The toys you grew up with made you the person you are today. Think back to your earliest memory, and we’re willing to bet it includes one of your first toys. You spent hours fascinated by inanimate objects, but while some of them are the result of playful discovery, others were carefully designed, almost scientifically constructed to trigger the same neural response. Can a toy be fun by design?
It’s no secret that most modern toys are designed by engineers, psychologists and ingenious inventors. But not all toys are designed. A few, such as Play-Doh, are discovered.
We’ve already seen how Play-Doh grew from a household cleaning product to become one of the world’s best-selling playthings. But at the opposite end of the spectrum is Play-Doh’s ideological nemesis: Mr Potato Head.
Mr Potato Head was tweaked for television fame. His design was calculating and precise. He was intended to look good on TV, as the first toy beamed into homes, and placed virtually in front of children.
In the 1950s, Brooklyn-born toy inventor George Lerner dreamt up the idea of inserting small plastic parts into fruits and vegetables to create what he called a “funny face man” using potatoes from his garden.
On April 30 1952, Mr Potato Head made his screen debut, advertised to children on TVs in a move that would shake the foundations of parental control. No longer could they choose a toy to be placed in front of their offspring, now the marketing men had a direct path to their eyeballs, and it worked.
Mr. Potato Head was an instant hit, selling over one million kits in its first year. A shrewd attempt to cash in on a receptive television audience, and create the world’s first toy celebrity, had worked.
Mr Potato Head’s television legacy was cemented in 1995 when he appeared in Disney and Pixar’s Toy Story, and later in its two following sequels. Its design is iconic, and has even been adopted as a mascot by other firms: Mr Potato Head has even encouraged adults to give up smoking, appearing in 1986 for the Great American Smokeout – an event that encouraged smokers to stub out their cigarettes for ever.
And even today at 61 years old, Mr Potato Head’s design and iconic status makes it unique, explains Ben Fowler, Head of Product Development at online toy shop, Firebox.
“Mr Potato Head is a classic. It’s simplistic design and superb creative game play. In recent years it has had a fantastic resurgence due to the popularity of Toy Story,” he says. Moreover, Mr Potato Head is now a cult icon. “As a collectable, [it has] unique status amongst other toys” says Fowler.
But while its iconic design has made Mr Potato Head a favourite amongst adults, does it make it a truly great toy? By comparison, Play-Doh’s ultimate purpose was actively discovered by children. Its inventors knew it would be a hit, because children themselves gravitated towards it, and shaped its ultimate design.
Both toys remain hugely popular, but can design ever get in the way of a good toy?
Psychologist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic believes there’s a danger in toys being over-designed, warning that they could even weaken a child’s imagination.
“To children, everything is a toy. They have no interest in practical applications of objects or reality. Their priority is to play, and anything they take can enable them just that.
“This is why one could argue that toys can often threaten the imaginative play of children: if they are too prescriptive, kids end up just following instructions designed by adults.”
The phenomenal success of Play-Doh underlines that opinion. Chamorro-Premuzic believes that getting kids to test toys is not enough – they should be designing them too.
“Remember Tom Hanks in Big? Toys designed by children would be so much more appealing. This is, in fact, what toy manufacturers do when they test their products, they get kids [to play with them]. But they should also get kids to design them.”
Toys can often threaten the imaginative play of children, if they are too prescriptive
Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
The Rubik’s Cube, commonly counted as the world’s best-selling toy was another chance discovery in the early 1970s. To begin with, inventor Erno Rubik didn’t intend for it to be a toy or puzzle at all.
It was Rubik’s fondness for geometric shapes that led him to construct the cube. He discovered that by working out a solution to align the colours, he could solve the puzzle. The Rubik’s Cube was born.
However a global survey of 3,000 people by Firebox in August 2010 found Lego, a toy carefully designed to be assembled and disassembled, the most popular toy ever made, ahead of the original Nintendo Game Boy.
It’s a toy that blurs the lines. Does Lego promote the pursuit of design, or encourage creativity? There is ambiguity when it comes to labeling the designed and discovered. Many of the world’s most iconic playthings are a combination of both.
For some, it doesn’t matter. Chamorro-Premuzic prefers to leave it up to the kids to decide. which toys are best.
“The definition of a toy is probably an object that adults aren’t supposed to use to have fun; it’s a playful object designed for hedonistic purposes of humans under a certain age.”
One thing’s for sure: Toys need to be constantly challenging. Dominic Starkey, Head of Marketing at I Want One of Those, explains that lasting appeal is a key factor in the makeup of a toy.
“No toy is universally popular or unpopular, for either adults or kids,” he says. “However there are certain commonalities, namely they engage, they fascinate and stimulate challenges which result in repeated usage and lasting appeal.”
Now, with all that in mind, what does your favourite childhood toy say about you?