Toy story: Learning the business of fun

It's Friday afternoon at Otis College of Art and Design, and here on the seventh floor, students are settling in to some serious conversation: price points, marketing, packaging - and, oh yeah, cute stuffed animals, "butterfly babies," and kick-activated crib toys for infants.

"You've got to think about it," a visiting representative from Mattel, the toy company, tells one student. "You've got to think, 'I'm a little girl, playing one-on-one with this doll. She's my play friend.' A little girl will want to be able to do something with the doll, not just watch [it] do something."

The senior-year student the Mattel rep is talking to - a spiky-haired boy in baggy pants - listens carefully to the critique of the doll that he's designed. And then the conversation turns to the other projects he's been working on - Dino Eggz and Fancy Flowers.

Welcome to the toy-design major at Otis College - the only four-year degree program of its kind in the United States. Started in 1996 by a former toy designer at Mattel, the program treats toy design as equal parts fun and serious business. Which it is: According to the International Council of Toy Industries, worldwide toy sales (not including video games) added up to nearly $55 billion in the year 2000.

"We design toys as if Toys 'R' Us or Wal-Mart were coming in to look at our line and choosing toys to buy," says Martin Caveza, founder and chair of the toy-design department.

"When I came in to create the program here, I asked myself, What does it take to be a good toy designer?" says Mr. Caveza, who had 13 years of learning that skill while he himself was at Mattel. "You've got to be a designer, an engineer, and a marketing person."

What Caveza created was a rigorous program that includes child psychology, the history of toys, communication classes, 3-D model making, applied math for technical illustration, and toy-industry business practices. The only other toy-design program in the country, at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, is a two-year program. The Otis program awards a bachelor's degree in fine arts.

Caveza was head of one of Mattel's four boys' divisions when he left for Otis. An industrial-design major in college, he had a job lined up at a design firm after graduation, when he entered a Mattel toy competition as a way to earn some extra cash. To his surprise, he won (the toy he made - a plastic-tube, rolling vehicle for action figures - still sits in his office).

When Mattel courted him for a job, he fell in love with the company's design workplace. "Hundreds of grown men were playing with toys on the floor," he recalls. He planned a three-month internship with the toy giant, which turned into a 13-year stint. That experience helped him design the program at Otis.

"I echoed the toy industry as closely as possible," says Caveza, who has also brought in corporate sponsorship programs with Mattel and Disney that put senior students in touch with industry professionals. "I think our students really get a head start here. When they graduate, they're the equivalent of a seasoned designer."

Students move through different kinds of toy design during each school year, learning "plush" toys, infant and preschool design, vehicles, action figures, and large and small dolls.

"We don't try to censor students," says Jennifer Lizzio, assistant department head, but she adds that teachers do try to encourage toy design that doesn't resort to violence or sheer grossness.

"You don't have to go to school to be able to make a barfing Barbie. That's easy, but it's not creative," says Caveza. "So we ask [students] a lot of open-ended questions, like, 'Why would a kid want to play with a toy like that?... If a toy is violent, you have to ask yourself, do I want to resort to that to make a buck?' "

The message seems to sit well with students, whose workspaces are covered with stuffed toys and legions of action figures. At a sophomore-level presentation of toys for infants, students show drawings for everything from stuffed bears with teething rings to motion-activated crib puppets that clamp onto the side of a crib. Ryan Tumaliuan, the sophomore who came up with the crib-puppets idea, says he already knows what he wants to do with his degree: "I would like to run a toy company," he says matter-of-factly.

Otis's toy-design program is relatively small; portfolio reviews are required for admission, and only 15 to 20 students are accepted each year. According to Caveza, those who stick with the demanding major do well upon graduation. Otis's two graduating classes so far, about 24 students total, have had a nearly 100 percent job-placement rate, he says, with average starting salaries of $30,000 to $50,000 a year. (Tuition at Otis runs about $20,000 a year.)

Gerry Cody, a 2000 toy-design graduate, had more than one job offer while still in his senior year, and wound up taking a job as senior designer with Sport Fun, a company that makes sports-related toys.

"I learned such a tremendous amount of information in school," he says. "I was able to literally leave the classroom and walk right in the door of this company."

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