Today in our series Why Toy Design Matters we recieved a special blog post from Alex Hochstrasser of MOLUK the award winning creator of Bilibo and Plui. Alex shares with us his process for designing a toy and why it matters. For more information on Alex please visit MOLUK.com. Let us know your thoughts Why Toy Design Matters?
At the glamorous reception for the TOTY awards in 2010, I overheard a lady wondering loudly why there was a salad bowl among the nominees for preschool toy of the year. She was, of course, referring to Bilibo, who was sitting there looking a little lost among scary plastic castles and grinning toy trucks. To my big surprise, and with the votes of many small independent retailers, Bilibo actually won the award. But the episode illustrates how abstract, open-ended toys still don’t quite fit in the mainstream toy industry or in the minds of many adults with resolved expectations of what a toy should be and look like.
Adults are used to products that have a specific function and purpose. “What does it do?“ is always their first question. A purposely ambiguous object like Bilibo, that can be many different things, confuses them. Children, on the other hand, have like an extra sense to see the fun and the possibilities hidden even in very mundane, everyday objects - the cardboard box being a prime example.
It is precisely these hidden play qualities that I’m most interested in when I design a new toy. I try to find shapes, materials, and colors that trigger children’s natural urge to play and explore, thereby engaging them on many different levels. A good toy should appeal to all the senses and encourage kids to invent their own stories rather than just reenacting or consuming some ready-made content. If children figure out a new game themselves, they feel like little inventors, which is very empowering and much more fun than just following an instruction booklet.
Observing how kids play and interact with found objects is part of the design process, but I also try to tap into my own inner child and just go out and play with bits and pieces that I’ve been intrigued by and have collected over the years. There are seeds for new toys waiting to be discovered everywhere, and I think I’m fortunate to have retained some of that sense for the hidden possibilities and stories in objects which is so natural in children.
The main work is then to edit and refine a concept until a point is reached where everything that clutters or distracts from the core idea has been removed and an object emerges that feels totally obvious and effortless. If you can still see the hard work that went into the design of a product, it's probably not quite there yet. Simplicity is key, but the big challenge is to find the right balance and level of abstraction. If the object is too simple and generic, it might feel cold and uninviting. The object should have just the right amount of structure and detail to focus children’s attention without limiting their imagination and freedom to explore. Above all, it needs to have personality and character in a subtle, charming way.
True beauty in design, as with people, isn’t just a shiny, dazzling surface. It comes from within and grows over time.