How Toy Inventors Find Their “WOW!”

By Ashlee Neuman
Content Developer, Toy Industry Association

This article is the first in a series that TIA is publishing over the course of May in celebration of National Inventors Month.  

Every year, three billion toys are sold in the United States. It’s a jaw-dropping number. Every time I take a walk through the aisles of any toy store, I’m dazzled by the kaleidoscope of innovative playthings, from mind-bending strategy games and build-your-own-robot sets to long-range blasters and customizable DIY kits. And I constantly wonder … just how do toy inventors and designers concoct so many imaginative creations?

To gain some insight I spoke to a few industry insiders. As you may expect, there are no exact recipes to follow: the ingredients of a good toy idea might be rare and exotic and completely new to the market … or they might be a new combination of classic flavors, producing something unexpected and exciting.

Take Zing Toys, for example: a small toy company based in Portland, Oregon whose mission is to create innovative products that encourage kids to get outside and play. You might know their Air Huntress, Zing Blast Off, Zing Air, and Air Storm brands, among others.   

“We take inspiration from seeing kids outside having fun and try to develop new innovations based on basic play patterns,” Josh Loerzel, Zing’s North America director of sales, told me.  

Whether the toy concept is a twist on classic patterns or a wholly new way to play, inventors say that observation is key to finding inspiration.  

“We try to figure out where there’s a hole, a need, a past success that’s gone away, and then target that area and figure out what a good idea for a new product might be,” said Don Rosenwinkel, president and CEO of Big Monster Toys (BMT), a toy and game design firm headquartered in Chicago. They’ve come up with the prototypes of many major toys under big-name brands like Barbie, Polly Pocket and Hot Wheels; it’s said that about four in every five American households own a BMT-invented toy.

And then, of course, there are those moments when lighting just strikes.  

“You might walk into a hardware store and see something and say, ‘Oh my gosh, what if that was a toy?’” Don said. “It’s literally when the light bulb goes off and there’s this bit of inspiration. It’s not typically a full-blown idea, it’s the start of the path that gets you where you want to be.”

Popular culture can set that path as well. Ron Weingartner, co-author of the “Toy and Game Inventor’s Handbook” and a former vice president of product acquisition for Hasbro Games, says that toy inventors have always had the challenging task of keeping up with the ever-changing interests of kids and their parents. To stay relevant, inventors often draw inspiration from trends in art, fashion, cinema, technology, and beyond, and turn to popular brand and media licenses to help products resonate with families. In fact, nearly one of every three dollars spent on toys in the U.S. each year are traced back to a licensed property.    

But inventors say that playing to existing trends and licenses will only get you so far.

“Creatives who hope to invent important new toys must originate products that elicit the age-old consumer reaction; a magical, WOW!” Ron explained. “Media licenses are important to drive consumers toward a product, but in the end it’s the invented element or design that delivers the unique payoff.”

Capturing kids’ attention in the age of smartphones, tablets and other tech devices is another puzzle that toy inventors have to piece together.

“The challenge is to create toys that offer a high level of excitement and performance that will really get kids excited to put down their digital devices and get outside and play,” Josh said, explaining that if the toy doesn’t prove riveting, kids will play with it once or twice and then discard it for their tech device.  

A few years ago, a stampede of toymakers rushed to add virtual apps to their physical products in an attempt to keep up with tech trends, but “it was a disaster,” Don said, because in the end the toys lacked what is still paramount to success: play value.

The mere presence of tech features alone doesn’t do much to impress today’s generation of digital natives. Kids are gravitating toward tech-toys that offer a fun, valuable play experience that is customized, personalized and that spans both physical and virtual worlds. 

“Don’t ignore or fight ’em — join ’em,” Ron added. “Digital devices won’t go away, but they will evolve with new functions that attract consumers.”

I, for one, can’t wait to see what new “WOW” experiences today’s imaginative toy inventors come up with next!

Toy inventors and designers can find Ron Weingartner's Top 10 Tips, TIA's Toy Inventor and Designer Guide, and other guidance resources on the TIA website.