Smash and build

Creating a future classic – or, indeed, marketing and selling an old one – is no guarantee for continued success when you’re catering for the fickle tastes of children. Emily Pacey looks at how to design toys that work in this notoriously unpredictable market

Children are passionate, yet mercurial consumers, creating huge, global fads that subside as quickly as they arise. In an over-crowded segment, the ultimate goal for any toy designer is to create a winning product that stands the test of time to become a classic.

’Children can be so obsessed by a particular toy that they will lie down on a supermarket floor and have a tantrum because they have to have it – which is rather how I feel about the Apple iPad,’ says Neil Gray, head of design at Cornwall-based toy design group Worlds Apart.

In an attempt to harness the famed pester power of children, Worlds Apart has an in-house research department where children and parents test toys, as well as prototyping and photography departments. Its 25 full-time graphic and product designers are currently preparing to launch a raft of secret new products at January’s Toy Fair at London’s Olympia.

Lego is one of the most successful toy designs and brands in the world, and long ago took its rightful place among slinkies, yoyos, hula hoops, train sets and teddy bears in the canonical toybox. But Lego’s undoubted status as a classic design does not guarantee its continuing success. ’Because our consumers are always growing up and moving on, they don’t have any preconceptions about toys – they don’t care if Lego is a classic, so the toy industry is always having to refresh and invent to capture the interest of the kids coming through,’ says Gray. Lego’s strong movie licensing strategy – most recently with Toy Story 3 – is responsible for its contemporary success, although this could not have been achieved without the toy’s intrinsic flexibility.

Cod Steaks is the Bristol-based design group behind Bandai’s recent award-winning release, Armouron. Cod Steaks managing director Sue Lipscombe describes it as ’a construction toy that you wear’. The lightweight armour – the second range of which will be released in January at Olympia’s Toy Fair – allows children to create their own fantasy costumes. Like Lego, it is flexible and has good potential for licensing.

’You have to think like a child to design for them, which means observing kids and analysing their behaviour and finding out what they like to do,’ says Lipscombe.
This year, sales of construction toys are 50 per cent up on last year. ’People are getting more into being creative again, and there is so much play value before you even get to the end product,’ says Lipscombe, in an attempt to explain construction toys’ current popularity.

Earlier this year, for very young children, the award-winning Organeco blocks were released, combining 3D design with illustration, being printed with various abstract patterns. Made from bamboo, they tick the sustainability box, too. Also this year, 1960s construction toy Playplax was relaunched, winning approval from long-time fan artist Rachel Whiteread. ’In this age of Game Boy and the Xbox, I believe creative simplicity is sometimes the best solution,’ she says.

January sees the launch of a new construction toy for slightly older children. Nanoblock, also launching at the Toy Fair, will feature various difficulty levels. UK Nanoblock distributor Asholay’s chief executive Ashley Yeates believes that ’people are looking for more of a challenge in their toys now, and it is satisfying when you build something’.

The largely analogue nature of construction kits contrasts with another major current trend – hi-tech toys. ’Technology is a massive trend at the moment, particularly technology being married to tradition toys such as in Monopoly Revolution,’ says a Toy Fair spokeswoman. Techy toys are usually aimed more at boys than girls, but this year Mattel brought out a Barbie doll with a video camera and screen embedded in its torso. However, for much of the toy industry, gender difference is an immutable fact of life.

’Boys have all the best toys,’ complains Lipscombe. ’They are better made, more robust and more complex than girls’ toys.’

In an attempt to explain why, Gray says, ’The ways that boys and girls play is different. Girls are a lot more social, they like to copy grown-ups and tend to have longer concentration spans, so role-play toys are great for girls. Designing for girls presents a real challenge – you are constantly having to search for new ways to reach out to them and inspire them.’

Boys, on the other hand, are easy. They have a short attention span and ’like noisy toys that they can smash up and build again’, says Gray.

One new toy that may unite the genders is the Geolino Power House. A science toy – another growing category – the Power House is a kit model house that allows children to experiment with alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power. The toy ticks a lot of boxes, but whether or not it will be a runaway success is in the hands of the world’s most unpredictable customers.

_2010 is likely to be the strongest year for toy sales since 2002

January-October 2010 sales figures
– Building sets: +49%
– Plush: +51%
– Fashion dolls: +16%
– Dolls: +14%
– Outdoor and sports: +13%,
boosted by this year’s World Cup
– Scientific games: +11%
– Overall toy sales: +11%

Source: NPD Group

_The new Lego?

January sees the UK launch of an interesting new advanced construction toy called Nanoblock, designed by Japanese manufacturer Kawada. Inspired by Lego but with a puzzle element, Nanoblock features various difficulty levels, from one to eight.
Made from ABS Plastic, Nanoblock is ’a modern, smarter, fresher take on Lego’s look’, says Ashley Yeates, chief executive of Asholay Distribution, which is the sole UK distributor of Nanoblock. ’When you see the finished models in the flesh, they look very intriguing and high quality.’
Level 8 Castle Neuschwanstein Deluxe contains more than 5800 pieces.

_ Voxpop

Everyone has fond memories of particular toys from their childhood – each generation appears to have a toy that captures its imagination. For me, that seminal toy is the oft-cited design classic, the Lego brick. Lego has so much creative freedom. The product is not too refined and allows children to run with their imagination.

Stacey Dix, Designer for Hamleys

Predictably, Lego is my favourite ever toy. It’s what I liked playing with when I was little and it’s what I like to play with with my little boy now. But besides Lego, wheels are a great rite of passage when you are growing up. A bike, scooter, skates or skateboard are probably the best products you can buy for a child, because they represent freedom.

Neil Gray, Head of design, Worlds Apart

A toy bi-plane. When you started the engine, all the parts rattled and when it crashed, it was designed to fall apart and be put back together again. You could do this over and over again. It was beautifully made and a one-off, and I could never pin it to a brand or a type of toy. Also, I’ve still got this little metal die-cast car that I love. When it bumps into something, its door quickly spins 180 degrees, so that it looks as though it’s been hit. I never get bored with crashing it. The toys of the past were made to last.

Sue Lipscombe, Managing director, Cod Steaks

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