Making history | UK studio Designworks on developing icons from Thunderbirds to Mousetrap

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Peter Rickett, founder of Designworks

When Jeremy and I started Designworks 30 years ago, we could never have predicted the direction it would take. Who’d have thought that within five years of starting the company, we would be developing toys and games for all the major brands across the UK and beyond?

From a remote farm building in the Berkshire countryside, we set about creating a space where we could design, prototype, test, and importantly, play. Outbuildings quickly became makeshift workshops, adjacent fields became test flight areas, barn ceilings were press ganged into service as rigs and fixtures – our studio was transforming into a truly creative space.

As the word spread, we decided to enlist some additional help and within a year we had outgrown our playground in the countryside and had decided to move to Windsor; two huge, dark and damp railway arches were our target. Once the upper floor was lovingly converted into our now vast creative studio space, we stood contemplating the equally capacious ground floor and quickly drew the conclusion that this would make a fantastic workshop. Within weeks we had a team of skilled model makers and sculptors working feverishly away like it was Santa’s workshop. There was no job too big or too small.

The arches – it turned out – were exactly the same dimension as the fuselage of a 747, so we designed and constructed a full economy and upper-class Virgin interior, complete with seating, loos, and bar! Downstairs, Thunderbird’s Tracy Island was taking shape along with its associated vehicles, control towers and retracting swimming pool. We purchased our first CNC machine in 1995 and set about teaching ourselves how to transform beautifully formed ‘A’ class surface models created in-house using Alias Wavefront into physical forms. Somewhere along the way I remember selling my red sports car to fund the investment. That’s what you call commitment!

Working with some amazing brands and in-house design teams at Hasbro, Character, Tomy, and Vivid allowed us to focus on building fun into everything we did. Our unique combination of design and model making drew the attention of all the major toy brands. As our reputation grew, we were challenged to redesign the game Mousetrap, which, you’ll agree, is no small undertaking given the history and iconic status it had achieved over the decades.

Through research we uncovered key opportunities and set about building sense of involvement into every stage of the game, re-imagining the intricate mechanisms and building on the sense of expectation and tension. The outcome was an instant hit and ensured many generations of fun to come.

Another milestone in our ‘toy story’ has to be Tracy Island. Yes, we played no small part in all those TV news pieces reporting on queues of parents desperate to get their hands on the latest ‘must-have’ Christmas toy. Recreating the iconic island was great fun, everyone at Designworks wanted to be part of this amazing project; sculptors, designers, electronic engineers, and model makers clambered to be part of the team, their passion and skill realising one of the decade’s top selling products.

From these early, humble beginnings here at Designworks an ethos quickly grew; one that embraces all aspects of the design process, encouraging collaboration at every opportunity. We pride ourselves on delivering a commitment to realise great design. At every stage of the process, everyone from designers and engineers, to software developers, sculptors, and model makers, all collaborate. There are no walls at Designworks; an ethos that imbues a collaborative process.

With every conceivable technology and hardware solution to-hand, we’d be forgiven for taking them for granted. However, with every project we are challenged to explore the limits of both our personal capabilities along with the technological solutions at our disposal, and each project demands a unique combination of traditional skills and technical understanding.

We believe the results speak for themselves.

Our studio and workshop have morphed into one, the traditional lines between processes are now blurred, from large scale interactive gaming to small rigs and mechanisms, Designworks applies the same approach as we did 25 years ago; work hard – play hard.

Design for life | Designworks talks through 30 years of creating the world’s best-loved toys

It’s a rich history and a long lasting relationship that Design Works enjoys with the toy industry, having helped create and innovate some of the biggest trends and most in-demand toys on the scene. ToyNews catches up with founder, Peter Rickett and Chris Flatt, head of manufacturing, to talk through the business’ life time in toys

Can we kick off by talking through your rich history with the toy industry? You guys are attached to some of the biggest brands and products in the toy space of the last 30 years. What have been some of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on in that time?

From early projects designing play-sets and vehicles for Sindy, endless Monopoly variations, and Moustrap, to Scrabble and Action Man, we have enjoyed every project for a variety of reasons; creating new gameplay, incorporating technology, or inventing new and innovative ways to create amazing, crazy results using Play-Doh.

You guys have also taken on the design – or re-design – of some pretty big toy sensations – Thunderbirds’ Tracy Island and Monopoly being just two. How do you begin to evolve such icons? What sort of pressure is there, and what is the process of working with such history-rich brands like?

There is a certain prestige when asked to design and sculpt the next iconic Monopoly movers for instance. Having worked on Monopoly for many years, we like to think of ourselves as custodians of these prominent brands, so our work reflects this. 

Developing the Monopoly gameplay and brand proposition was a far more nuanced process. We approached each new iteration sensitively, ensuring we built on the previous experience, carefully tuning and improving elements. This ensured the product and consumers engaged on the journey and felt included and comfortable with the outcome, after all Monopoly is an integral part of people’s childhood and family gaming.

The challenge to redesign Tracy Island came with very high expectation, everyone has fond memories of playing with their Thunderbird Two toy whilst recalling the edge of the seat drama associated with the action-packed TV series, the Island had to deliver on many levels. With such rich and iconic imagery, we were able to capture the physical fun and interaction of such a large scale, multi-faceted island whilst providing endless opportunities to recreate each episode in glorious Supermarionation!

Designworks is in the unique position that you make what you design in-house. How has this approach to prototyping helped you stay close to the trends in the toy space? How has this helped evolve the toy space and push boundaries in design?

Our clients enjoy being part of the design and development process, feeling invested at every stage. Model making, be it quick exploratory card rigs or fully functioning, beautifully finished models, provide invaluable insights and assurance as the process develops.

Play testing is also an important phase. Playing with the toys at every stage helping to refine and inform the outcome. With feedback and knowledge comes confidence to push expectations and explore the limits of what is possible. Having a team of talented model makers and every conceivable technology and process to hand ensures we can deliver great results, all whilst having fun.

What is the secret to designing great game play and toys with play value? What do you look to for inspiration when designing play experiences into the brands, licenses, and product concepts that you work with?

Creating great game play and toys is driven by imbuing the process with an innate sense of fun, we assemble a team of designers, gamers, app developers, movie and sci-fi buffs – whatever works for each project, break out the sweets and strong coffee and set to work.

We sketch using pens and paper [after all this is the quickest most effective way to communicate ideas] and quickly begin building a vision in the form of walls covered in post-it notes, rough models and sketches. 

Inspiration comes from a wide variety of sources, being a very diverse consultancy we often draw upon experience and knowledge as varied as medical device design, gaming and social interaction, digital and electronic design as well as a wide variety of mediums and materials.

How does the design process work between you and the toy company or brand owner? What are the best kind of partners to work with and projects to design?

We enjoy the variety offered by our different clients. Each project is unique and throws up challenges. The team relish pushing our capability to achieve a unique feature, additional play value or IP. Over the years we have built great relationships with our clients, they understand how to get the best results from Designworks, we encourage clear briefs and ensure clients remain close to the process throughout. Every designer wants to explore the product and their own limits during the design process, the best clients actively encourage this, often entrusting the outcome to our team. 

The sense of achievement seeing a product succeed is the ultimate proof of good design.

What makes the toy space an exciting sector to work and create within? What do you think the future looks like for toy design? Are there any trends to emerge from the pandemic that will be crucial to toys and toy design for the future?

It is fun! We have many solid clients and friends in this sector. When asked what we do and to say that we help develop and create amazing toys and games is a very cool job! Our back catalogue of toy design is vast.

People have probably had more time to sit and ponder the world in greater detail than they ever had! Sustainability is a topic that is becoming top of the list when designing products. It’s not just about materials and whether something can be recycled. Creating products with longevity, worth, and helping to develop a brand heritage are factors. You don’t see LEGO bricks in the recycling! They are kept and get passed down through generations.

What’s the next step for Design Works. Is international growth on the cards? And can you tell us any secret projects you might be working on…?

We are seeing a surge in the Social Entertainment space coming off the back of a truly innovative entertainment experience we created in collaboration with Puttshack and their technology partners. 

We applied our broad experience in gameplay to revolutionise the way mini golf is played. A fantastic project which required all facets of our business to come together with design, model-making, manufacture and install. One to be very proud of.

We see this space becoming more popular as retailers and mall owners aim to drive people back to the high street.

Thank you Peter, and Chris. Before we let you go, is there anything you’d like to shout about?

Yes! Robin Crossley and Chris Flatt have recently joined Peter Rickett to become Directors of Designworks helping to carry the mantle and carry on the Designworks legacy! We are also expanding our design capability with a new Head of Design, so watch this space!

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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