Interplay UK’s Warren Jacobs and Tammy Southgate on great toys, great values and great teams
Since Interplay UK is driven by teamwork, it’s only appropriate that we caught up with Product Development Manager Warren Jacobs AND Lead Product Designer Tammy Southgate.
What’s the one achievement for which each of you’d most like to be recognised?
Tam: I’d like to be recognised for being part of some brilliant teams that managed, against all the odds, to get toys to market! And bringing a bit of joy to kids if possible
Warren: To still be involved in the industry. There are lots of talented people out there and by and large it’s a lovely industry to work in, with lovely people in it.
Growing up, which toys or games were your favourites?
Tam: I used to covet anything a little bit strange looking… My most treasured toy which now belongs to my daughter, Flo, is a terrifying looking monkey with a soft body but with plastic hands and face….Most people that see it are terrified!! But I love him! I would make outfits and accessories for him and play for hours.
Also, there was a game called Battling Tops which belonged to my elder brother. That was a big family favourite… It was made by Ideal, and I recently bought an original version for him on ebay. Honestly, it made our Christmas! It was just as good, if not better, than I remember! I mean how often does that happen?
Warren: The first thing comes to mind is the Evel Knievel Stunt Bike! I also had this amazing kitsch hand me down Fonzie doll – with pop-up thumbs – from my next door neighbour… But the thing that I spent most of my time doing as an only child was building very symmetrical space ships from LEGO for my Star Wars figures. I did have this amazing air gun, another hand-me down. It’s sole purpose was to make the loudest bang possible! I can remember it reverberating around the housing estate; I must’ve been really popular.
I like that you built ships from LEGO for Star Wars toys. I didn’t dare blend those worlds! Looking back, are there any toys that you may have undervalued in terms of design?
Warren: I was lucky enough to have a TOMYTRONIC 3D game… Flipping amazing! It felt like the future, as everything did in the 80s. At that time TOMY were also producing some awesome robots… The Dingbot is just incredible. I wasn’t lucky enough to have one but – from a geeky perspective – it’s so simple and elegant. The way it utilises every cent of technology, and it’s super cute too.
You’re very passionate about this – but you didn’t have one?!
Warren: No! I also desperately wanted a Stretch Armstrong; it deserves its classic status. I now have a real soft spot for the Palitoy Tree House, a trailblazer of a play-set.
Tam: My brothers and I had these cool Nintendo hand held games… Game and Watch Multiscreen – catchy name! We had Donkey Kong, a Mickey Mouse game and another called Greenhouse. I still have two of them on my desk…. They are just a classic retro design… Eighties-tastic!
How did you come to this? How did you get into the industry?
Tam: I studied as a midwife straight after A-levels! But really wanted to do Art/Design, so after three years of training I left and went back to university to study Product Design. I did a placement at a toy consultancy called Pape Woodward and knew then that I wanted to design toys… I think it was inevitable as everything I designed looked like a toy whether it was meant to or not! I was asked to go for an interview for LEGO straight after I graduated and ended up working for them for a few years.
Warren: Oddly enough, when I was at TOMY we used to receive submissions from Pape Woodward! I wonder if I saw any of your sketches? I did a toy project when I was doing my design degree, a tail that waggled when you walked. That was me hooked, I graduated and did anything I could to earn money until a toy job came up, one did at Hasbro, and it was one that suited me down to the ground, I was very lucky indeed.
And in your opinions, what makes a toy great? What do you look for when people pitch?
Tam: I think what makes a toy great is when the full play experience has been considered – not just a clever gimmick or mechanism. Imagining yourself receiving the toy as a kid and running through how you would play with it really helps to figure out in your head whether it really works and has some longevity.
Yes, and what also helps is obviously still having a childlike view of the world… Still getting excited by things and still being able to tune into your inner child. Having said all that, something that just brings joy and makes you smile for whatever reason can be a winner too!
Warren: My opinion has changed massively through having kids. I think I used to underestimate the power of their imaginations. My first role in the industry was about trying to use technologies in novel ways, and while I was always keen on looking at natural user interfaces, I think that does tend to lead to whizz-bang toys for TV ads.
Whizz-bang toys for TV ads? Meaning a clear concept that jumps through the screen?
Exactly. Now I’m much more interested in thinking about the play scenarios of a toy, enabling children to create stories. You can never guess what they’re going to do but you can try and help them have a great starting point.
That’s really interesting. And it shows, perhaps, with things like My Fairy Garden, where imagination’s key…
So, early days, Warren, you were at TOMY… Tam, you were a freelance designer for LEGO. Big hitters! What did you learn working for those brands?
Tam: I met and got to work with some amazing and talented, talented people from all over the world. At the time I was there, LEGO was looking to diversify into lots of different areas. It was such a great place to start a career. They have such strong core values: ones which I have taken with me into subsequent roles.
Which values, specifically?
I think these things have always stayed with me… Imagination, creativity, fun… Learning, caring, quality… And actually, I’ve been very lucky to work at companies and with others where these values are also cherished.
Warren: Like Tam, I’ve been lucky to work with some astonishingly-talented people, at Hasbro, TOMY and now at Interplay. My time at TOMY coincided with my wife Sally and I having children… So working on Infant Preschool toys with young kids of that age at home was just awesome.
It didn’t feel like busman’s holiday, then? There wasn’t a line in the sand?!
Warren: No, not at all! It fed my interest in looking at child cognitive and physical development. I know that’s a common way of looking at things for infants and pre-schoolers, but if you look at them differently and you take their development needs back to base requirements, you can still find insights to help drive innovation.
So now you both now work at Interplay… Warren, can you tell us about that? What’s your ethos? How do you operate?
Warren: Oh boy… I think the foundations of what Interplay stood for, and still do to some extent, pre-date me joining by a long way. It’s a company that always had very strong values… Interplay always wanted to spark a child’s interest in the world around them, and to give the child a learning experience through experimentation. I’ve just tried to up the bar a little, to try and make things a little more toyetic and playful.
My joining also coincided with the company looking at the way the toy market was changing. Since then, and thanks to the PlayMonster acquisition, we have a small development team which, with a decent headwind, hopes to continue this ethos and create some more cool playthings.
Terrific. And Tam, for years, I’ve been using a phrase: “Not this, but this…” It seems that you use the very-similar phrase, “This, but not this…” ! What does it mean? Why say it?
Tam: This, but not this! Yes! That was a running joke when I worked at Worlds Apart, now Moose… It’s just one of those phrases that we used to try and describe what we are thinking but without really having an actual idea of what it was! Throwing out random ideas and then instantly dismissing it! “I mean not this, obviously!” Also there was a really funny Mitchell & Webb sketch years ago… It reminded us of lots of creative meetings we’ve had!! Have you seen it?
I have! Although, at the time, I thought it was like a documentary… Too close to the truth to be funny! I’m curious, then: if you each had to give advice to new inventors, what’s the one thing you’d say?
Tam: I think you just have to really enjoy what you do… If you have enthusiasm for what you do then it shines through. Also, look for inspiration everywhere; don’t rely on existing toys and games to give you inspiration. Look for it everywhere you go… Be interested in the world around you and you will find those little seeds, and some may flourish. BUT… Many will not! And that’s okay too! You have to be okay with putting ideas out there knowing that for whatever reason they might not work. Be prepared to have a very big “bottom drawer” where all the unused or shelved concepts will live!
Warren: I don’t feel qualified to give advice to any inventor regardless of how new they are, I’ve never worked on that side of the fence… They’re all far braver than me!
Well, to that end, then… What – in your experience – makes an exemplary team player in the toy-and-game industry?
Tam: Someone who is honest and happy to share… Someone who is okay with showing their vulnerabilities. Presenting a thought or idea to others because it may help spark something else in with the team. The phrase, “Look… This is probably rubbish, but I’m going to say it anyway!” is used on a daily basis because we feel it’s important not to self filter when you’re in the early creative stage.
Warren: As Tam says, openness and honesty are very important. It helps not to take yourself too seriously, being able to laugh at yourself helps… As does being able to roll with the punches. I also think you have to accept your limitations, of which I have many, so that you can get help where it’s needed.
You know, I’d like a little word cloud in here of all the values-driven words you use. I know a few people that could learn from that! And in terms of limitations, creatively speaking, what do you think is the most destructive thing? What is creativity Kryptonite?
Tam: Over analysing! Also, comparing yourself to others, perfectionism… I know this from bitter experience!
Warren: I’d add to that, “Not letting yourself go”; not having fun with it.
Interesting. I get the sense that you’re both very down to Earth; very values driven. Thanks for making time for this, by the way; I never said! I appreciate it. So, last thoughts: if you each wrote your autobiographies, what would you call them?
Warren: Can you Guess What it is Yet? – because I’m not the best artist in the world! Often getting my ideas across is a bit like a game of Pictionary for everyone else involved.
Tam: “Sorry! I’m a Shambles!” I don’t think that needs an explanation?!
Well… There’s no answer to that! I’m hardly going to say, “No! No explanation needed!”
Tam: The other thought I have is “Imposter!”
Tam: Yes, because most of the time I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing… I can’t believe that I’m doing what I’m doing, and at some point I will be found out!
Wow! Okay. That’s interesting. There seems to a lot of this about and – you know – sometimes when people say that, like now, I’m amazed because I think, “But you’re so humble, and values driven, and unassuming, with a terrific track record…” So I find that fascinating. Then again, when some people say they have impostor syndrome I think, “Well, of course YOU do! You actually are just a bullshitter!” But that isn’t your vibe at all; on the contrary… Fascinating. Okay! Last question: What’s the most interesting thing in your office or on your desk?
Tam: So I have some nice desk paraphernalia… It’s so difficult to choose the most interesting… I love my newly acquired ‘singing’ bowl! I have a Buddhist quote on my wall which simply says: “The trouble is, you think you have time.” It’s terrifying and liberating at the same time! It helps to put things in perspective a little. I also really like my vinyl figure of Jeff Bridges from the The Big Lebowski drinking a white Russian!
Well! The Big Lebowski’s attitude seems very zen so there seems to be a theme! Warren, you find yourself in strange circumstances at the moment, do you not?
Warren: Yes! During lockdown I’ve been lucky enough to use my wife’s shed. It’s full of weird-and-wonderful games and mechanisms. She tells me not to look so I definitely can’t share any of her favourite toys. However, I discovered that she’s stolen one of my toys, a Japanese micro-kitten from the noughties… It licks a bottle of milk when you hold it up to its mouth!
J’accuse, Sally Jacobs! Listen, I appreciate how busy you both are; thank you so much for making time. Great stuff… Stay safe!
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