Fisher-Price’s Nikki Bauman on understanding inventors – and overthinking ideas

Nikki Bauman, Fisher-Price
Nikki Bauman discusses Fisher-Price’s process, inventor relations, and killing creativity.

Nikki Bauman, you’re Manager of Inventor Relations at Fisher-Price. Kudos! The brand’s first toys went on sale exactly 90 years ago this month. Why is Fisher-Price still going strong, do you think?
Fisher-Price is still going strong because parents believe in our brand; it’s trusted and nostalgic to them. Everyone had at least one Fisher-Price toy growing up. And kids will always have the need to play and learn as they grow; to stimulate their imaginations. The surprise and delight they get from playing with our toys keeps them coming back.

Great answer. I have a really shocking memory, but I do remember loving a Fisher-Price pull-along telephone. So that nostalgia is deeply instilled . So, now… There were four Fisher-Price founders: Herman Fisher, Irving & Margaret Evans Price, and Helen Schelle. Do we know why it’s not Fisher-Price & Schelle?!
We don’t, no! Fisher-Price is named for Herman Fisher and Irving Price. I just don’t think women were as recognised back then as being key players in business. But Margaret Evans Price and Helen Schelle were amazing contributors to the start-up of this business.

Nikki Bauman, Fisher-Price
What can you tell us about that?

Margaret was an artist and children’s book writer and illustrator. She became the company’s first Art Director… She designed the first toys ever produced by Fisher-Price alongside Helen Schelle: the first wooden pull toys known as the “16 Hopefuls”. And actually I have blank notecards with Margaret’s artwork on the front of them – I’ll never write in them!

Nikki Bauman, Fisher-Price
Oh wow – reproductions of her actual artwork?

Yes – they were a Christmas gift given to all of us one year by the company. I cherish her beautiful artwork. Helen Schelle was a toy store owner in Binghamton, New York, brought in by Irving Price to join him and Herm as a partner in the company. She was known for her connections in the toy business and became the company’s secretary and treasurer. She really helped get this new start-up off the ground. It would be wonderful for both women to be recognised and included as the founders of Fisher-Price.

Nikki Bauman, Fisher-Price
And with those women so prominent back then, the company must have been ahead of its time. How is it moving forward today?

Fisher-Price is moving forward today as it always has: with eyes on the future of play, researching new trends, while still maintaining the quality in the products that everyone knows and expects. We keep the brand fresh by not only doing a lot of research but also by having kids test ideas through our Play Lab.

Which is your internal playtesting process, presumably?
Right. We bring in babies, toddlers and preschoolers to testand play with everything we’re working on… Kids are amazingly honest when it comes to telling us what they really think! They help us stay fresh and on trend.

So when inventors bring you new items, what is it you’re looking for?
We’re looking for concepts that surprise us, something we’ve never seen before. A new mechanism for our Preschool groups that’s unexpected… A new way for the littlest of babies to play or help them develop gross motor skills. Fisher-Price products are everything from 0-5: Baby Gear to Imaginext. There are so many opportunities and brand teams for the inventors to create concepts for, something for everyone.

Nikki Bauman, Fisher-Price
And safety aside, are there any things that make a toy an immediate no-no?

As far as a no-no goes… Yes, there are a lot of safety implications when designing and engineering for kids in our age range. But, lucky for us, if someone submits a concept that’s too-old an age, we can suggest who to submit it to on the Mattel side! We work very closely with our Mattel Inventor Relations counterparts on a daily basis and can help guide inventors to where we feel their ideas would be the best fit.

Good answer! When an idea gets your attention, then, what’s the process? How does it go from yourself to shop shelf?
We have standing meetings with all our brand-team leads to show them new concepts as they come in. We either show the concepts ourselves, or have meetings with the inventors for them to present directly to the brand teams.

If a team is interested in something, they take the time to review it, brainstorm against it, bring the model in to test with kids, show to their team and discuss next steps. If it’s something they want to put into the line, our internal designers, engineers, packaging designers and marketing teams are amazing at bringing concepts to life!

You don’t just whisk it off through a curtain, then?! Come back to the inventor in a year?
No! We love it when we can collaborate with the inventors to get their help and thoughts along the way. That’s where I feel my experience as a designer has helped me in this position – I understand both sides. I can speak the design language and understand the brand team’s needs and give good feedback to the inventors. It’s a thrill to see an inventor’s idea on shelf!

Nikki Bauman, Fisher-Price
You sound very passionate about that! So you have experience in design: tell us about that…

I was actually a product designer for Fisher-Price for 13 years before moving to the IR team almost six years ago. I’m lucky in that my team will look to me if anything on the more creative side is needed… From the look of our Inventor Relations portal where the inventors submit concepts, to logos, invitations, news articles, presentations… I live in Excel sheets and Power Point presentations now but I always try to make them look cool! I try to stay creative in everything I do every day.

In your experience, then, what’s the biggest hurdle to creativity?
The biggest hurdle to creativity is overthinking. You can get in your own way if you’re always thinking about the safety, the engineering… You can start asking the right questions at the wrong time: is there a slot? What’s the price point? Where will this go? Because that’s what we live every day in the reality of product design, right?

That’s what they tell me! Presumably then, you feel you build walls for yourself that way? That you can box yourself in?
Exactly: if you’re overthinking, you can’t let yourself “go there” when you’re coming up with new ideas. Remove the barriers, free your mind and just come up with a great idea. The rest of it will fall into place as you go through the development process. If we’re always handcuffing ourselves to the rules from the start, that next great idea may never come to light.

Nikki Bauman, Fisher-Price
Fantastic! Beautifully put. Nikki, we need to wrap this up quite soon but what one thing can you tell me about Fisher-Price that will be amazing to me? Something I might not have heard before?

I can tell you that inventors have been an integral part of our product development from the very beginning…

Go on…
We have a copy of a letter in our files that was written by Herm Fisher to Irving Price, dated July 13, 1930. In it, he’s discussing the royalty and signing advance terms for an idea from an inventor!

In July 1930? Well, that is amazing… I mean that’s – what? About a month after they founded the company?
Less than a month; that’s right… So to quote my boss, Dave Harris, “When we celebrate the longevity of our company, we celebrate inventors as well. They’ve been a part of our DNA from the absolute beginning.”

Brilliant. Nikki, thank you; what a pleasure to see such passion and enthusiasm for the industry, for inventors and for Fisher-Price… Final question: what’s the most interesting thing in your office?
The most interesting thing in my office is my dog, Maisy! I’ve been working from home for almost a year and I’ve gotten so used to being with her and having her sleep at my feet all day. I don’t know how I’ll go back to the office without her… I really think she’s going to need some therapy to get over her separation anxiety when that happens. And I probably will too!

Nikki Bauman, Fisher-Price
Terrific! Great answer. You know, customarily we end with a photo of the “most interesting thing”… I sense you have lots of photos of Maisy already?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve got about 500! She’s our five-year-old chihuahua mix. We rescued her two years ago and we can’t live without her!

Brilliant. Thank you, Nikki; thanks for making time.

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