After spending over 17 years working at the renowned design studio Designworks Windsor, last year saw Matthew Hall and Lewis Freeman leave the firm and set up on their own with Phase Two.
We caught up with Mat to find out more about his history in the world of toy design and what Phase Two is looking to bring to the industry.
Hi Mat. First off, how did you get started in design, and was toys and games always a focus from the outset?
From a young age I liked drawing and making things… And toys were a big influence! I loved Eighties classics like Action Man, Space LEGO, Star Wars and BMX. I’d regularly go to sleep with my face buried in toy catalogue!
I have really vivid memories of being interested in the way they worked and the materials used and – fast forward 20 years – I ended up as a product design intern. I think they liked my drawings skills and things progressed quickly from that point. A few weeks later I was sketching up Blue Peter-era Tracy Island!
Prior to setting up Phase Two, you spent over 17 years at Designworks Windsor; how did DW help shape your approach to design, and could you talk us through any highlights from your time there?
In my early days there I was dispatched to Hasbro in Stockley Park on a regular basis and I loved the quick turnaround of briefs. It acted as a rapid education around the real-world design process, in particular the importance of empathy with the many stakeholders and the focus on quality and speed working expected from an agency. I worked with some really creative and inspiring people, most of whom are still influencing the toy and game industry now.
Some early notable highlights were designing a new MouseTrap game and designing a Sindy playset… This raised some eyebrows down the pub, but I didn’t care! I also worked on lots of Crayola products.
We’ve spoken before about a very cool project you were involved in with Puttshack… I may well have played mini-golf on a course you designed!
Yes! So in more recent times I managed the mini-golf hole design team for Puttshack. At the time it was a new social entertainment brand and their mission was to reinvent mini-golf by integrating their patented technology and defining the brand with a premium design language. This was game design but on a massive scale. Rather than a table-top, we had 10000 sq ft to fill!
That sounds intimidating, but also incredibly exciting. How did you about creating great holes for the course?
We had a great team and at the outset we went and played a round of mini golf with a ‘what if?’ approach to the game. It quickly became apparent there was potential to create something amazing. Everything I had learnt working on board games still applied to the core experience and we set about making the holes – initially without any technology to ensure that the core game experience was great. We wanted it to be enhanced by the tech rather than be defined by it.
Seeing the mini golf holes we designed being played on opening night was amazing. Whilst I had been involved in lots of products that had made it to market, seeing people enjoy your ideas first hand was really rewarding.
Absolutely. They are great courses! Now, onto Phase Two… How would describe the company?
Phase Two is currently myself and Lewis Freeman. We met in a lift at Disney’s Hammersmith office many years ago and ended up working together providing product design services for a wide range of clients. Our skill sets complement each other nicely and we have set up Phase Two to provide effective design services in an agile way that suits the future needs of businesses.
We are also keen that Phase Two contributes to making a positive impact not just through our design services but also in our own right. We have some initiatives that will help within the local community and hope that these grow as our business does.
You launched in 2020, a brave move for all kinds of reasons. Was it tough starting a business in lockdown?
For obvious reasons, 2020 made us consider our aspirations. It felt like now or never and we didn’t want to look back with any regrets. It has come with its challenges, but so far the feedback has been encouraging and we hope to expand in the near future.
On Linkedin, you mention that 2020 marks 20 years since your started your design career. What’s the biggest way that you’d say your approach to design has changed or evolved in that time?
The answer changes for this across the different sectors I have worked in. In many ways, the approach to design for toys and games hasn’t changed; we were always designing broad experiences.
For more consumer product focused design, when I started out, briefs were focused on pure styling. Today, the quality of products that consumers expect requires designers to have a much deeper influence in the design of a solution and the eco system around it. Surface styling has become just a part of the overall deliverable.
Thankfully sustainability is high on the agenda now. It presents another complex challenge but, as always, creativity will overcome. In fact, it would be great to be involved with some projects driving change in this area.
Before we let you go, how do you fuel your creativity? And has this been impacted by the recent lockdowns?
I have not really found it too much of an issue in terms of responding to a creative brief. However, managing the process remotely can be challenging when you can’t do the spontaneous “how about something like this” quick sketch and add that passing bit of encouragement.
It’s also good to have a couple of projects on the go so if you get bogged down in one you can switch to the other. When you return with a fresh pair of eyes a way forward normally becomes apparent.
The most challenging aspect we’ve found with the lockdowns is the presentation side. We’ve always enjoyed presenting in person and being able to respond naturally to the feel of the room. Presenting in silence to a screen is tough going so we are looking forward to a day when we can hopefully go and present in person again.
I’m with you there. Finally, for any toy firms reading, how can they reach you?
We have made it as easy as possible to reach us. Live chat on the website, emails, phone numbers or drop us a WhatsApp if you prefer. We still love hearing about new ideas, brands, innovations and start-ups so contact us in whichever way suits you. We can’t share what we’ve been working on yet but there a taster on this page here.
Brill. Thanks for taking time out for this Mat and good luck to you and Lewis for the ongoing success of Phase Two.
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