PERSPECTIVES: FIT Toy Design Celebrates 25 Years of Imagination, Inspiration & Innovation

September 25, 2015 | As the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) Toy Design Department prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Judy Ellis, department founder and chair, speaks about the program’s beginnings and the department’s longstanding relationship with the toy industry. The Toy Design Department is the world’s first baccalaureate degree of its kind, and has graduated more than 400 talented individuals who now work at top toy companies around the world.

The idea for an FIT toy program evolved from a special project initiated by Mattel in 1986. FIT students were given the task of designing new and innovative toys as part of a competition sponsored by the company. As director of the project, I knew it was vital to involve the whole of the industry, so I contacted the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA) – now the Toy Industry Association (TIA) – for information that would help my students understand the way the industry worked: the design cycle, how toys were marketed, child development, etc. The Association was generous in sharing their information. The project was successful in itself, but more importantly, it led to the discovery that the toy industry had a need for innovative designers to produce quality toys, and that FIT had the educational resources and facilities to develop new talent to fill that need. Before the establishment of the program, there was nowhere—short of on-the-job-training—for young designers to learn to create inspirational, safe, marketable, and cost-effective toys.

Soon after the competition, I received a call from TMA President Douglas Thomson, who wanted to know if I would be interested in starting a permanent program, as it was part of the association’s five-year goal to develop a method to train people for the industry. I conferred with FIT, which quickly gave the go-ahead to begin developing such a program, and reconnected with Thomson for his guidance. We soon after formed an advisory board with members including Thomson, Bernard Loomis, then president of GLAD Joint Venture Design Company, and representatives from several major toy companies, such as View-Master, Ideal, Mattel, TYCO, Coleco, and Eden Toys. We also worked closely with George Dunsay, then SVP of research and development for Hasbro, who helped us develop the program’s strong curriculum.

After intensive planning, the Toy Design Department opened its doors in 1989. It took only two years for the program to go from inception to implementation, because we were all so focused and committed.  Everyone was working from a place of genuine enthusiasm. The Department’s ongoing, constructive relationship with industry is the cornerstone of our program. Our constant interaction with TIA and the invaluable feedback we receive from its members helps us to evaluate the program on a regular basis. And the relationship is truly synergetic. As the department ventures into new and innovative areas, we enrich our students’ lives and expand the scope of their creativity. In turn, our students enrich the industry.

Throughout its history, toy industry leaders have contributed to the growth and development of our students in a number of ways – as faculty, advisory board members, and by participating in the Industry Overview course, a class in which guest speakers from the industry share their expertise. The class which began at the birth of the program continues to this day, nurturing the creative design process. FIT’s intent was to make a difference; to create socially responsible designers who will create tomorrow’s classics today. From day one, classes such as the Industry Overview helped to create the connection between students and industry. It’s because of that connection that the program has become recognized as a think tank for industry.

Industry professionals who have participated in FIT Toy Design’s Industry Overview have included, among many others, Brian Sutton-Smith (world-renowned child psychologist), Peter Eio (former president of LEGO), John Barbour (Leapfrog), Jeffrey Breslow (Big Monster Toys), Stan Clutton (Mattel/Fisher-Price Brands),  Neil Friedman (as President of Mattel/Fisher-Price Brands), Danny Grossman (Wild Planet), Alan Hassenfeld (Hassenfeld Family Initiatives), Gale Jarvis (Madame Alexander Doll Company), Alan Kaufman (TIA), and Joan Lawrence (TIA).

“A good toy offers an opportunity to learn, is age appropriate and safe. A great toy is full of adventure - the kind that respects a child’s intelligence - it is the key to new dimensions of creative experience and broadens the scope and quality of the child’s play environment. And of course, a great toy is always fun.” —Judy Ellis, chair, Toy Design Department

The program rounds out the learning experience by bringing students and children together for moments of instruction and inspiration. As part of a unique program called “Discover Together,” nested within the curriculum, students work as teaching assistants at the Hudson Guild Pre-K program and participate in storytelling workshops with students from the Haven Academy in the Bronx – a school for underprivileged children sponsored by the New York Foundling.

Students work hard in and outside of class; in fact, the rigor of the program has been compared to medical school and boot camp. Students learn the language of the industry, because we start with the premise that toys are a serious business. I credit the Toy Design Department’s 25-year success in large part to the program’s unique partnering of educational integrity and business practicality.  The program’s philosophy of design still holds true: at the end of the day, the program is important because toys are important. Everyone knows that toys are fun, but they are also the vehicles that help children develop emotionally, physically, mentally, and creatively. The overriding objective I had in developing the department – and one that continues after 25 years – is to create opportunities and possibilities for our students so that they can design toys that impart those opportunities and possibilities to the children for whom they design.

At the quarter century mark, our faculty looks forward to the future and to seeing new students emerge as the next generation of impactful toy designers. It is our pleasure to continue to send leaders out into the world who will have a long-lasting positive impact on the entire toy industry and the children who love and grow from the toys they design.