Melissa & Doug’s Vice President of Design, Sofia Dumery, on products, pitching and fuzzy pigs
Thanks for joining us, Sofia. Let’s start with the really obvious question… Are Melissa and Doug real people?
Yep, they’re real people – and parents of six – with a passion for play!
Six children? Perfect for playtesting! What’s their origin story, then?
It all started in 1988 with Melissa and Doug developing their first product in Doug’s parents’ garage. Raised by educators, they knew they wanted to create meaningful products for children.
Like what? Which products put the company on the map?
Both big fans of puzzles, Melissa and Doug asked themselves how they could take puzzles to another level…
You mean – like – jigsaw puzzles?
Hmmm, no; not at first… Younger than that – a children’s puzzle; wooden animal shapes in a board…
Oh, I’m with you!
The difference was they decided to make the pieces textured, and – voila! They launched the Fuzzy Farm Puzzle. That was the company’s first big hit. It was also the first instance of what would become a major part of our approach, putting a new twist on a classic play pattern. And it sparked a generation of kids to wonder, are pigs really FUZZY?
Ha! Then what? How did the business grow?
For more than a decade, Melissa & Doug focused solely on creating wooden puzzles – over 1,000 styles in all! Then they decided it was time to reinvent wooden toys and make them more creative and fun too. They wanted to create toys that don’t just look pretty on a shelf, but also give young children countless ways to play.
What kind of thing?
From classic wooden toys to realistic pretend play sets, puzzles, arts and crafts, and developmental playthings. All sorts! Melissa & Doug products spark imagination and wonder through screen-free, open-ended play. Today, the company is known as both the number-one children’s puzzle brand and the number-one preschool brand for wooden and sustainable toys!
Is that right? That’s remarkable. And what’s the mission at Melissa & Doug?
Our mission is to ignite imagination and a sense of wonder in all children so they can discover their passions and their purpose.
“Their passions and their purpose”… I like that; that’s great. Thank you! So what’s your background, Sofia? How did you come to be senior Vice President of Design?
I started off in houseware design, and my first big break was a line of garden products sold exclusively at Target called Sunny Patch. They have a wonderful colour aesthetic and are a blend of product and toy.
Sunny Patch… I’ll check that out!
That line brought me to Melissa & Doug, which I joined over 11 years ago as Creative Director. Working closely with Melissa, and our wonderful team of creatives, I helped increase innovation, and broadened the appeal of our products. As Senior VP, I now lead the overall design strategy and oversee the team of illustrators and product, packaging, and graphic designers.
Big job – but it’s been an incredible ride, and nothing brings me more joy than knowing that our mission of creating open-ended, high-quality, sustainable toys is only growing!
To that end, you recently signed up to do the Mojo Nation pitch event. Great to have you on board! For what kind of products are you looking?
Thanks! This will be our second Mojo event, so hopefully the inventor community is getting to know Melissa & Doug as well. We love simple toys with open-ended play patterns that feature wood and are truly innovative.
What’s your target audience, Sofia?
Melissa & Doug’s target ages are infants to six year olds, and our key categories are Pretend Play, Developmental Play, Puzzles, and Arts and Crafts. Ultimately an item that isn’t overly complex, but brings a new play pattern to life, will do well for Melissa & Doug. As our products have such a large range, we have the flexibility to get behind a concept and really build it into an entirely new line! An inventor concept doesn’t necessarily have to fit into a particular licensing or existing product line.
That’s great! And in terms of pitching ideas, is there any particular structure you prefer?
I prefer visuals, prototype demos, and/or videos… They’re all fantastic but, really, anything that brings your idea to life! Even a rough prototype can tell the most amazing story. I love seeing the passion inventors bring to their ideas. The best part of the process is working together to create something magical.
Conversely, then, what don’t you like? What’s a pitching no-no?
A complex item, with a screen, geared to an eight year old, isn’t going to work for us… Really, the better an inventor understands the Melissa & Doug brand and customers, the more successful their pitch will be.
They should also have a good understanding of what makes their idea unique in the toy space. Have they done a search to make sure nothing like this exists? Finally, is the idea 100% their own? We’re continuously influenced by everything around us, so we need to feel comfortable knowing that this is the inventor’s own IP.
Excellent. And what real-world advice would you give designers that you mightn’t get from a classroom or text book?
Keep at it! Designers share a lot of similarities with musicians.
Go on! How so?
There’s a world of options out there, so to stand out you need to nurture your own unique sound. Also, sustainability is only going to grow in importance… I’d encourage all designers to make that part of their design goals. And finally, I’d say looking beyond the toy universe can also give you a totally fresh perspective.
Great stuff! Sofia, thank you so much for making time for us and sharing your thoughts. Final question, then… What’s the most interesting object in your office?
That would be a life-sized flamingo!
Course it would! I’m tempted to just leave that hanging and not even ask why, but I can’t resist… Why’s it there?
It’s an early prototype. Also, it’s wearing jewellery I made and wore at one of our company Halloween parties. He – or she, maybe – is a fun reminder that I’ve got the most amazing job: creating toys!
Brilliant! Thank you, Sofia!
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