Written by S.M. Audsley

Peter Pan never wanted to grow up. As a toy designer, you don’t have to either! Neverland is a real place for a toy maker, designer, engineer, and innovator. This field utilizes the best of your imagination and problem-solving skills -- the keys to endless innovations in toy design and making products that surprise, delight, and engage children of all ages. Do you like drawing, developing new ideas, testing prototypes? Were Lego and K’Nex your favorite childhood toys? Did you spend hours building worlds, tearing them down, and then building them back up again?

“Math and physics concepts are built into every Lego project,” says Tiffany Tseng, a graduate researcher in the MIT Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten group. “Kids can build whatever’s in their imagination and, at the same time, develop spatial reasoning and learn about structural integrity, design, and a practical sense of geometry.” Toy designers do all these things and much more.

In the US, toy designers, generally, are trained in four-year degree programs that might focus on such disciplines as drawing, art and design, childhood development, advanced mathematics, architecture, or engineering. Designers are well-versed in the principles of design and must be skilled in CAD drawing systems. Computer Aided Drawing (CAD) is the industry standard; a four-year degree will train you in this essential skill, but online training and certificate programs are also available.

Not only do toy designers conceptualize and create cutting-edge new toys -- leading the industry as Santa’s little elves -- they also do it with an eye towards safety and regulatory complianceThe Toy Association, a nonprofit trade organization that represents businesses in the toy industry, reviews standards and “keeps pace with child development research, medical and toy-related incident data, risk assessment techniques, science, and manufacturing innovations.”

Students in some engineering programs are encouraged to examine toys and their construction early on in their studies. Georgia Van de Zande, a lecturer, says, “The toy industry is a real science. There is a lot of engineering that goes into making toys durable but also whimsical and fun for kids.” Toy design is considered a STEM field. The toy designer adheres to the same principles and processes as a typical engineer, beginning with ideation -- the conceptualization and planning phase of the product -- then moving through modeling, iteration, and user testing.

As a toy designer, you also become an influencer in children’s lives. Recalling his childhood, famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright says, “maple wood blocks are in my fingers to this day. These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects which were ever got into the architecture of the world.” Innovative toys, designed well, can create opportunities for “open-ended and imaginative play”, which increases a child’s Creative Quotient exponentially. Fostering imagination, collaboration, and communication in young children begins with toys that encourage these essential life skills.

Toy designers can create social change through the products they conceptualize and invent. Studies show children are empowered through play and with the toys they engage with. The industry is developing more gender neutral toys and marketing strategies that encourage non-gendering play at an early age. Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and lecturer, says, “Studies have found that gendered toys do shape children’s play preferences and styles. Because gendered toys limit the range of skills and attributes that both boys and girls can explore through play, they may prevent children from developing their full range of interests, preferences, and talents.”

The life of toy designer is (kind of) like the life of a rock star. Wait, what?! Yes -- successful toy designers have celebrity status in some circles for the toys they make. For example, Bubi Au Yeung, a toy designer based in Hong Kong, has been creating toys since 2005 and published a book, Treeson and Other Stories, based on her adorably cute, popular, yeti-like figure, Treeson. And there’s no doubt that superstar status can be granted to Matthew Ashton, vice president of of the LEGO group. Ashton says, “Having a toy design job was already ticking all the career boxes but being able to help make movies was something I had never even dreamed of! I have regular meetings with different studios who show us which movies and TV shows are in the works. We review scripts and visuals of many, and then assess the opportunities and decide which we wish to progress.”

If you are interested in becoming a toy designer, innovator Christine Mangnall-Schwarz, inventor of the popular Cozy Wings, offers some helpful advice to jumpstart your studies and career in toy design.

  • Flush out your idea. Don’t let anyone discourage you on step one. It’s your idea, your journey, just keep going!

  • Do your research. Make sure you’re not replicating someone else’s idea. Tweak it if you have to but make sure your voice comes through.

  • Never give up. Maybe you don’t know how to do something right now, but eventually, you will. It is marvelous to look back on everything.

A career in toy design can be rewarding, challenging, and fun. It is an ideal fit for design and engineering-inclined students wanting to keep their childhood enthusiasm for toys and play alive.

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