why beautiful toys matter

GWDB up close.jpeg

Reposted from an interview for Fat Brain Toys...

How do you come up with new designs?

Design is a very hands-on process for me. It doesn't take place in my head. Since I was a kid, I have always been a maker. I have lots of tools and materials around me. Sometimes I will start with a small collection of materials, and just experiment to see what little combinations or modificaitons will open up new possibilities. I almost never sit down with a big blank sheet of paper to try to come up with something new. My creativity doesn't work that way, I don't pull things out of thin air. Some of my best ideas start with a constraint. For example, both Twig and the Goodwood Deconstruction Blocks started out with a couple of long pieces of square doweling and the idea that if I cut them up and glued the shorter pieces together, there might be some shapes and arrangements that have interesting play potential. I am constantly fiddling with them and dreaming up new possibilities. I have a whole room full of unreleased prototypes and ideas that are just waiting for their time. 

Why do beautiful toys matter?

In my day job I am an education consultant, and I am quite critical about what education has become. Our society is so used to thinking about learning in terms of knowledge and skills that we have neglected the much deeper learning where values and dispositions develop. That deep learning is going on all the time, and particularly in children. Young children are developing assumptions about the world, they are internalizing values, they are establishing their identities, their sense of place, their relationship with the world around them. This learning is subtle. It is mostly tacit. It's almost like osmosis. The things we surround our children with each have their own values and histories embedded in them, and our children pick up on these. If we surround our children with landfill toys--cheap plastic junk, poorly designed, mass produced, easy to break, and so on, think for a moment about what subtle (but steady) influence those toys will exert. If, on the other hand, we provide legacy toys--toys made with care, with good design principles, with great materials, with nice colours, with interesting esthetics and possibilities, think about the different way in which these toys will influence our children. Toys are among the first physical objects that children spend any real time with, and they lay a foundation for the relationship children form with the world around them. That's why beautiful toys matter. 

What makes a toy beautiful?

Beauty, to me, is not a cosmetic property. It is not just about appearance. As with people, we need to look deeper than the paint job. For toys, beauty is a constellation of different qualities, including great materials, of course, but also interesting functionality, sound construction. These are all reflections of good values embedded in the toy. Beautiful toys don't need to be colourful, they don't need to be wood--there is no prescription at all. It's deeper than any one factor. For me, the best toys grow more beautiful over time, that beauty comes from using materials that age gracefully, from good construction that stands the test of time, and from great play value--because a big part of what makes them beautiful is the memories that become associated with them. Just as children internalize the values embedded in the toy, so do the best toys internalize the child's love.

Matthew Hiebert 2013-08-18