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The Heart of the Tale

Why stories are central to the art of toy design

by Alex Joseph

Laura Simms seems perfectly cast for her role as a professional storyteller. Her wavy hair is a little wild. Her wardrobe of embroidered tunics and scarves suggests the international folk tales that are her stock in trade. But it’s her steady, piercing gaze that nails it; she seems to look not at things but into them, as if discerning their essence.

In April, Simms came to FIT to conduct a storytelling workshop with graduating Toy Design students and 42 second graders from the Mott Haven Academy Charter School in the Bronx. A partner with the New York Foundling agency, Haven Academy is the first charter school designed for kids in the child welfare system.

When the children arrived, wearing their uniform of bright polo shirts and khakis, they looked around the college’s brand-new toy lab, wide-eyed. “You are the very first children to be in this room,” Simms told them. Four years in the making, the largely white, open space contains a huge glass case of brilliant fabrics, immaculate work stations, new computers, and of course, shelves of toys. Simms gathered the kids into a carpeted seating area, and said, “Each of you has something special: an imagination. It’s your job to listen and make pictures in your mind.”

Then, as Toy Design students looked on, Simms told stories. In a tale from India, squirrels and monkeys joined forces against a ten-headed monster. A princess in a Yugoslavian story turned into a pigeon. The third story was about Simms herself: the daughter of a dentist, as a child she was extremely shy. One day, she “borrowed” 32 rotten teeth from her father’s office for show and tell, and invented a story about how aliens had stolen the teeth and given them to her. The gambit (and its nerve) made her instantly popular.

After Simms finished, each child was paired with a Toy Design student and given a new drawing pad and Faber-Castell pen set to draw stories. The lab buzzed with activity. Inbal Austern ’11 could be heard asking her young partner, “The story starts in recess? Can you draw how recess looks?” The child collaborating with Diana Vasquez ’11 dreamed up a little girl, Tabitha. Vasquez said, “Tabitha is blue?” Her partner replied, “She’s blue because she’s from Tennessee.” The little boy working with toy designer Graham Wilson ’11 invented twin mechanics who fly all over the world, building stuff . “They find a princess,” the boy said. “One princess, or two?” Wilson asked. “Two!” the boy cried. “One in Mexico, and one in Puerto Rico!” The Haven Academy children left FIT with industry-donated gifts: the pens, pads, and a hedgehog hand puppet.

 

 

Simms has been telling stories for 40 years, and has an immense feeling for it. “When people share stories, through the imagination a common, empathic place inside us is opened up,” she said. Children need this because their imagination “allows them to overcome difficulties and find deep pleasure.”

If the chairperson of FIT’s Toy Design department, Judy Ellis, didn’t exist, some genius toy designer would have to dream her up. She founded the 21-year-old program, the world’s first baccalaureate in toy design. It has a 100 percent placement rate, her graduates hold coveted positions at top toy companies, and Ellis has contacts at every level of the industry. She’s serious. And, like Simms, she seems perfect for her role. Her blond fly-away hair might be a child’s playful scribble, and when she peers at you through her glasses and talks about toys, they sound less like earth-bound goods than sacred objects.

The storytelling workshop is part of what Ellis calls her Discover Together Program, conceived to bring students and children together to explore the power of story as a method of enhancing creativity. Ellis says stories reinforce socialization by modeling mores and values. The princess in Simms’s Yugoslavian tale shows independence and persistence; the squirrels and monkeys in the Indian story learn teamwork. But stories mean more than that. Ellis’s office is bursting with toys—soft toys, hard toys, prototypes created by students, and commercial toys, like Elmo. Asked if she had a childhood favorite, she instantly reaches for Bruno, a tiny plush bear who lives in a coffee mug on a shelf behind her desk. Bruno still looks pretty good, especially considering that when Ellis was little, she flung him out an apartment window. “My mother gave him a kind of ritual bath to clean him up,” she recalls, touching Bruno tenderly. By capturing and nurturing the imagination, stories transform toys into totems whose meanings are carried into adulthood. For Ellis, a good toy preserves a sacred form of play. That may be the essential mission of her program. “We provide children a vehicle that allows them to still be a child.”

Stories have practical implications, too. Licensed products—clothes, tools, or habitats for a character like, say, Winnie the Pooh or Barbie—are imaginative extensions of a story. They flesh out the world of the toy. So if you develop Star Wars products, for example, you’ll come to know that story well as you create space ships and helmets and lasers. Brian Wilk, VP of design for Hasbro’s Playskool division, who designed Star Wars line extensions at the firm for 12 years, says he watched the movies hundreds of times. “You have to eat, sleep, and breathe that world. You have to get lost in it and believe it really exists, because the children do. You can’t wreck their fantasy.” As part of her curriculum, Ellis requires students to design a plush toy character, accompanying storybook, and related products. It’s an extremely involved lesson that begins in their first year and ends at graduation. She starts by asking them to delve into their own childhoods, and to ponder questions they wondered about most. To find a universal theme, she says, you have to start with the personal. “If you’re going to give children a strong center, you have to have a strong sense of who you are. What is it from your childhood that you want a child to hold onto? What is the most meaningful thing you can share? That’s your story.”

Over the summer between first and second year, students develop the story by answering a long questionnaire about their character. Job, marital status, physical and emotional scars, “aura,” and other attributes are considered. When the time comes to create the picture book, the world surrounding the toy must have complete integrity. “If someone in their story is eating ice cream, the student has to design the ice cream,” Ellis says. One of the pictures in student Graham Wilson’s book featured a house in the background. Wilson says, “Judy asked, ‘Who lives there?’ I said, ‘A bear.’ ‘What does he do?’ ‘He’s a potter.’ So I added a kiln and furnace.”

Inbal Austern studied product design in her native Israel and worked four years in that field before enrolling at FIT. She has bleached-blond cropped hair and wears yellow high-top sneakers and T-shirts featuring gothic punk rock star Amanda Palmer, though her affect is studious. Austern says Simms’s workshop was “a good reminder of how holy toy design is.”

Austern began her story by creating Fiona, a little girl who, like Austern, loves tools. “I wanted to create a strong, independent, female role model,” she says. Originally, her story was about how Fiona designs a Rube Goldberg-type of contraption to rescue a treed cat, but over time this specific adventure fell away. “I was drawing it and drawing it, but it wasn’t coming to life,” she says. Instead, the story became about how Fiona designs increasingly intricate devices to help her stay-at-home dad and architect mom. By the end, Fiona’s inventive powers appear limitless. “The point is that she believes in herself and creates her own reality.”

Ellis says Fiona has many of the qualities that make a great toy: “Fiona can be played with so many different ways.” Her tools, for example, recall the story Inbal wrote, but kids can use them to make up their own stories. All toy products should have a “curriculum,” Ellis says, meaning it allows for certain “play patterns” to develop. Toy Design students learn about these in a required child development course; they also spend time observing a preschool class. A good soft toy provides opportunities for children to practice nurturing, and to access their imagination through invented conversations. Ellis says, “When you’re hanging out with Fiona, you’re learning about friendship.”

Felipe and Toby, the two little boys in Diana Vasquez’s story, are best friends. There’s only one problem; Toby is a doll. Felipe’s mother tries to interest him in more “manly” toys, but by the end, she accepts her son’s unconventional affection. As she developed the book, Vasquez says, Felipe became the neat, organized character, while Toby was all the things Felipe wasn’t—strong, adventurous. Vasquez, who grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, says her dream toy as a child was an automobile engine. “I just wanted to take one apart,” she says, shrugging. She studied architecture and worked as a store designer for five years before enrolling at FIT. Felipe, she says, was inspired by a close male friend. And Toby? Vasquez laughs, noting that she’s wearing the same patched blue windbreaker Toby wears in the book.

Growing up, Graham Wilson ignored the official stories for his branded toys. He played with G.I. Joe, for example, but never watched the TV show, so the figure’s military vocation was irrelevant. “I’d just pretend he was a superhero,” Wilson says. “A lot of kids buy G.I. Joe and play G.I. Joe. But I didn’t do that. That’s probably why I’m interested in toy design.” Initially anxious about moving to New York, the Colorado native studied fine art at the Maryland Institute College of Art before starting the FIT program. He has always wanted to be a toy designer. For his plush toy, he created a squirrel-like beast, Twig. In the story, Twig wants to change into a big bear so he can rescue his village with his brawn; in the end, it’s his small size that brings him victory: “Because he’s little, he can sneak around.” (He also has a superpower—a foe-paralyzing fart.)

If Fiona were a real toy, you could outfit her with a lot of nifty stuff . Among the licensed items Austern dreamed up for her tool-loving protagonist is a “snack space ship” loaded with utensils, including an unusual fork with a crank to wind spaghetti. Another cool item (and a parent’s nightmare) is a complicated musical instrument that comes with bongos, bellows, whistles, bird calls, maracas, and a flexible, bagpipe-like tone modulator. Vasquez designed a digital camera with a flexible periscope for Felipe; Twig has a special licensed camping set.

Line extensions are a major segment of the toy industry. Jinwon Lee ’09, an associate product designer at Hasbro, works on Baby Alive, a doll that, in its various incarnations, bounces on its feet, talks, eats, and/or wets itself. (The toy was first manufactured by Kenner in 1973; Hasbro reintroduced it in 2006.) Though specifics of any toy’s development are kept tightly under wraps, Lee will say that everything she makes originates from the character of Baby Alive. “For me, character development is the biggest part of the work. We have to think about what kind of personality Baby has. That leads to her outfit and accessories, and the design of her face. Does she get nervous about anything? If I use this fabric, will she like it?”

Lee earned a graphic design BFA in Korea and worked in magazines there, but it wasn’t a good fit. “I couldn’t see how the audience reacted to my work,” she says. “Also, there was always something child-like about me.” When it was her turn to create a plush character and storybook, she invented a monster named Oogy. It took almost 100 tries to draw his face right. “He had to be cute, but still a monster,” Lee says. That was just the beginning. “I had to imagine how he moves. Does he run? No, he’s like a sloth—they live up in trees.” The environment she placed Oogy in was just as vividly imagined. “I drew so many tiny trees and plants. I would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at masks or shoes. All these random clues would give me ideas. It was amazing how big the world could get in my imagination. I’ve never gotten that deep before.”

What Oogy fears most is a tall, skinny, hairless monster called Namuh—human, spelled backwards. In the end, Oogy meets Namuh, and learns that they have a few things in common, including a fear of monsters. Lee says the story comes from a personal experience of culture shock. “A lot of people assume other people are different, and don’t try to understand them.” She’s learned that by looking closely at what we find alien, we can, if we look hard, see something about ourselves.

In real life, the monsters under the bed aren’t like Oogy, of course; poverty, divorce, and even bigger things, like global warming and nuclear disaster, are always lurking about. For Ellis, cultivating a child’s imagination through stories amounts to a kind of activism, because it gives them tools they need to approach difficult ideas. One day, while musing on the problems faced by today’s children, she said, “They have that creativity, and after second grade it starts to fade— and that’s not right.” 

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