Life of a Toy Designer & Inventor

An inside look at the creative process.

by Peter Wachtel, chief creative kid, Kidtoyology

PrintI always loved toys—in fact, I still play with toys today. However, when I became a toy designer and inventor, I learned that designing toys is a bit like eating a box of chocolates. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re going to get. You may have a specific idea in mind when you start out, but as the process continues, new information, technology, and needs come into play, requiring you to adapt your design or invention.

No matter what direction you started out in, the world and your own experiences will start to mold the toy in a new direction, as if it has a life of its own. The results of this may vary: Sometimes your design will work out even better than expected, like finding gold in the river, and sometimes you’ll find out that your idea was nothing more than a mirage, and that following some dreams can turn into nightmares. However, I guarantee that the journey will always be an exciting one.

Think of Toys as Learning Tools

Toys are a way to learn, grow, and experience life. They give kids a sense of pride, belonging, and importance in the world, and offer children the chance to live what they imagine. Children are little scientists full of curiosity, confidence, and ignorance, and toys are like 3-D books for their minds and bodies, facilitating learning, experimenting, and self-motivation. So when you sit down at your sketching table, remember that children must first discover that skills are learned and creativity is experienced. To this end, toys can be thought of as a “starter kit for life,” designed to show and teach kids how to draw, drive, build, act, and create. These so-called playthings have an undeniable intellectual and emotional impact. If done right, toys can truly shape the kids that will someday run the world. After all, who knows what toys the president, this year’s Super Bowl champs, or your favorite author played with while growing up? Carl Jung once said, “The little world of childhood with its familiar surroundings is a model of a greater world.”

Don’t Grow Up

In some ways, all kids are inventors. They are not afraid to get their hands filthy, eat paste, or use a hammer as a brush. They’re willing to break something just to see how it works, and start with the impossible, which is where grown-up brainstorms usually stop. To invent, you have to wonder why and how, and not worry too much about constraints when you’re getting started. Making money should not be your main goal. You have to want to invent to improve children’s lives and the objects that surround them. In this way, a child’s focus and trust are essential to the inventor: the idea should always come first.

The first step to becoming a successful toy inventor is to think like a kid again. Use all the imagination and wonder of the universe and just play with your thoughts, even if your starting point is a simple idea. Explore every possibility and option tied to that idea and then weed out the inconsistencies through direct application. Then, run tests and experiments to see if your solution is practical by using logic and realistic constraints to finalize the design. In simple terms, take baby steps. Start with your idea, then modify and experiment, trying again and again until it works, while always keeping an open mind to new solutions.

Surround Yourself with the Right Inspiration

When designing toys, it’s important to surround yourself with “kid-like” things, such as toys, playgrounds, toy stores, and even kids. My own kids are 6 and 4 years old (a boy and a girl respectively), and I spend a lot of my time just playing with them and the other kids in my family. Play with kids, listen to them, and talk with them. In some ways, become one of them. You have the rest of your day to behave and act like an adult. Not only does thinking like a kid help you invent like a kid, but it also opens your mind to a whole new world of possibilities. When romping around in the sandbox, try inventing new ways to play with toys and games. Think differently, and don’t be afraid to role-play and experiment with all kinds of toys and gadgets. Even if you don’t have kids, toys are tools for better understanding. So go ahead and play; you will feel younger, and most importantly, it will leave you with a big smile on your face!

At the end of the day, the trick to becoming a successful toy inventor is to never give up, and to never stop expanding your skills and avenues for creativity. Humility and patience are also essential, so be ready to put in a fair amount of work before you start to see a payoff. It’s all about the experience: creating cool new things that people want, and that make both you and the consumer happy. Remember the saying from Gladiator, “What you do in life echoes in eternity.” What you create also echoes in eternity, so keep those pencils burning and twirling and stay a kid as long as you can!

Know the Ingredients of a Good Toy

When you’re in the throes of the design process, every toy is different, but there are a few rules that always seem to apply, regardless of the project. Here are a few of the most common ingredients found in a successful toy:

  • Fun to use
  • Interesting to the child
  • Safe and durable
  • Stimulates creativity and imagination
  • Encourages inquisitiveness and resourcefulness
  • A tool for learning
  • Challenging, but not frustrating
  • Invites repeated use and longevity
  • Involves child interaction
  • Addresses developing needs and nostalgia
  • Cost effective

PeterWahtelPeter Wachtel is the chief creative kid at Kidtoyology. An award-winning creative designer, inventor, teacher, and writer, he has designed and developed more than 500 toys and products. Learn more about Wachtel here.

About the author

Maddie Michalik

Maddie Michalik

Maddie Michalik was the Editor-in-Chief of The Toy Book from 2020-2022. She was also a Senior Editor at The Toy Insider and The Pop Insider.