Alpesh Patel, Vice President, Global Toy Design at TOMY, talks to us about Toomies, Jurassic Park and the one question he always asks himself…
Alpesh, pleasure to catch you – I know you’re really busy; thank you – as always – for making time for Mojo Nation… Am I right in saying you’re celebrating 21 years in the industry?
I am indeed – although now I’ve revealed my age. Its been a fantastic and rewarding 21 years and I’m deeply grateful to be a part of the industry. I’ve met so many lifelong friends in toys – and long may it continue!
What’s the road not taken then, Al? If this wasn’t your job, what would you want to have done instead?
Great question… As a young kid, I always had dreams of joining the RAF as a pilot and saving the world. Maybe I watched too many reruns of Top Gun at the time! But as I entered my teens, I really enjoyed two subjects: economics and design. Thankfully, I chose design for which I had a real passion, especially at the start of my GCSEs due to a great teacher.
The right teacher can make all the difference. Growing up, what was your favourite toy or game?
I had a few toys that I remember favourably as a child. The toy that I was most fond of was a 1982 Hotwheels Pontiac Trans-Am. I used to carry it everywhere I went, and remember constantly playing with it on my grandparents’ sofa. I’d treat the 80’s fashion of floral sofa patterns as roadblocks and parking spaces to manoeuvre in and out of. I also loved Centurions by Kenner. Max Ray was my favourite! As I got older, and LCD games became popular, TOMY’s Tronic 3D Shark Attack was another one of my standouts.
Some great answers! And let’s stay with this… We know that, as a child, you used to physically dismantle Tonka Toys and put them back together again… Do you still break things apart to see how they work?
Absolutely. Breaking toys apart to see how they work provides so much insight and helps generate ideas and solutions for future product development. It lets you marvel at the clever, simple engineering that you not only learn from, but also helps you appreciate the intelligence in which the Toy Industry relies on. As the industry is increasingly challenged on pricing and value, learning how products work is an absolute must for all toy designers.
In terms of the industry, your jobs and brands include Hasbro, Golden Bear, Vivid, Mattel, Disney, TOMY… Given that, what advice would you give your younger self if you could?
I’ve been very lucky to work on a variety of amazing products, with amazing people and amazing companies throughout my career. The best advice I’d offer my younger self is to keep practicing your craft. Only do things that make you happy, allow yourself to perform at your very best and always be open to learn and try new things. Also, be grateful to the mentors that provided you with the training, vision and inspiration to get you where you are today.
In terms of your personal creativity, you’ve spoken about how you travel, visit retail and play with your kids. What else inspires you?
I’m a really visual person and embarrassingly, I don’t read as much as I should. Nearly all of my inspiration comes from simply looking at things – whether in real life or digitally – and asking myself the really simple question: is this interesting enough for a child to positively notice?
You’ve also mentioned – very much in passing – your idea book. Tell us about that: what happens when something’s caught your attention?
When I spot something interesting or have a creative brainwave, I take a picture, save a link, write it down, sketch it or make a sound recording straightaway… I have quite a short-term memory! Then I simply show it to my kids for their immediate response.
A stringent filter!
Very much so! And anything that filters through then goes into some further thinking time to see if there’s a product possibility. As I’m getting older, I’m realising the beauty in simplicity and focusing my efforts on how to innovate with straightforward ‘ingredients’. It’s a challenge, but I look at the most loved toys in the world and the simple innovation that always captures the audience imagination and love for toys.
Well, let’s look at an example of that… This June sees you releasing a new line of licensed preschool toys for the Toomies brand. Working with Universal Brand Development, you’re launching Jurassic World items… Chase & Roll Raptors, Spin & Hatch Dino Eggs, a Pic & Push T-Rex… Tell me about these!
There are probably five movies in my lifetime that I’ve been to the cinema multiple times to watch… And Jurassic Park is proudly a part of those five.
I’m with you. Great film. Brilliantly made, fantastic premise and – at the time – the closest we’d ever been to seeing real dinosaurs!
And dinosaurs are such a classic part of a child’s life from a very young age. So when developing this exciting new range, we were finishing our new Jurassic Park line, which expanded our famous eggs into a complete, interactive world. We wanted to define what direction we could take the line down in the future. It was after a conversation with Alpana Virani at UK Toy Fair that an immediate memory of the egg incubator sparked from the first movie. And I just thought, wow, Jurassic World and Hide and Squeak Toomies could be awesome.
It’s an inspired direction! How did it develop about?
Well, the resulting line is fantastic… Jonny French and his awesome team at Universal Brand Development, and my amazing design team, Tom Yamazaki, Matt Bland and Matt Jordan, all collaborated on these. It’s incredible to see the team working out how we could transform key storytelling elements from Jurassic World into unique toddler toys, all with specific features that you’d expect for this age group of users.
I’m just curious, though: how did preschool toys based on a quite-scary adult franchise get a green light?
So the Jurassic franchise is obviously not targeted to toddlers! But it’s unique in that it attracts such a wide audience, including the parents of toddlers. That automatically helped us develop the thinking behind this new range.
And were there, then, any early brand rules to steer the line?
Yes – as soon as the TOMY Design Team started to sketch out the new line, we made a few! The first rule was that there were to be no humans in our toys. Humans and dinosaurs bring an older feel to the play pattern…
Okay! In what way?
Perhaps the clearest example is that the human hunts the dino, or the dino eats the human! When we took this away, our thinking turned to a much friendlier angle, helping us design a range of toys suitable for our target audience. The second rule was that the dino’s rule themselves and Jurassic Park is their home. They look after themselves and have the time of their life at the park.
This thinking led to different play patterns centred around fun, problem solving and development. The most prominent rule was that the majority of dino’s in the collection would still be babies themselves, contained within their egg shell. That was the eureka moment for us… It allowed us to use something that was very familiar, and highly successful, and utilise the thinking within a system of toys we’d previously developed. The design team then really turned on the magic, producing some outstanding concept imagery with the help of Open 2 Design, that cemented what a great idea this was. I think it was fair to say, that our Marketing and Sales team were blown away when they first saw it!
It’s a beautiful-looking range! For people that haven’t seen it, what’s the one-paragraph summary?
Each of the toys in this new range celebrates the iconicity of the dinosaurs, and combines the well-loved vehicles with play patterns such as push and go, colour matching, shape sorting, roleplay, connecting and sound making. The hero of the line is a fantastic large sized T-Rex walker toy, which encourages toddlers to walk. It has a removable Gyrosphere, with balls that can be collected as the toddler gets more confident on their feet.
Great. Tell me, Alpesh, when people pitch to you, what do you look for?
An original, interesting idea is always the first thing I look for. I believe that great product development has to lead from the heart first, rather than the numbers. The idea needs to be something that I genuinely feel passionate about reviewing, and something I can imagine a child enjoying interacting with.
Authenticity is also very important. I must believe the product or service that’s being pitched to me is done by someone who genuinely feels passionate in their own product and knows that it will ultimately benefit a child’s enjoyment and growth for the future… Rather than an opportunity to purely make money.
And an obvious love of money aside, what are the absolute no-no’s of pitching?
I’ve met so many different people throughout my career and with that, I’ve adapted to different ways of overcoming certain challenges. I’m not a fan of the aggressive pitch – the type of people that believe their idea or service is better than anyone else’s. My experience has taught me to flex to different personalities and try to only work with people who are like-minded, but also those who have a mutual respect for one another.
Great answer! Alpesh, this has been terrific; I really appreciate your time not least of all because it’s so busy… Just a couple more questions: if you were to write your autobiography, what would you call it?
‘This is What I Do: A Guide for Mum and Dad to Gain an In-Depth Understanding of What Al Does’.
I almost daren’t ask why…
I love my mum and dad very dearly, but no matter how hard I try, they still don’t quite understand what I do! I know they’re extremely proud of me, and I am of them, but I remember when I worked at Hasbro, dad thought I worked for Haribo which I always found amusing.
Oh, that is lovely! This is a wider thing though, presumably? It’s not just your mum and dad?
No, I guess this is the challenge of being a design leader – describing what you do to someone outside the industry. We all get the same response when we tell a stranger on the plane what we do: “How cool is that! Wow, you get to play with toys all day…” The truth is that designers and design leaders have to wear so many different hats – from hands-on design, strategy and marketing to budgeting, team engagement, new business development and so forth… So no wonder I confuse my parents!
Billy’s family still think he’s in prison… Sounds like your book’s actually worth doing, though!
Part of the book would also include a whole section on encouraging ethnic minorities into the toy industry. I still think there is an under representation of people like me in the industry and I would love to see a more diverse community joining, providing a culturally different point of view in how to make kids smile through toys.
You know, that is a fantastically interesting topic. I’d love to come back to you on that and dedicate proper time to it. See, now I wish I’d started with the book question! Wrapping it up then, what’s the most interesting thing in your office or on your desk?
I can’t talk about it, it’s top secret! I’m currently working from home as most of the toy industry is right now, so I’m lacking and missing the presence of toy prototypes and samples all over the place. However, I can tell you that some of the new product thoughts for year two on Toomies Jurassic World are on my Mac laptop, sitting on my desk – and are very interesting…. Watch this space!
I certainly will watch that space; thank you Al. And let’s definitely pick up on the issue of underrepresentation sometime; love to hear your thoughts on that.
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