Moose Toys UK’s James Austin-Smith on creative thinking, bad product reviewers – and how he kickstarts ideas
James Austin-Smith! Last time you did a Mojo Nation interview you described yourself as “a huge geek” and said you love toys… And cartoons! What were your favourites growing up?
Well, this is a big question! I had so many favourites – I could chat about this for hours. Growing up in the 80s, I loved all the greats when it came to TV: He-Man, Thundercats, M.A.S.K, Ulysses 31, Transformers, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, Inspector Gadget, Dungeons & Dragons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Godzilla… The lists goes on and on!
Some of that stuff was corking! I’d forgotten about Ulysses 31… I don’t recall how it ended?! So this is mainly 80’s and 90’s TV stuff?
Yes. The cartoons of that era got me into animation, which was very nearly the path I went down instead of toys. There was so much action, storytelling and adventure in cartoons then, it really fired up the imagination.
And the toys?
The childhood toys I remember most fondly are a pretty-eclectic mix: Dino Riders, Micro Machines, My Pet Monster, Boglins, Starcom, Sectaurs, Spirograph, Screwball Scramble and Zoids were all truly top toys for me… But my all-time favourite was Lego. I’d spend hours covering my floor with bricks, then building spaceships and monsters with my dad.
Lovely! And what are your favourites now?!
Now my favourites are split into things I love personally, and things my kids love – these aren’t always the same, much to my disappointment. I still watch too many cartoons – I love anime like My Hero Academia, One Punch Man and, of course, all of the studio Ghibli stuff. I’m a fan of the Avatar series but also Rick & Morty, Gravity Falls, Kiko, Steven Universe.
What is it about them, particularly? What makes them stand out?
I like anything where quirkiness, imagination and story are king. My favourite animated thing of late is probably Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse which is a masterpiece of animation. For toys, Lego is still my first choice and I love building models with my kids. We’re also a Pokemon household – we play the trading card game together, it’s been a gateway drug for us into strategy board games and now we play Catan, Kingdomino, Unstable Unicorns and all sorts of tactical games as a family.
That said, I still hunt out old toys like Zoids and relive those classics with my kids too. There are so many great toys now though, it’s hard to pick favourites really; I guess anything that has been designed with play at its heart wins me over… Or just totally random or beautiful things or cool mash ups. I saw a M.U.S.C.L.E. /Street Shark mash-up on one of the directors desks in Melbourne – that was awesome! It’s what I love about toys, there are new exciting things popping up all the time so it is easy to be fickle! Don’t even get me started on video games from then and now!
And with those toys that you remember playing, are there any that – as you look back – you realise were also a brilliant design?
Plenty! It’s a great exercise to look back at the toys I favoured as a kid through the lens of a toy designer – and the 80s were a golden era for toy innovation. Three things spring to mind, though – Zoids being the first…
I have to confess Zoids passed me by… They’re intricately-designed mechanical animals, right? Did you have to build them?
Originally, yes – and the construction was just the right level of challenge. Then, the outcome looked amazing AND they moved! Looking back, the little pilots were absolute genius as they described the scale of the enormous mecha despite the toys not being that big. The little rubber studs gave them an ownable look and removed the need for screws… Just brilliant. I had a friend at primary school who had just moved to the UK from Japan and I coveted his collection of amazing, intricate, huge Zoid dinosaurs that you couldn’t get over here.
Zoids, then; I need to check those out!
Next I’d say Boglins. I loved those – but this was a real break-frame design that married the perfect material with the right play narrative. The cage-crate packaging told the story of the play clearly on shelf and the hyper real eyes brought them to life. I can’t think of any other puppet breaking through into mass on such a scale and as a kid I loved mine!
Brilliant! You’re right; there was a take-it-or-leave-it backstory but the packaging carried the idea at least halfway. Very smart. And the third?
The third one that came to mind was Starcom. These toys were magic! In the 80s, sci-fi toys were the go-to theme, I guess because people flying into space was still a recent novelty. And Star Wars! But Starcom was one of the greats.
The figures all had magnets in their boots – I bloody love magnets – so they would stick to plates on the vehicles, but then these often triggered a moving feature or action, like a lift rising or a transformation in a vehicle. Brilliantly, there were no batteries or motors, they were clockwork… But you never had to wind them up! Just resetting a feature primed the mech. They were really brilliant toys and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that feature combination used since.
Well, this’ll sound nuts but I’m quite glad you mentioned magnets! It turns out we share a passion for them. In fact, I use magnets so often that a colleague says if I’ve built something without one in it, it’s not finished! What is it about magnets you find compelling?
Ha ha! I really love magnets. They are magic! Even when you understand the physics they blow your mind… They behave in a way that challenges the way the world should work. Anyone who doesn’t feel the same should build a homopolar magnet with a battery and a couple of mags and copper wire – it is insane.
This is the best conversation I’ve EVER had! We’ll link to a video of that!
Do it! Or a levitating top. You know, the Levitron spinning top literally rewrote the science books? Before it, the view of science was that magnetic levitation was impossible without electromagnets. I believe they had to tour the toy around US scientists to prove it wasn’t a hoax. In lots of ways magnetism and electricity are two sides of the same coin – just think about that – amazing.
No argument from me! I recently told all my friends about Polymagnets… None of them cared – so I’m in the process of changing friends. Again. Anyway – for those people that kept reading, it’s been nearly two years since Moose Toys bought Worlds Apart. What’s been the biggest difference to the way you work?
It’s gone so fast. I think the biggest change beyond the travel – Moose HQ is in Melbourne – has been how the floodgates have opened in terms of creative opportunity for the UK team. Being part of a bigger toy company means our imaginations can run even wilder…
In what way?
We now have so many great resources at our disposal, and the marketing muscle to go head-to-head with the big brands we had to avoid in the past. Moose prides itself on chasing innovation so it’s been a real whirlwind as we’ve been really encouraged to go wild. It’s a blast and really feels like anything’s possible.
We last caught up with you at the 2019 Mojo Nation Play Creators Festival. You teased us by suggesting you’d been been working on what might be your best work so far… Can you talk about that now, or did Corona delay it?
Hmmm, we’ve been working hard on something for a launch next year that is without a doubt the most exciting toy I’ve personally ever worked on…
Yes! That’s the tease part!
I’m afraid the teasing must continue! It’s still very-much top secret! That said, if it gets to market looking anything like it does now, I’ll be so proud. There are some seriously-talented people who have got this thing working between the UK and Australian teams and I think it’s a really wonderful and innovative bit of play… I promise to fill you in when we’re allowed to talk about it next year!
I’ll hold you to that. In terms of your own creative processes, are there any specific techniques that you use to kickstart your thinking?
For me collaboration is the secret, working with different people and in different ways always yields different results. We had a couple of wonderful people join the team recently which helps mix things up. We also collaborate with people from outside Moose… And on Fridays, we have a weekly concept session – aside from any project brainstorms – called Frideas…
Frideas! Anyone in the UK office can join in: the price of entry is an idea… So everyone is thinking about new blue-sky ideas all the time. Creativity is a muscle that needs to be worked, so this really helps. Some things make it through from Frideas but, most importantly, it develops our critical and creative skills – it’s the best meeting of the week by far!
Wow. Okay. Maybe sometime we’ll dig deeper into how those sessions run… Conversely, though, what’s your creative Kryptonite?
Silence! I need a soundtrack to think well… It can be music or birdsong in my garden or even people chatting in the studio, but sitting at a desk with nothing happening around me makes a blank piece of paper feel like an unclimbable mountain.
Interesting. I know a lot of people are the opposite. You’re signed up for this year’s Mojo Pitch event. In a nutshell, what are you hoping to find?
Amazing play opportunities we’d never think of on our own! And hopefully some great new relationships. It’s always nice to see old faces too though.
What three tips would you give people about pitching to you, specifically?
Know who Moose is and what we do… Understand the kind of toys we make and therefore get passionate about. Even if your idea would be a new avenue for us, understand that it would be, and pitch as to why that’s an opportunity for us specifically. I’d also say care about your idea, don’t apologise for it…
Show us how you are so excited about it and why kids are going to love playing with it! BUT… Don’t be blinded by your passion. If we have feedback, be open to it. Even if we love an idea we are investing in the inventor as well as the invention and if we can’t have an honest dialogue about an opportunity it won’t happen.
That’s excellent, thank you. And actually, let me ask you this: after a pitch, inventors sometimes want to remind publishers their ideas exist… But they don’t want to piss off the decision makers! What’s the best thing to do?
Inventor relations people are there for that reason, to stop you from pissing off the decision makers as well as championing your idea through. But there are many factors affecting when a decision can and will happen around an opportunity. There’s no harm checking in and nudging, just don’t be pushy or rude. We understand that these ideas are your passion and the result of many hours of work, and we do our best to find a home for them – but sometimes that takes a while. Personally I like email or text nudges as I don’t have to down tools and respond straight away like I do with a phone call.
Great answer. Alright! We’re into the home straight… Last year, you sat on a Mojo Nation panel that we called Toy Room 101… One of the things you suggested should be forever condemned to a Hell of their own is people who write bad product reviews… For those that missed it, what’s your gripe?
My gripe isn’t with bad reviews, it’s with bad reviewers. Bad reviews can be brilliant feedback for designers and inventors. We work so hard to create the best toys we can for peoples’ kids, though, so don’t leave one star because the courier delivered it late, or three stars in advance of Christmas because you ‘think’ little Jonny is GOING to like it…
Right! There are a lot of incompetent reviewers…
Yes… Reviews are an opportunity for a dialogue with the manufacturer, so tell us about our toy and what you or your kid thinks. My most hated ones are when we see, “Not worth the money, but my daughter totally loves it. Two stars”… Surely your child loving it is what you paid for? Or do consumers do their own product/cost analysis now? We sell play experiences, not just a collection of raw materials.
You’re absolutely right. Infuriating. Jocose reviews, too, I think are harmful. They’re funny but it’s at the expense of your livelihood… Alright! James, if you were going to write your autobiography, what would you call it?
Assuming I was talking about my time in toys, then maybe “Serendipity”… That’s partly because I got into toys by lucky accident, and now love what I do every day, which makes me a very lucky man. And partly because this market is a game of chance… Without a little serendipity, no one sees success, however good the idea. Or maybe I would call it “TLDR”, which I would expect to be the most common review.
TLDR? Too Long, Didn’t Read?! That’s brilliant! I wish we’d closed on that! Finally, then, what’s the most interesting thing on your desk?
Well, on my desk at Moose it’s probably all the rough prototypes of projects that never happened – like glue-gunned ghosts of things that could have been. My home-studio desk is less crowded, so I think probably the most interesting thing there is the pet fish who lives on my desk. He’s called Ghibli because he lives in the studio; he’s a rainbow peacock betta.
Yes! When I grow up I’d like to be more like him, fierce and beautiful… But hopefully I’ll never really grow up. Oh! Or it could be my small collection of magnets!
Oh, stuff the fish; let’s say magnets! James, I’m going to wrap this up but I want to thank you for your time. It’s been great fun and I know how busy you are. Let’s find some links to magnet videos!
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