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Learn the Basics of Toy Design

A toy designer, as the name indicates, is someone who designs and creates toys. Some other job titles you'll see in employment listings for this field include, toy maker, toy engineer, and toy creator, among others. However, most colleges and universities don't have set majors in toy design, and there aren’t many courses designed specifically for this field, although there are many courses that lend themselves to the unique skills that a toy designer will need and use on the job.

Today's toys are often manufactured by a few large companies, so the career path is highly competitive, especially for designers looking for full-time employment. That doesn't mean that toy design is an impossible field to get into. Quite the contrary. But, it is important that you focus on toy design as a field – this isn't a career path that you'll likely fall into accidentally. There are set skills that are more highly sought after in this field and, in many cases, a four-year degree is highly desirable in the hiring process.

The most obvious attribute for someone who works as a toy designer is a love for toys. If you're considering this field, you should be excited about toy development and the ideas surrounding improved play for all ages. That's only the most basic requirement, though. Toy designers often create the toys from the ground up – this means sketching or CAD drawings of the original concept and creating a prototype. Toys must be intricately designed, mainly because there are many safety regulations involved and the toy must meet certain standards after repeated and harsh treatment.

Toy designers may work with a whole team or alone to create a new concept. They may be responsible for estimating production cost as well as retail price to get the production of the toy approved through their company, as well. So, the toy designer may wear a number of hats, from creativity and business to marketing.

Successful toy creators also have an exceptional knowledge of children's play. They may watch play studies and conduct focus groups to further their ability to create marketable toys, as well as fine-tune current prototypes. This may sound like a great many skills to master. In reality, you might find that specializing in one area is more beneficial to your success in the field. You may also want to specialize in one set type of toy – such as board games, scientific toys, or dolls. There are many areas of play that can be cultivated to great success.

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Develop In Demand Skills

Plan Your Academic Coursework to Meet the Requirements of Employers

There are many skills that are indispensable in the field of toy design. However, there aren't many programs that award Toy Design degrees. Because there isn't an academically pre-determined path for entrance into the field, budding toy designers often need to look at the career path and plan their coursework according to the most highly sought after skills from employers. Many toy designers start with a degree in the arts, such as a design degree, or in areas such as consumer engineering. The necessary skills include design creation, often computer assisted or CAD, and engineering skills to complete production of a prototype. So, a toy designer will often be well versed in both the creative thought process and the technical aspects associated with materials and construction.

The most in-demand skills for a career in toy design, include:

CAD Systems & Hand Design:  Toy designers often use a combination of CAD and hand design. So, it's important to have some education background in both computer-aided drafting and drawing or architecture. Architectural design is often quite similar to the process of commercial engineering for toys because blueprints and plans are designed for similar fine measurements to meet building specifications. Fine arts courses, such as sketching still life, may not be as helpful in toy design as courses in math, measurements, and logic-based engineering and drafting courses.

Materials and Production:  Toy design is not just coming up with a great idea, though that's certainly part of it. A great toy designer will have an intricate knowledge of materials and production. This means that you'll be able to look at a design and determine which materials will best fit for function, style, and safety. You should also be able to accurately estimate production costs so that you're not choosing materials which will price you out of the market.

Marketing Basics:  Toy designers don't necessarily need to have their hand on the pulse of how the marketing department works, but they do need to have an intricate understanding of their consumer. Marketing coursework and continuing education can help toy designers better understand the individual consumer, both child and parent.

Safety Standards and Regulations:  Meeting regulatory requirements is of paramount importance in this field. Regardless of your position in the company, you should have intricate knowledge of all safety regulations, both state and national, in order to create the best prototypes and stay within the safety guidelines. There are often employees who specialize in verifying that new creations meet standards, as well.

There are also a number of ‘soft-skills’ that all toy designers should have, such as: critical thinking skills to give full attention to what clients, managers, supervisors and the public are requesting and using reasoning and logic to reach solutions or approaches to problems.  Designers must also be able to solve complex problems, use sound judgment, be able to analyze needs and product requirements, and have good time management skills. They should be able to adapt equipment and technology to meet the needs of the design, determine how a product works, and whether it is successfully designed to function as it should, Designers must be good communicators, within a team environment, and be able to bring other members of the team together to solve problems or reconcile differences. Designers must also have a strong knowledge of math and science, and be willing to instruct and take instruction.

Because toys must meet strict standards for safety, and must function as intended for each age group, toy designers should also have design, engineering and technology, mechanical, math (algebra, geometry, statistics, calculus, and their applications), and electronic and computer knowledge. They must be innovative, adapt easily to change, deal well with stress, have leadership abilities and drive to succeed, be cooperative, dependable, and persistent.

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Pursue a Formal Education

While many sources indicate that there is no mandatory education requirement, the truth is that most designers need at least a four-year degree to be considered for a position within a company that manufactures and designs toys. Not only will you need the education in order to compete for employment, but you'll also need the experience in order to excel in the field.

Some degrees you might consider to move forward with a career in toy design include:

Liberal Arts:  Courses which include drafting and drawing skills, as well as those that include humanities will be extremely beneficial in design and to understand the consumer market.

Childhood Development:  Someone with a childhood development degree who also has design and artistic skills can do exceptionally well in the field.

Engineer:  An engineering degree in consumer or industrial engineering can be an exceptional background for toy design. This coursework will teach you the skills necessary for taking a design from concept through production with great precision. For someone with this education background, taking extra study in the humanities or child education might be a beneficial idea.

Your career path in toy design might not be linear. If you're currently enrolled in a four-year degree program, a great way to get in the door might be to intern with a manufacturer or toy company. You might also apply right out of college for an entry level job in your field. Because this is a competitive field, you may have to adjust your goals and realize that this is a long-term path. You may start in design in a different industry and use that experience to apply later at a toy company. You might also consider freelancing by creating your own toy concepts. In the case where you create your own toys, you can then sell that concept to a toy manufacturer or gain funding to produce and market the toy through your own venture.

A few kinds of toys that designers can specialize in designing, include dolls, action figures, outdoor play toys, toy vehicles or instruments, water toys, scale models, puppets, plush toys, electronic toys, toys made specifically for animals, puzzles and games, mechanical toys, and scientific exploration toys, among others.

Get to Know Our Experts

Don McNeill

  • Title:
    CEO & Chairman
  • Company:
    McNeill Designs for Brighter Minds, Inc.
  • Where:
    Wilmington, DE
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I sold commercial printing for 20 years prior to the toy and game business.
    • I got the idea for the game of “You’ve been Sentenced!” at the end of 2004.
    • In 2005, I launched the first 1,000 copies of the game.
    • Two years later, I launched the Twisted Fish card game.
    • In 2006, I picked up Barnes & Noble and Borders Books as clients.
    • Over the years, I started winning awards and eventually ended up with over 25.
    • Then, I signed a license with Reader’s Digest Word Power Challenge and launched the RDWPC game with them in 2008.
    • Today, I have clients such as Kohl’s, Toys R Us, Menard’s and over 3,000 independent stores.
    • Recently, I signed an agreement with NASA and launched YBS Add-on-Deck NASA Space Terminology.
    • Now I am getting ready to launch the app version of YBS.

    Recommended Organizations

    • TIA – Toy Industry Association
    • ASTRA – American Specialty Toy Retailers Association

    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    If you have a truly strong idea what people are willing to invest money into, you may be able to do things on your own, but the chances of that happening are slim to none, and slim just left town. Education is essential, and the chance of succeeding like a Bill Gates without it…1 in MILLIONS.

    Learn about the industry

    You need to know who the big players are. See if you can locate a local firm that is designing toys and games and pursue them. Continue to learn about toy and game design through numerous outlets – there are many groups and universities.

    Advice on getting your foot in the door

    I believe your best bet is to create a portfolio of toys and games you are thinking about designing. Then attend the Toy Fair in New York and present your ideas to see if any of them hold up. Some places will see you and others will not, but you may be able to get a sense if what you are thinking about as a good idea. Of course, Hasbro turned down the idea of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and several designers turned downed Sponge Bob Square Pants. Even J.K. Rowling was rejected 22 times for Harry Potter. Sometimes you have to believe to persevere.

    Joe Smith

  • Title:
    Chief Development Officer
  • Company:
    K’NEX
  • Where:
    Hatfield, PA
  • Experience:
    22 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I actually started in the toy industry as a toy tester for Kenner Products in Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 1970’s. I was asked to focus test toys like Stretch Armstrong, Star Wars figures and vehicles, and other now famous/iconic toys.
    • Upon graduating high school I enrolled in the Industrial Design program at the University of Cincinnati.
    • In ID school they taught me how to draw, draft, and more accurately build model depictions of my ideas. Enough so that I landed a co-op job with Kenner Products in my junior year of college.
    • After three different co-op assignments with the company, they hired me upon graduation.
    • Hasbro came in and bought Kenner Products, and I was put on the Nerf design team, which had just started with their super successful lines of foam projectile launchers.
    • After many years of making great Nerf toys I was drafted onto the Star Wars team to help develop product for the then upcoming release of Star Wars: Episode 1. While on the Star Wars team I helped design figures, vehicles, and role play items. Eventually, I was asked to become the company’s liaison with Lucas Films, which helped me get into Design Management.
    • In late 2000, Hasbro was consolidating their workforce into the home office in Rhode Island. I took that “move” as a chance to see what else was available in the toy world for me. I luckily landed a job at K’NEX in early 2001 as the Design Manager with a staff of about 7 designers.
    • I have been growing with the company ever since. Now I’m privileged to be the Chief Development Officer at K’NEX, responsible for all of the company’s marketing, design, engineering, and creative efforts. I just celebrated my 14th year with the company.

    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    Yes. A professional designer needs to learn various design techniques, and an accredited school is the only place you can receive this training for real world design challenges.

    Be open-minded

    Keep an open-mind all the time; no idea is bad, and be willing to learn something new every day. Have a strong backbone. Be able to handle rejection and criticism on a daily basis…and ENJOY “going back to the drawing board”.

    Advice on getting your foot in the door

    Develop your ideas, and make sure they answer the needs of you target consumers. There are many consumers you need to appease: kids, parents, buyers, marketing professionals, other designers and most importantly, yourself. Once you’ve done this, do whatever it takes to get the right meeting with the right person. Whether it’s a big chain of stores or another toy company you wish to license your idea to, don’t stop until you get the answers you need. Keep in mind, sometimes the answer you need is to “try again”.

    Rebecca Floyd

  • Title:
    President
  • Company:
    Frowny Faces
  • Where:
    Richmond, VA
  • Experience:
    Less than 1 year in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I started off my continued education at The Atlanta Art Institute where I majored in Photography.
    • I left Atlanta, after graduating in 1995, and moved to NYC and worked as a photo editor for about a decade at some of New York’s top photography agencies.
    • I met my husband at a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We decided to get married and move to Richmond, VA to raise our family.
    • I spent the next 6 years as a stay-at-home mom. Spending most days in my pajamas watching cartoons and eating peanut butter sandwiches.
    • During this time, I started looking around my house at all of the weird toys my son had collected. I quickly noticed that all of the dolls had really creepy faces. Most of them had big plastic smiles.
    • I decided to make my son a little doll out of a pair of socks. Instead of sewing a big smile on its face, I gave it a frown.
    • My son took that doll everywhere, and it became a conversation piece at restaurants, airports and preschool. People began asking me where they could get one.
    • In 2015, I made about 500 sock dolls, built my website on Wix, got a business license and opened my shop online.

    Recommended Organizations

    TIA and ASTRA for toy market information

    Advice

    On whether or not she recommends a formal education

    These days a formal education can cost so much. I think that if you already know what you want to be doing, it might be smarter to use that money to help your business. Education is always nice but not always necessary.

    Be confident

    Don’t let other people get you down. If you know what you want to be doing. Don’t let negative people stop you. You have to go for it. You need to believe in your product in order to sell it. If you are shaky about your invention, others will feel the same way. Lastly, don’t sit around and think your idea too long. You have to get out there and make it happen!

    Advice for getting your foot in the door

    My advice for getting your foot in the door is to be persistent. Don’t be afraid to contact toy companies, the media, etc. Be ready to be the president of your company and act like one. You have to go for it full force until you begin to get attention. Remember that everyone loves toys. You are in a great market!

    Toy Designer Infographic