Making Things Fi Murray on where her ideas come from – and why there’s no better industry to be in as a solo women business owner
Fi Murray! You’ve done a fair few articles with Mojo but I’m not sure we’ve delved into the detail of how you got into the industry! Do tell…
For sure. My first related job was back when I was 20. It was in a humble little farmyard office with a small team of project managers, designers and sales folk yet out of this office, they created arguably the largest toys in terms of fun and size. They made playgrounds!
Like adventure playgrounds?
Yes, but their portfolio is the opposite of the metal, almost ghostly playgrounds you see abandoned in so many locations of the UK today. The office was the UK subsidiary of the German founded eibe play. They create modern, inclusive and epic-scale, outdoor play equipment and playscapes for communities, councils, schools and attractions like LegoLand.
It’s not crossed my mind that there’s people toiling away over that!
It’s overlooked, I think, in terms of design. But eibe’s playgrounds are about all kids feeling wild, testing their abilities to the extreme, celebrating natural materials in themed environments and playing out everything from pirates to castles to jungles.
What was your role there?
I was their Junior Playground Designer for one year as part of my degree, studying Product Design. I learned more in that year than I did in the whole three years of studying I think! Playground design is a mega creative hybrid – it’s a bit of landscape design, some construction engineering, a sprinkle of graphics, a lot of thematics, storytelling, user-experience and some community research all locked tight with safety standards.
Seems like a lot for a junior role!
It really was the best training ground to flex those ‘jack of all trades’ skills that the toy-and-game industry thrives on. It also taught me to work within real commercial budgets. That commercial learning was critical and, unbeknown to me, the next role coming my way would see us fighting to the death over a .000 cent!
Ha! To the Amok Time fight-theme music! So how did you move forward; what was next!
A recruiter representing a toy company was looking for an entry-level Junior Product Designer to cover a maternity role. I remember the recruiter saying on the phone that the company works with brands like Disney and Crayola. I was sold, she didn’t need to go on but then she also said Fifi and the Flowertots – a Keith Chapman brainchild. At the time Fifi was one of the top preschool licenses and my little niece was crazy for it. I couldn’t believe a toy company like this existed in quiet Surrey, England. I’d go on to learn that they also created some of the most iconic toys of my childhood…
Oh! I was going to ask about that later! Give me a for instance…
Relevant to this? Thunderbirds Tracy Island comes to mind… But I had no idea how established the British toy industry was. Anyway, the company was Vivid Toy Group. I’m so fortunate to have joined during the original founders’ era.
You do speak fondly about those days… What was special about them? Or the people, I suppose…
They were just entrepreneurial at heart, and really lovely humans… Many of my closest friendships today were born out of that time, some are my mentors today and some are even business partners. With almost everyone having now flown the nest to other pastures, it’s great to see friends living out experiences in different companies.
That’s great. I often want to say something like that about Billy and Mojo, but it just sticks in the craw…
A ‘Product Designer’ at Vivid was like a hybrid project manager, product developer and designer so there was a lot of business to be done beyond the creative – and I loved that. Their portfolio was expansive and, over the years, I got to develop products in every category from doll and playsets, games, animatronics to role play and activity.
Gosh, did we have fun and do an insane amount of work. The output was fierce – long hours, continuous troubleshooting, drink tea, insane deadlines, adrenaline mega pitches, brands alive, brands dropped, think of a new brand, drink more tea, licensor approvals – ahhhh! Then there were factory issues, shipment delays, trips to Hong Kong… No one day was the same. You’d be in a brainstorm in the morning and then head to a big-money pitch for a master toy license in the afternoon. It was weird and wonderful. The hours – days, YEARS – just flew by!
This is a bit weird, but. The way you’re telling this story, I kind of don’t want you to leave Vivid! And obviously you do…
Yes! Over the years, as I grew up – literally and metaphorically – my skill set evolved, and so did the company mission. My passion for generating new brands and their business ambitions aligned, which saw my role transition from live project research and development to focus on the future portfolio and innovation. This included sparking new life into our existing brands with expansions and extensions, to new license pitches, to generating in-house IP. It was the origin, front end, opportunity chasing creative that I loved!
So you spent a decade at Vivid. What were some of the highlights?
Highlights… Gosh, so many to recollect! But in the spirit of toy and the love of ‘my first’ titled product, I’ll try and recall a few memories along that theme.
My first trip to the Crayola factory was great. We were over in the States for meetings and I was given a factory tour. It was everything I’d imagined as a kid, and more – a Willy Wonka factory of art, with wax oozing and dripping over the machines and – oh my gosh; the smell… Yummy! I loved every minute of it.
This is so fun!
My first time to Hong Kong and China was great too. I’d never been to that side of the world before. It was one of the most sleepless, sense awakening, awesome weeks of my life. The best bit was I finally got to meet the Hong Kong office family who I’d only ever seen on screens, and – post Covid – we all know how wonderful that feels! They taught me so much in such a short space of time, with crazy stories and fond memories to last a lifetime.
You left your last Vivid role – Global Principal Creative – to set up your own invention studio, Making Things. I know you’re always tinkering here, there and everywhere… Anything you can actually talk about, though?!
It’s been an adventure! The output of the studio from the start has focused on three core services: consulting, workshopping and inventing. The consulting work has been eclectic, with super fun partners…
What kind of stuff?
A mix of front-end, blue-sky ideation and back-end strategic work, working either as an external on individual projects or directly with the teams in-house.
I’m mostly hired to stress-test things, imagine new things and manage those things. Kind of like an external innovation hub. I often get briefs like, “We’ve got this idea and we’re not sure what to do with it? Is there enough in it? What directions can we take it in? Can it be converted into something commercially viable?”
So you offer advice on…
I ideate against every touch point. Things like the play experience, the packaging, the content, the marketing and the launch. The aim is to deliver a launch range plan with future seasons, ambitiously; sometimes up to three years’ worth. Essentially it’s exhausting every possible angle of a concept.
And the workshops?
These have been awesome to facilitate! It’s been great to see so many ideas move forward and evolve through design sprints and ideation sessions. I’ve loved creating bespoke sessions and days that involve new techniques to inspire teams to squeeze out their creative juice.
And did you manage to do those throughout Covid?
Yes and no… The “pre-covid” sessions feel so precious now. We moved to remote, and I’d say it can be 80% effective, but critically misses the creative energy shift you get from putting your brain and body into a new environment away from the desk. It misses those serendipity moments that just don’t flow as easily over Zoom – they’re often the magic, idea-making moments in a creative session.
I wouldn’t presume to debate that; I think there’s an intangible element missing online. You’ve also been inventing?
Absolutely. I’ve focused my creations on certain specialisms. Modern developmental; infant and toddler toys ranges… New collectable brand IP with broad range potential. Trend-led creative play experiences. Energetic, pun-tastic, pop culture party games… And story-led IP with publishing and animation episodic potential.
I’m not sure if I’m insulting you when I say you make it all look easy! Do you think it is? Does it come easily to you?
Some parts are easier than others! Inventing is a mad world… Can something be both arduous AND the best adventure? That’s what inventing feels like. A rollercoaster of highs and lows – with a big dip called Covid – but I’m so happy to say that I have a small portfolio of concepts launching in 2022.
Brilliant. And I wanted to ask, of the three pillars – core services – how does your workload split?
The present day output of the studio is now 90% inventing with a few cheeky projects here and there. I came to a crossroad where the three outputs of consulting, workshops and inventing were all ramping up too much for a one-woman band. To be in all places at once, I would’ve needed to hire in or brief out.
Oh! Didn’t fancy that?
No, I didn’t want to run an agency or go back to project management at this point. I needed my butt on a seat outputting. I wanted to make things – hence my company name! I wanted to be hands on, and I wanted to create. And getting some concepts away to allow for some financing, and doing more collaborations, has helped me make that shift. The combination of bringing together complementary skill sets and different strengths is a fantastic formula for creating.
And with whom have you collaborated?
I’ve collaborated with So Sound, Toy Vision, Carterbench and – most recently – Phase Two. All in different ways, all with different outputs – it’s really exciting. Looking ahead with inventing being the focus, the next stage of the studio is to dedicate capacity to IP. This is where my heart lies. I have a highly-ambitious bucket list goal; to be a creator of new worlds, characters and stories. Who knows if it will ever happen. High risk, low hit rate but ‘go big or go home’ as they say.
Brilliant! Something I’m itching to discuss is your creative process. Where do your ideas come from? What do you do with them? Write them down? What is the one thing you HAVE to do to stay creative? What’s step two with any idea?
I think most of my ideas come from smashing together a blue-sky creative thought with a fairly robust insight. Strategic inventing I suppose… I always try to present my concepts with insight and rationale, giving at least one reason that it needs to exist.
And where do the insights come from?
The insights come from me tracking thousands of resources I’ve curated over the years, along with observations and trends… But on the flip of that, my brain is always on and a little wacky, so ideas do come to me unconsciously. I think that’s because I fuel it with lots of things that eventually collide in there to create some new ideas. With those impromptu ideas, I try to assign them to an insight strategy or a white space pocket in the market before moving them on.
It sounds like you’re wired to be somewhat creative by nature, then… How do you keep yourself organised?
I have to be very organised with my concepts otherwise it really would be creative chaos in my head! So I treat each one as a mini project. I use Trello to move ideas through the process. They start off as a spark… If there’s something in that spark; if it aligns to a trend or an insight or a company wishlist, I’ll put focus into that and start to turn that spark into an idea. It’s then about incubating that idea and doing 360 thinking to explore the entirety to eventually convert it to a pitchable concept. Then it moves into the pitch ready list – phew!
Right. And I think you’ve written an article about this for Mojo nation, haven’t you? So I’ll stick a link in here and people can find out more…
To give it some context here, though, at any time I might have 200 plus in sparks, 40 plus in ideas, and ten plus in incubation. That only equates to around three pitchable concepts. That’s a lot of sparks and ideas to end up with viable concepts but there’s a million and one reasons why concepts become weak and fall down.
It’s such a tremendous numbers game…
More so, really, when you then add in the pitching process, the stakeholders and the concepts moving through businesses for review. That’s when you can start to see why having lots of great ideas gives you a better chance than one great idea as an inventor.
Absolutely agreed. And in relation to pitching, you chaired – as part of Mojo’s 2020 Play Creators Festival, a panel on the so-called perfect pitch. What did you conclude? What’s the ideal blueprint?
We spoke about the formula of the three P’s – the Product, the Pitch and the Person. If all three were reliant on each other to increase the chance of success, or if you could have just one to get an invention licensed and as expected there was no one correct formula. If all three fired on all cylinders then it likely increased your chances but equally one could be just enough.
You know, I was going to ask more questions about this but – actually – it makes more sense if I stick the link in for that, too! I say it like I’m doing the work; Adam Butler will do the work…
Adam always does the work!
He does! And when I say that, people assume it’s a joke! But he does, in fact, do all the work! So, something else I wanted to touch on relates to your experience as one of a comparatively small number of women inventing in this industry… A positive experience? Or mostly negative?
A positive one! Statistically, there’s no doubt I was one of a few girls among a high proportion of boys throughout education from secondary-school Design and Technology, to College Product Design through to University Product Design… But my education experience was great in the sense that no one said I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.
So no one said you couldn’t, but did you sense you couldn’t; did you feel you couldn’t?
At times, I do remember feeling different, like the odd one out because I didn’t follow my group of girlfriends to the subjects they were taking. I’ll thank my super-women independent mum for giving me the confidence to go it alone.
And once I was at Vivid, my experience is the opposite of potentially what people think of the R&D female to male ratio…
In what way?
Well, I was hired by a female R&D director, managed by a female Senior Product Designer; I sat in meetings with female licensing managers, VPs, founders, creators, vendor managers etc. At times, our R&D department had more females than males. So from day dot, I saw women living out successful careers among their male peers – a great inspiration.
That’s fascinating. And that’s in terms of R&D? So what about as an inventor?
Being a female as regards the inventing arena? I couldn’t think of a better industry to be in as a solo women business owner. There’s not many of us, but female inventors are celebrated, awarded, welcomed with open arms and sought out by all.
And do you think that’s increasingly the case?
I do! I think grassroots design education is evolving with the times… It’s less “Let’s learn eight different ways to join corners of wood” and more “Let’s 3D print our way out of a problem”, or “Let’s have a group design-thinking challenge”… So, hopefully, it makes for an inclusive education route with more females coming through the ranks. I don’t know, but perhaps my girlfriends might have been more interested in choosing the subjects to study today than they were in our past? I’ll ask them next time we catch up!
Well, please do! I’m really interested in why it is that the industry doesn’t attract more people like you when it is so attractive TO people like you! Listen, Fi; this has been terrific fun. Thank you so much for making time. Last question… What’s the most interesting thing in your office or on your desk?
It’s got to be my Crayola vintage tin! I use it for trinkets, USBs, expense receipts… There’s a beautiful poetry in that, as an adult, I created products for a brand that – as a child – gave me the creative tools I needed to become a designer. Colouring was my first ‘design’ activity.
Terrific! Fi, what can I say? So good to catch up! Thanks again!
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