Audrey Freda Tam – Design Manager for Small Dolls and Collectibles at Spin Master – on why she loves to work with the inventor community
Audrey Freda Tam is Design Manager for Girls at Spin Master, looking after the Small Dolls and Collectibles categories.
She joined this team back in the summer, after having been Lead Designer at Spin for the Activities space, capping her time with that team in style by winning the Play Innovator of the Year Award at this year’s Play Creators Awards for her work on the CoolMaker Hollywood Hair.
We caught up with Audrey to find out more about the development of that product, her thoughts on creativity and how she’s had to alter her design thinking in her new role.
HI Audrey, so let’s start at the beginning; what first attracted you to a career in design?
I’ve always had an eye for fashion and have been very crafty since I was a kid. I studied Fashion Design at university before beginning my career in toy design. I actually got into toy design by chance! I was asked by a friend to execute a soft goods pre-school concept on a whim when I was still in school and I haven’t looked back.
Did you find that eye for fashion lend itself well to the toy design side of things?
Yes! My experience in fashion really went hand-in-hand with the toys I designed within the Activities category. I even designed a toy sewing machine, Sew N Style Studio! Somehow I landed my dream job of designing fashion-based Girls Activity toys– my favorite category of toys as a kid!
Seems like a perfect fit! So the Sew N Style Studio was the first toy your worked on at Spin Master?
No, the first brand I ever worked on in the toy industry was Aquadoodle, a pre-school mess-free drawing mat. I have a few in storage that I’ll keep until I am old!
It was exciting for me to see a product I designed on store shelves for the first time. I am so proud of them! One of the Aquadoodle mats I designed is displayed on the Spin Master HQ History Wall!
Amazing! You’ve been working in the toy space for over ten years now, so I’m interested, has your approach to design changed much from the Aquadoodle-days to now?
I would say I now look at design in a much more holistic manner. I understand the marketing needs behind each product, I seek out trends and what’s ‘in’. I find solutions for various problems that occur within the design process; I test and then fine-tune.
Essentially, I am not just designing to design a beautiful product. I want to ensure the product functions well, is marketable, and is, most importantly, fun for kids to play with.
Now last month – in what I think is an achievement up there with cracking the Spin Master History Wall – you won the Play Innovator of the Year Award at our Play Creators Awards. A huge well done for that. You won the award for your work on Spin Master’s CoolMaker Hollywood Hair – where did the idea for that come from?
Each year within the Cool Maker portfolio, we launch a new fashion-based studio for kids to craft and create in an easy and compelling way. We’ve created a toy studio to help teach kids how to make bracelets, sew fashion accessories, build pottery, and create nail designs. What was left? Hair and cosmetics!
We happened to come across an innovative invention from Pace Development that transformed ribbon into hair extensions. From there, our team spent several months unraveling various types of ribbon to find the perfect “hair”! We wanted to design a studio that was magical to kids and allowed for tons of customisation.
I think mission accomplished on that front! It’s a really impressive bit of kit and simple to use. Were there any particularly tough nuts to crack as you were developing it?
Well one of our biggest challenges was creating a studio that unraveled the ribbon in a way that was easy, mess-free and did not cause any machine jamming or tangling. We also wanted to ensure the studio could be used by girls with all hair types – from tight curls to beach waves.
As you mentioned, the idea kicked off with an invention from the guys at Pace Development. Do you enjoy collaborating with the inventor community?
Yes! I love working alongside external inventors – they bring fresh and exciting ideas to the table. Over the years I’ve partnered with various inventors who have all been fantastic and each experience has been unique.
With Pace Development, they brought us an innovative idea that required minimal collaboration – we took it and ran with it. Whereas, when I designed the Cool Maker Kumi Kreator Bracelet Maker with Fuse, we collaborated on two rounds of breadboard models to simplify the mechanism. They supported us on the initial technical side of things and it was my job to design the studio aesthetics and usability.
I needed to ensure that the finished bracelet designs were on trend and were something kids would want to wear and share. It was our collaboration that won us the TOTY for Creative Toy of the Year in 2019.
Yes, it’s a fantastic creation! And funnily enough Fuse won Play Innovator of the Year at last year’s Play Creators Awards for that very item, so technically you’ve been involved with the winners of the category two years on the trot – let’s see what next year looks like! And on that, both Pace and Fuse are very well established and brilliant at what they do – for an inventor that hasn’t worked with your team at Spin before, what sort of qualities do they need to make the relationship tick?
Some of the qualities we look for in external inventors is their ability to collaborate and think on their feet! We often need to find creative solutions to design problems on the spot and having an inventor team that is easy to work with makes brainstorming solutions more fun!
Absolutely. Now, this summer saw you move from the Activities team at Spin into the Girls team as Design Manager for all of Small Dolls and Collectibles. How has the switch been?
That’s correct! I was on the Activities team for several years as a Lead Designer and now I’ve switched over to manage the Small Dolls and Girls Collectibles category. It has been super exciting for me to have the opportunity to dive into a new category of toys in a new role.
I now manage a team of six designers across Toronto and LA. We work on iconic brands that include Hatchimals CollEGGtibles and we are also developing new and exciting collectibles brands!
Exciting stuff, and does the world of dolls and collectibles require a different kind of design thinking to your work in activities?
The new role does require a different kind of design thinking. There is a lot of competition in this category, so staying on top of competitive items and having your finger on the pulse for fashion trends is crucial. I am always looking for low-cost innovations that have that big wow-factor!
As a manager, I empower my team to take their designs to the next level. I try my best to share my years of industry and design knowledge – having that direct experience of being a designer within fashion-based toys certainly helps!
Yes, and with fashion we’ve come full circle! So one more question before we let you go, how do you fuel your creativity?
Staying connected with all of my design co-workers and friends across industries is key! We often brainstorm and share emerging trends and this helps inspire my design thinking.
Prior to this year’s lockdown, I would often go competitive trend shopping in major cities and attend art exhibits and craft fairs. Recently I’ve been looking at toys from the 90s to see if they stimulate any ideas or inspiration – 90s nostalgia is all the rage these days!
As a child of the 90s, I’m all for that! I imagine lockdown has restricted trend shopping and city hopping somewhat, so what has helped ideas come to you during the pandemic?
With the lockdown, my team and I have been using the platform Mural to host brainstorms across teams and countries to generate cross-collaboration. This is something we had never done in the past! This new use of technology has allowed us to achieve creativity in new ways.
Yes, and Mural is new to me so I’ll be sure to check that out! A huge thanks again for taking time out for this Audrey – congrats again on the award win and hopefully we’ll catch up soon!
To stay in the loop with the latest news, interviews and features from the world of toy and game design, sign up to our weekly newsletter here