Thursday, July 28, 2011


I've always considered Play-Doh compound to be one of toys' greatest innovations.  It has been a perennial favorite for kids and parents since the late 1950s when it was tailored and packaged for kid play.  For me it's largely the simplicity of it. It's safe, easy to work with, cheap to buy, and the play is limited only by the imagination.  But I also like the fact that it was one of those accidental discoveries, like the Slinky.  The compound itself was invented by a Cincinnati-based soap manufacturer to clean wall paper. When it was found that the local nursery schools were also using it to sculpt Christmas ornaments, they tweaked the formula and; voila!  Toy-making history. 
The Play-Doh formula has changed little since then, and Fun Factories still fly off the store shelves.  What has changed significantly is the variety of new compounds introduced over the past few decades;  Sculpey, Floam, Bubber, Moon Dough, ..stuff you can bake hard, stuff you can eat, stuff that never dries or stiffens, stuff that glows in the dark, ..whatever you want.
The fun is limited only by the bio-chemistry.

Over the years, I've had the pleasure to work with a handful of toy companies in bringing some new spins to the dough category.  Playskool has been the modern purveyor of Play-Doh products (along with Mr. Potatohead, another old favorite I've worked with). Other toymakers often have their own brand of similar modeling compound, and I've handled those as well.  Spin Master is yet another, exploring the play found in their unique Moon Sand and Moon Dough compounds.

Here are just a couple of items I worked on.   This first one should ring a bell;

I've mentioned before that there are always tweaks along the way when realizing a product.  Play pattern is a consideration, but often times cost is a large part of what features stay or go.  Toys need to be reasonably priced for the parents (if not their kids).   The Play-Doh: Taco Bell set ended up pretty close to my initial rendering.

Then there's a 'Barnyard' themed set I developed for Spin Master's; Moon Dough line a while back.
Here is the initial sketch that got things going;

Once they chose it from a few other different themed sets I had sketched up, it became a matter of fleshing out the play pattern to get the most fun out of it;

Insets added show the stamp-casting play feature.

Aside from finding a way to use virtually everything in the package to mold or manipulate the compound, there was an emphasis on moving the sculpted pieces through the playset in a fun way.
Whether hay-bail or chicken, it would make its way up the silo, down a conveyor ramp, then back down into the molding tray.

Again, the final product is a little different than the concept, but a fun and popular addition to the Moon Dough line nonetheless;

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Skate City & The Roller Girls

In the mid to late 90s Tyco Toys saw a market in combining elements of Polly Pocket play with Hot Wheels track action, and the result was; Roller Girls!
I was assigned by the small dolls group there to come up with some drawings to pitch the line of dolls and playsets, each doll having a different theme, look, and personality.  Each would also come with an environment base that reflected the dolls' theme and offer some sort of action play.  The playsets would be themed as well, covering mid and higher price points in the Skate City line.

Skate City Salon: Tyco Toys, 1997

Here are some of the initial concept renderings used to define Roller Girls;

This is the Skate City / Roller Girls line as it appeared in the Tyco buyers catalog;

I did work on the large sets as well.
Here are a couple of mid-priced sets in the line;

..It has always been interesting for me to see how a final product differs from my initial concept drawings.  Sometimes I'm more involved in the process of realizing products. It varies, and it's always nice to have that personal creative investment. But I'm just as happy being a smaller spoke in the larger wheel, because everyone else involved seems just as invested in doing their best. It's always a team effort and I'm very rarely disappointed in the results.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Board games

When I began freelancing in the toy industry back in 1992-93 I started working exclusively on game concepts for Tyco Toys, based in Mt Laurel New Jersey.  Their games director needed some creative hands to handle everything from concept art to inventing, to assembling prototypes.  It was more out of necessity than anything that I quickly learned how to wear several hats in developing all kinds of games, and within a few months I was dealing with model makers, licensing departments, marketing executives and engineers.   I worked on literally dozens of games and activites over a 2 1/2 year period before eventually being offered the salary position of games maven at Tyco, but by then I had already decided I was moving back to the Chicago area.  Also, having worked on games already, I was really interested in designing product for other departments;  RC cars, slot racing, action figures, preschool, activities, dolls, everything I could.  Tyco needed help visualizing those ideas as well and even the VP of product agreed that I'd be more useful to them as a freelancer.
Over the years I have been able to work in virtually every other category, some more regularly than others, and have even continued developing games of all sorts.  I still consider them to be a favorite area of expertise and it's always exciting when something new occasionally lands on my drawing board.  One of the highlights being the 70th Anniversary version of Monopoly.

Here are a few other games I've created over the years. Again, there are lots more than what's here, and I'll cover more games in later posts,  these are specific examples of board games produced and sold;

Veggie Tales' Jonah: An Overboard Adventure 
Big Idea Productions was operating out of the Chicago burb of Lombard when I got the call to design a board game around the Jonah movie they were working on.  Their close proximity helped because there was a lot to do in a short time, and being able to meet with them personally and hand deliver everything worked to our advantage.  I did some work on the game play itself, but my main task was designing and generating all the production art involved; including final board art, cards, spinner, pawns, ..everything except the package art. 
It was a challenge because at that point I hadn't done much digital illustrating for print, and I wanted it to look as good or better than anything I could generate on the drawing board.  I learned a lot about working in Photoshop over those couple of weeks and I've done a lot more digital art for print since.


Looney Tunes' Smush 'em!
 While Tyco held a license for Looney Tunes I was asked to come up with some game concepts using their stable of classic characters. There were a few ideas I brought to playable prototype, including the "Smush 'em!" board game.  Another was a Tazmanian Devil board game that used a spinning top Taz.  Landing your character on certain spaces required starting the sculpted Taz character with a zip-strip and setting it loose. It would swirl around the board and wipe out the moving pawns. A fun alternative and a contender for what was ultimately decided on here;   


doughy fun for the entire family;

The Cat 'N Fiddle game
Along with perennial favorites like Monopoly, Clue, and The Game of Life,  I've also worked with Hasbro Games on other Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers concepts, some of them for younger tots.  Candyland, Chutes & Ladders, and Operation are a few other classics that I've also revisited for newer generations,  trying a fresh twist on an old theme.  
For something newer this 'Cat & the Fiddle' game was fun to work on because of my old-school aesthetic approach.  I remembered those old "Happy Harmonies" and "Merrie Melodies" nursery rhyme cartoons from the 1930s and drew from that style.  They really liked that look and ended up going with it for the final design;