fascinated with how toys can play a role in helping to unleash that imaginative possibility and self expression.
I worked with a lot of big name companies for many years, but ultimately wanted to found my own company where I could put my design intuitions into action. I founded Toyish Labs in 2015, with the aim of creating toys that spark creativity through the magic of play.
What is Toyish Labs bringing to the toy space?
What’s fundamental to Toyish Labs is our base values, which all circulate around promoting creativity and pushing back against the constant (and increasing) pressures of perfectionism and checking boxes in today’s society. We strongly believe in the importance and power of play, not just for a set age group, but really for everyone.
We want to be a leading studio in harnessing what cognitive research shows us about the impact of play on development and learning, mix it with our design style, and create toys that are fun, accessible yet challenging, offer limitless possibilities, and are compatible with parenting lifestyles in the modern day.
Can you talk us through the new launch, Clixo?
I often talk about Clixo as the holy grail of my design journey – it’s my ‘LEGO Brick.’ In some way or another, I think Clixo has been forming in me for as long as I’ve been in design. I’ve spent the last two years working on it – going through over a thousand prototypes – before I found the perfect Clixo base shape.
It took that many prototypes because I had very high standards for what I wanted this toy to be able to do – it needed to offer maximum potential with a minimum number of pieces, and I wanted those pieces to also be better adapted to modern parenting needs by being lightweight, easy to stack and take on the go.
As a toy, I wanted children of all ages to be able to engage with it at different levels. A lot of this had to do with finding a shape that could easily and intuitively transform from 2D to 3D. The magnets that allow the pieces to attach to themselves and other pieces give Clixo another dimension – a sonic and tactile experience that forms a kind of background sensory experience to the foreground of creation.
Ultimately, I needed Clixo to be inviting, challenging, fun, and inspiring all at once. I wanted kids who have a lot of self confidence to dive right in, and I also wanted kids who are naturally predisposed to doubt themselves to not be overwhelmed by the need to ‘do something right’ from the start.
I wanted to put the power back where it should be – in kids’ hands, so that they can do what they do best, and explore the wonder of creative and personal expression.
What is Clixo doing to disrupt the toy space?
We like to think of Clixo as the ‘modern building toy with a twist.’ Building blocks have been a core part of the toy industry for a long time, and we see Clixo as the modern update on it, by redefining what a basic block can, or should, look like. Instead of being square, and rigid, we are flexible and reminiscent of the shapes we see in the natural world.
We combine the properties you see at work in paper origami with the power of magnets, and the result is a kind of hybrid block that allows for a much more expansive range of possibilities.
How is it setting a new standard of play for children and families?
There’s a lot of ways I could answer this question, but the one that first pops to mind has to do with the new normal we are all facing in the wake of COVID-19. Travel is different, school is different, playgrounds and playdates are different. We see Clixo as a very timely toy, precisely because of the fact that it is so adaptable.
We hope that Clixo can alleviate some of the challenges that families are facing these days, by providing children with a toy that can engage them in hands on play (rather than more screen time) and which doesn’t require limited environments to play with (you can just as easily play with it in bed, in the bath, or the back of car as on the living room floor).
We are also really trying to build out a rich Clixo community, connecting educators, parents, and children so that there’s a vast network of engaging challenges that can push creative limits even further.
How has this form of play found a new place within the home/amongst families – and how has this been driven by the pandemic?
I think that open-ended play is especially critical right now precisely because of the fact that nothing feels open ended. Our worlds have shrunk, and many of us feel really constrained. Anything that pushes back against that and provides a sense of much needed freedom is critical for our well being.
At the risk of sounding too philosophical, I also think that now is a time when we are all reflecting on just how little control we actually have. The world can change in an instant, and all of the things that we took for granted can disappear overnight. What I see as a trend in education that has spilled over into the realm of play is an ever-increasing need to justify how we spend our time, from younger and younger ages.
Children aren’t free to just create and explore and experiment anymore. If they are playing, they are supposed to play in order to learn certain skills, which then translates into a competitive advantage in school and on tests, which leads to a better career, etc. All of that fundamentally misses the power and importance of play. It’s precisely because it isn’t trying to control experience or lead to a specific outcome that it is so critical to our development.
With Clixo, I really wanted to create a toy that would help reinvigorate the sense of magic in play, and in the time of COVID-19, I think we could all use a boost of magic.
To that end, how does Clixo tap into this kind of play and encourage and foster that nature of exploratory play among children and families?
There are a lot of design elements we have created to foster this open-ended aspect to Clixo, but the most important one, I’d argue, was developing a shape that signals the exact right proportion of challenge and accessibility, right at the start. What I mean by that is we wanted to create a shape that we could put in a kids hands, and they wouldn’t be afraid of starting, but they would also be surprised and delighted and inspired by what they discover, as soon as they start clicking.
It sounds simple, but it’s actually an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when you are trying to make it operate in that way for not just one age group, but a wide range. We include challenges (both in the initial packaging and through our website) of builds that children can try out, but we are far more interested in encouraging them to come up with their own creations than to follow ours. All of this is designed and presented very intentionally, to maximise that exploratory, experimental potential.
How do you think Covid-19 will shape the way in which we play moving forward?
I think parents’ growing concern about a rise in screen time over hands on play will have really solidified, and everyone will be looking for options that can actually compete with the levels of engagement that screens can command. I think we will also be more aware of the importance of adaptability, as I mentioned before, and how we need to not only surround ourselves with things (including toys) that can change shape with the world when it changes shape, but that also help children grow their own sense of adaptability. It’s going to be a critical characteristic for the future.
What do you think the next evolutionary step will be for toys and play?
To answer this, I’d like to first bust a few myths. First off, progress isn’t linear (ever, but this also pertains to the world of toys). Sometimes the best tools for creativity are concepts that have been with us for twenty, fifty, or even hundreds of years. Often, the most important insights are the simplest ones. I see this cyclical trend in the toy industry all the time–a big hit two decades ago, like View Master or coloring books, circle back around and provide value to new generations.
The thing about linearity is that it implicitly assumes that an ever-increasing level of development and complexity is beneficial. But the reality is that a toy just needs to be an access point for children to explore the world and themselves, to help them navigate what it means to express themselves and build relationships. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated, and it also doesn’t need to be a direct step on the path towards a career as a doctor or an engineer.
We are increasingly understanding in today’s society the value and importance of emotional development and intelligence, and learning how to problem solve. The hero myth of the industrial revolution is shifting, and I think that has a big trickle down effect on society’s understanding of the impact and importance of play.
Because of this, we see a rise in family time, games, and outdoor play, while overly-complex toys tend to not survive long. Not only does their price point push a lot of families out, but people are realizing that in a more holistic sense, simpler is often better.