IDEO’s Josh Finkle on collaboration, creativity and the power of Post-its
This year sees Josh Finkle celebrate his 10th anniversary at IDEO.
As a Design Director working within IDEO’s prestigious Play Lab, Josh helps lead a team of inventors responsible for smash-hits year-in year-out, across brands like Barbie, PAW Patrol and Pictionary.
We caught up with Josh to find out more about his route into toys – and learn what he feels is the special sauce that keeps IDEO at the top of its game.
Josh, thanks for taking out time to chat. How did you find yourself working in the world of toy invention?
As a kid, I loved drawing. Then, when I started studying Industrial Design at Carnegie Mellon, I discovered a passion for making real things. I had never really used tools up to that point.
From there, I just fell into toys. I interned at Radio Flyer one summer. That’s where I learned how to weld and bend metal to form tricycles and whatnot. Then I had internships at Automoblox and Little Tikes, so all my experience was in the toy industry. It was because I loved making stuff and in this industry, there’s a real desire and need for new stuff all the time.
How did you cross over from in-house internships at companies to working at a studio like IDEO?
At design school, we’d go on trips twice a year to visit different design consultancies. In my freshman year, we went to San Francisco and visited all the industrial design firms there. We visited IDEO and I got to see IDEO’s Play Lab. It was a fun place and was cemented in my mind as a cool place to work. IDEO in general is an amazing place, but the Play Lab in particular was my jam!
Fast-forward to my internship at Little Tikes, and that turned into a full-time gig. It was an amazing job, but I got the opportunity to join IDEO’s Play Lab and I’ve been there for 10 years.
I’m sure a large chunk of our readers will have met some of the team, but for anyone new to IDEO’s Play Lab, talk us through the group?
IDEO is made up of around 600 people, but the Play Lab is a team of 20. We have two offerings: Play and Toy Invention. Half of our team focuses on consulting work for clients, and the other half is 100% focused on toy invention. There’s lots of back and forth though, where toy inventors will work on consulting projects for months at a time, or we’ll sometimes bring the consulting folk into invention.
IDEO has an incredible reputation in the toy space and the team is inventing hits year-in-year-out. What’s the secret sauce that makes IDEO special?
I think there’s two things. I’m part of the Toy Invention Team, which is just one part of IDEO. We have access to the rest of IDEO, which is a collective of smart, amazing, creative people. They work across all industries with all kinds of people around the world. We have access to them, and they have access to us. So that’s one thing.
The second thing is that our creative process is super collaborative. All of my favourite projects to have come out of the Play Lab are items that many people have touched and been a part of.
You mentioned that as well as being inspired by the wider IDEO organisation, they also have access to you guys. What sort of things do the other corners of IDEO come to the Play Lab for?
The Play Lab is very play-centric and game-forward, we’re very experienced with kids and families, and we’re mechanical whizzes – so we get invited to all sorts of cool brainstorms.
I remember there was a client that was launching satellites into space, so we were tasked with coming up with ways that solar panels could fold in and out. We’ve been invited to brainstorms about how to make the experience of ride-shares more fun, or more family friendly. It’s a blast to be a part of these different projects and bring a play-centric mindset to them.
Do those non-toy projects feed into the toy invention side of things in any way? I’d imagine that diversity of work is good for creativity.
Absolutely. We have engineers that have deep experience in areas like medical devices, for example. They’ve worked on things like self-injecting drug-delivery devices that have cool fiddley little mechanisms… It’s valuable to have those kinds of brains come into our process and even work on toys sometimes. Those kinds of mechanisms and that type of design-thinking can really translate into toys.
Let’s dive into your approach to toy invention. Can you recall the first item to hit the market that had your fingerprints on them?
The first toy I got to market, before IDEO, was while I was at Little Tikes. It was a really cool fort building system. You could build giant structures out of them; it was called Tike Stix. That was really fun because I got to make all the prototypes.
Then one of the early projects that I worked on at IDEO that I’m still really proud of was our second transforming Barbie camper van. It had a big impact on the market and it was really fun to prototype. You press a button and – BOOM! – it went from a closed toy to an amazing open toy. It was a transformation that made everyone go “Wow!” when it was a foam-core prototype, and they still went “Wow!” when it became a real toy.
Amazing. And more recently, are there any new launches we should be highlighting came from IDEO?
I’m super excited about our PAW Patrol: The Movie Chase’s Transforming City Cruiser. We invented the toy, working closely with the PAW Patrol team at Spin Master, and it was also in the movie!
I watched the movie with my son – he’s four – and it was so cool because he helped me when I was working on the toy two years ago. He tested out my prototype and it was cool to say, “That’s our toy!” when we bought it and also when we saw the movie.
That’s lovely. And a second film is in the works so there may well be another father-son collab in the works soon! Now, 2022 marks your 10th year with IDEO – has your approach to invention changed much in that time?
Yes, and I’d say we’ve changed how we work – as in the wider team at IDEO. We’ve evolved and improved so much over the last 10 years, not only in our prototype capabilities but also in our industry knowledge and the way we work.
Our brainstorming process has continued to get better, and during the pandemic, we worked out a whole new way to brainstorm remotely. We, as a team, have upped our game massively and we’ll continue to do so.
I’d imagine working at IDEO is a career ambition for plenty of budding designers. Is there anything specific – either skills or personality traits – that makes someone a great fit to work at IDEO?
It has to be immediately apparent that you have a passion for making. That can come from the projects you do at school or work, but also via your personal projects. And for the toy invention team, we’re always looking for fun and creativity.
On that, how do you fuel your own creativity?
I always have Post-its and a sharpie around. When I have an idea, I doodle them down – and I get random ideas all the time. Our main process is very collaborative, but I have a wall of Post-its with ideas on them and every couple of weeks I’ll make them all. I’ll then present those to my team to see if there’s anything there. So yes, my own approach is that I collect my thoughts, make them real and then share them with my team.
Outside of toys, what sort of things do you get up to that you find feeds your creativity?
Well, five months ago I unwittingly thrust myself into the world of NFTs and it’s been amazing. After work, my wife and I started a project called Fly Frogs. She’s the Solidity developer and I’m the artist – and it’s the first time I’ve considered myself an artist!
We randomly generated 10,000 unique frogs, we put them on the blockchain and we sold all 10,000 of them. Now we’ve created this online community of people who love frogs and love the project. We’ve been able to donate $33k to SavetheFrogs.com, our charity partner.
All of a sudden, I’m in love with the NFT community and I’ve made a lot of friends there, which I did not see coming. I see a lot of parallels between the toy industry and the NFT industry, and I’m excited about how the toy community will engage with NFTs in the future. It will be amazing.
Folks can check that out that project here (twitter.com/FlyFrogsNFT). Let’s return to it soon because it sounds fascinating. Josh, this has been fun. A huge thanks again.
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