A riff on creativity, design, and toys – All In The Mind – ABC News

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Sana Qadar: Think back to your favourite childhood toy. Maybe it was a Barbie or Lego blocks or a toy car. They are all objects that are simple enough to be played with intuitively. It’s not like kids need an instruction manual to figure out how they work. But for all that simplicity, there is a complex array of thought that goes into their design. A toy designer’s mind has to consider whether a toy provides a solution to a problem, whether it’s marketable, is it educational, and, crucially, is it fun? Our two guests today both work in the world of design. One is the critic Alexandra Lange, whose latest book is The Design of Childhood: How the material world shapes independent kids.Alexandra Lange: I mean, we’ve all seen a child sitting in a pile of blocks and playing by themselves four hours. There is this educational aspect to it but there is also just the beauty of children and imagination and that open-endedness that comes with them.Sana Qadar: We’ll also be hearing from Associate Professor of Product Design at the University of Minnesota, Barry Kudrowitz. He is interested in how creativity is assessed, taught and learned, and he has taught toy design for over 10 years.Barry Kudrowitz: When we are dealing with older kids, it might be driven more by market and things that are popular brands or trends, different properties, and so I feel like at some point things flip from being more like developmental need driven to market driven. Designers aren’t necessarily saying ‘what do teens need right now’, but we do that for babies.Sana Qadar: Hi, I’m Sana Qadar, and for this episode I’m handing the All in the Mind toy box over to our producer Diane Dean. She started by asking author Alexandra Lange what sparked her interest in childhood design?Alexandra Lange: The germ of the book really started when I had my first child, 12 years ago now, and when I was home on maternity leave, all of these packages started coming to me, people said, oh, you need this car seat, you need these books, these blocks. And there were all of these new things coming into my house, and I suddenly realised that I didn’t understand why these things. Like, why did all of the kids’ clothes have little animals on them, why this set of blocks as opposed to that set of blocks. And so I felt like…I was home on maternity leave, I wasn’t supposed to be working, but in fact the design critic’s mind never turns off, and I really wanted to know the histories and the reason behind all of these new objects. So it was really a combination of my own new brotherhood and the way my mind already worked as a critic.Diane Dean: An important figure in psychology and design is Lillian Gilbreth who, with her husband Frank, looked at how best to organise tasks. Lillian had a special interest in the home kitchen. Later we’ll hear how environments can now be spaces for learning. But first, a little bit about Lillian Gilbreth.Alexandra Lange: Yes, Lillian Gilbreth and her husband Frank were pioneers in what’s called motion study, which was a way of recording industrial workers at first doing the repetitive motions that you might use on an assembly line and figuring out what was the most efficient way to assemble a car or something like that.Diane Dean: We all now have such a lot of stuff that needs to be stored and designed for and put somewhere, and it said in your book that the environment is the third teacher. Could you say something about that?Alexandra Lange: That quote, ‘the environment is the third teacher’, comes from Loris Malaguzzi who is part of this educational system called Reggio Emilia that is practiced in a lot of early childhood and preschool environments. And the idea is that we learn from people, we learn from things, but we also learn from the environment that we are in. And often it seems as if people only believe that children learn from books or learn from worksheets or things like that, but in fact the environment and what’s often called a prepared environment that’s stocked with educational toys and is set up so the children can have a great deal of independence, teaches them as much as any kind of specific verbal tutoring.Diane Dean: Coming well before Lillian and Frank in the world of things and children’s learning had been Friedrich Fröbel and his famous blocks. Blocks seem to be the very staple of children’s worlds. They are about space, construction, how things go together and how they fall apart. Alexandra told me more about the recent family relations such as Pratt blocks and a spaceframe like Zoob. But first, the Fröbel blocks.Alexandra Lange: Friedrich Fröbel was an educator in early 19th century Germany, and he was someone that trained as a forester, worked as a teacher, studied minerals, really kind of a polymath. And he decided that he could put together his knowledge of forestry and wood with his knowledge of crystal structure, and create an early childhood educational system that would work for kids who weren’t old enough to read yet.And his system was based on this series of what he called gifts and what we would call toys, and the most basic gift is a box that has nine square blocks in it. And the children in his kindergarten, as he called it, would sit at a table that had a grid on it and the teachers would give them each a box of these blocks, and then the teachers would lead the children through exercises that would allow them to learn basic principles of likeness, of geometry, of gravity.And so his system was really the first educational system to engage with children before the age of reading, before six or so. And it quickly caught on within Germany and it came to America, and there were a lot of women who became Fröbel teachers from 1850 on in the US. And that meant that really from the earliest days of kindergarten education, kindergarten was associated with blocks. And I think you can see that kindergarten is still associated with blocks. If you go to a preschool or you go to a kindergarten, you expect there to be a block corner, even if it’s not Fröbel blocks.Diane Dean: So was that seen as a turning point in children’s play, or did it just sort of come in rather seamlessly?Alexandra Lange: No, it was really a turning point because throughout the 19th century, most children in America and worldwide weren’t in school. School was really something for only the upper echelons of society. But as the Fröbel program came to America, people started setting up kindergartens for children in the settlement houses, children of recent immigrants, and it really pushed the idea of the age at which children could be educated down, so that now you could see four-year-olds, five-year-olds going to school. And that, combined with a general political movement to get children out of factories and into schools via child labour laws, meant that there was really a revolution in childcare and a revolution in the way people thought about childhood. Now childhood was not a time when your children should be productive and making money for the family, but they should be in school, and in fact they could start school much earlier given these systems of blocks.Diane Dean: Blocks don’t really have, as you say, a baked-in narrative, but yet when you give kids these blocks, they can imagine them as anything, they can bake in their own narratives. What senses do you think kids are using to invest these objects with a narrative?Alexandra Lange: One of my favourite charts that I talk about in the book is one called the Block Book, and it shows all the different things that children can learn from blocks, and basically all the things children can do with them. You know, they can learn about scientific concepts like gravity from stacking them up, they can learn about architecture from trying to imitate specific structures, they can do pretend play, you know, dressing up a block in little outfits or just even sometimes you will see a child with a long narrow block and they’ll just tip it upwards and make it into a person because it sort of has the affect of a person.So I think the reason the blocks have proved so long-lived in early childhood education is because they have all of these applications, and talented teachers can nudge children towards one or the other. But we’ve all seen a child sitting in a pile of blocks and playing by themselves for hours. So there is this educational aspect to it but there’s also just the beauty of children and imagination and that open-endedness that comes with them that makes them basically appropriate for children from a broad spectrum of ages and across all different cultures.Diane Dean: And so to Pratt blocks and to Zoob which are more a snap and connect type of toy. From a design viewpoint, do you think there are advantages or disadvantages, or are they each catering to a different type of imagination?Alexandra Lange: Each type of toy, whether you’re talking about wooden blocks or a plastic snap-together toy, has different advantages and disadvantages. Something like wooden blocks are really great if children want to build structures, where something like Zoob are better if they want to build creatures or things that have more give and movement because blocks fall apart if you push them around.You mentioned the Caroline Pratt blocks, the unit blocks, which are really I would say the most typical blocks based around a blonde brick of wood. And those are great for building big structures in the middle of the room. But something like Zoob which is a much more recent plastic toy that is sort of like bones that you can click together is great for kids that want to build creatures or want to build spaceships, and they also have a lot more give in play, so you can build things that roll or things that snap in and out like a bellows.So I think in terms of parents buying these toys, you have to know your child, and what’s really great is if you can have a bunch of these different systems and then your child figures out how they can all work together.Diane Dean: As Sana mentioned at the start of the program, my interest in design prompted me to talk with toy designer Barry Kudrowitz. He’s an Associate Professor of Product Design at the University of Minnesota, and I asked him how he had got into the field of toy design.Barry Kudrowitz: I actually wanted to do theme park ride design, so I went to this engineering school in Orlando next to Disney World, thinking that I would design theme park rides as an engineer, and I didn’t actually do anything like that. So I applied to a bunch of art schools and industrial design schools when I graduated. Kind of like a joke, I applied to MIT. My undergraduate advisor was like, ‘You have pretty good grades, you could probably get in there,’ and I did, I got into MIT. And my adviser was just starting this research project with Hasbro, which is the second largest toy company in the United States, and they wanted new types of Nerf and Super Soaker products, new mechanisms for Nerf and Super Soaker. So that became my masters thesis, I developed a Nerf gun out of that and I felt it was close enough to theme park rides that I’d be happy.And then pretty much after that I started teaching a class called Toy Product Design as a grad student, and I taught it for six years at MIT, and then I taught it here at the University of Minnesota for 10 years.Diane Dean: That’s a lot of toys.Barry Kudrowitz: It’s a lot of toys. I’m actually staring at dozens of toy prototypes in my office right now.Diane Dean: Is there a way of identifying gaps in the market?Barry Kudrowitz: Well, I think the design process tries to address that. So it’s all about going out and talking to people and studying what’s already on the market, and then using that information to inform your idea generation process. And sometimes ideas come from nowhere, like you’re in the shower and you have some thought where you have a toy concept for years that you’ve been trying to develop. But when you follow this design thinking process that is promoted by IDEO and d.school, it usually involves going out into the real world and seeing what’s out there already and watching hoe people play, in this case, and using that information to inform your ideas.Diane Dean: Thinking about the tactility versus assembly modes of toy design, is childhood being designed, would you say?Barry Kudrowitz: I’m not necessarily an expert at this, but from my observation, it feels like at a younger age, the toy design industry and design process is driven by developmental needs and maybe what experts think children should be playing with. And then when we’re dealing with older kids it might be driven more by market and things that are popular brands or trends, different properties. And so I feel like at some point in there, things flip from being more like developmental need driven to market driven, and I don’t know when that specifically happens. Designers aren’t necessarily saying ‘what do teens need right now’, or ‘what does a 13-year-old need to be better prepared for life’ and designing from that point of view, but we do that for babies. You know, this is helping with their fine motor skills, and this is helping find patterns, and we kind of stop doing that at some point.Diane Dean: Kids are pretty good nowadays at manipulating the iPad, even though they don’t necessarily know what they are doing. Do you envisage that toys will become more of an on-screen thing? Of course there is the tactile element.Barry Kudrowitz: Right. I’m conflicted. We limit screen time, very minimal, and we only use it in emergencies, like on aeroplanes or the doctor’s office, stuff like that. And at least in our case, my child is still learning from these games that he’s playing on the iPad. He’ll learn words, he would surprise me because it’s stuff that we haven’t taught him specifically. So I see benefit but we limit it because we want him physically playing with stuff, manipulating things, not just staring at a screen for long periods of time. But in general I do see there is much more screen-based games and integrating the digital with the physical is trending now too. The world is getting more digital. Most of my job now is staring at a screen. One could argue that they are learning skills that are valuable to whatever future profession where they have to be digitally savvy and be able to manipulate things on screens. But again, if we gave him an iPad, my child would probably be on it for hours, and there are issues with that too. There is social development, talking with virtual things or other people, but you’re not developing the in-person social skills and physical manipulation skills.Diane Dean: Of course there is always the thorny question of should toys be designed specifically for boys or girls.Barry Kudrowitz: Applying gender to toys is a little weird. We do it. It’s like applying colour and saying this colour is feminine or this smell is feminine, this perfume, fragrance is masculine or feminine. Target got rid of the girl aisle and boy aisle, and now it’s just by themes. I think that the future is going there. We as a society put these boxes around toys and we say this is a boy’s toy or they are advertised, and in the commercials there are boys playing with the thing, and if kids watch that they say, oh, I’m supposed to be playing with that thing, or their friends’ parents get their friends the things and so on.When I was growing up, although wanted was the Easy-Bake Oven because I was so into cooking. And I think they were only pink at the time. Also when I was growing up that was for girls, the Easy-Bake Oven, and I think it was marketed also to girls, they were using the stereotypical colours for that. But if you look at the culinary world, most chefs, at least the ones in popular culture, are males, which is also another issue, the gender issue that’s going on right now. So that doesn’t make sense either.My research is on creativity and creativity assessment and perception. I’ve just been teaching toy design for 16 years, so I kind of know the industry.Diane Dean: How do you assess creativity, do you apply that knowledge to what the students are doing, and can you teach it?Barry Kudrowitz: Creativity? Yes. That’s what I do.Diane Dean: Is there a scale?Barry Kudrowitz: There’s lots of different ways of assessing it but there’s not a 25 on the blank scale of creativity yet. So there’s the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, and that does have a scale and you could say I am this group or this is my creative index number. But it may not necessarily map to, for example, design creativity which requires more criteria to be creative. It’s not good enough to be a weird, novel suggestion, it also has to meet a need or have a market or be functional, for example, in order for people to view the suggestion as creative.My background is mechanical engineering and industrial design, and everything I do is physical in nature, and in general those disciplines are about teaching people to make physical things, and I worry about those fields of study as products become more and more digital. Are we going to really need industrial designers and mechanical engineers, as many of them, in the future if everything is a screen? So it’s not about losing our ability to make things physically but I worry about the industry. I also do worry about people’s lack of understanding on how things work. People my age or the students don’t know necessarily how to fix their bike or do an oil change or fix a tire on a car, whereas my parents and their parents, that was just part of life, you had to understand how to fix things around the house. I think we are losing that.The internet currently is not great for hands-on learners. Anyone can look up information on their phone or on Google or on a computer, and you could learn very specific details about something without being an expert. In the past you had to be the expert to figure out what the current state is of that thing or find the book about it, but now you don’t need that. But what you do need is the ability to parse through the information, make sense of it, and have the creativity to use it in some way. The same way going forward into the future, whatever the tools are for collecting the information or having it at hand, there’s all these devices that are listening to us right now, there’s probably something in my phone that is probably listening to me and hearing our discussion. And it’s not going to be that far in the future when my phone is saying, hey, I heard all of the things that you were talking about, these are all of the most relevant articles or news articles or whatever related to your conversation. Based on my preferences it will know what I like or how I speak. It might even be able to formulate the next sentence for me and say, hey no, you probably should include this bit of information that you didn’t include. That also sounds futuristic but we are really not that far away from that being possible.In the future there could be a thing where there is a virtual holographic apprenticeship model. So you’re trying to install a handrail for your stairs, and you could watch the video, or you could project the person helping you into the room with you and they can see your room and they can point at stuff as you go through the process. So I could see it still being useful in the future. We’re not there yet, but in the future the knowledge on the internet could be more useful for hands-on learners, or something else. I mean, it could just be projecting directly into your eyeballs and you could think that you are seeing something in the room too (I just made something up). Or VR, these augmented-reality headsets and you can see things in the real world. Things that we think are crazy sci-fi today are just going to be normal in 50 years from now. The hard part to understand is having something implanted maybe in your brain that is connected directly to the internet such that you know everything on the internet at all times. We have a little bit longer to go before the Johnny Mnemonic type of the Matrix kind of stuff, but I have an open mind. Sorry, we went so far away from toy design!Coincidentally right now in my class we are doing what we call sketch modelling, and the students have all built these rough prototypes to demonstrate their concepts. And now in the age of digital modelling, CAD modelling, designers want to go straight to that. And as you said, there’s a lot of value in having a physical representation to test with real people to get feedback. You’re not going to get information about how big it should be or how they will hold it or how they would use it in the case if you showed them a picture or a CAD model. But if you give them a prototype, you’re going to get a lot richer data on the experience and how they actually use the thing. So we teach that process. Instead of going straight to CAD, we make these series of rough low fidelity prototypes, and, specific to toys, you’re not going to get real data on kids if you just show them a picture. It’s not until you put something in their hands and you see how they actually play with it, you need that information to make good design decisions going forward.Diane Dean: Once they’ve made that prototype, do they then take it to kids and watch them?Barry Kudrowitz: Yes, that’s the design process, so design and then you test it by making it, and then you get feedback from real users, and use that feedback to iterate. We have what we call play-testing several times throughout the semester where they bring their next iteration to actual users and they observe.Diane Dean: How often do you see them radically changing their idea?Barry Kudrowitz: I would say it’s more rare for something to not change throughout the semester. There are cases where it’s such a good concept from the beginning that they are constantly getting the same feedback from kids—this is awesome—and then they keep refining that one concept. But in most cases, things change. They’ll have a variety of concepts, they will combine them, they’ll throw all of them out and start again. But if you look at the ideas that are initially pitched and what they present at these final ‘PLAYsentations’, there’s rarely something that resembles the first iteration or the first sketch.Diane Dean: And just to end the show, I asked Barry and Alexandra a couple of things which have been on my mind. First, what is it about favourite toys? And about a certain popular modern figurine.Barry Kudrowitz: We had these Jellycat bunnies and we heard you should always have multiple ones just in case they lose it. So we stocked up on this bunny. And then one day we couldn’t find any, and we had six of them, we couldn’t find any of them because it turns out he was hiding them in a drawer in his room, and so we were freaking out because he needs these bunnies to go to sleep, like a comfort thing. So I ran out to the store and I couldn’t find any white bunnies, which are…I think I had six of them, but I found a brown one, so I got this brown bunny, and now that is the only one he wants to be with. He doesn’t care about the white bunnies anymore.Diane Dean: They love plastic dinosaurs. What do you think that’s all about?Alexandra Lange: That’s funny, I have a giant bin of plastic dinosaurs in my basement. I feel like dinosaurs, for whatever reason, are really sold hard in children’s books, children’s programming, natural history museums, as this thing that is going to spark children’s imagination. It seems to be so societally supported. I think that kids do actually have a real desire to classify, and kids love having a lot of something. I think this goes for building toys as well as figurative toys, but if you can get a set of 100 of anything, that makes kids feel like they have lots of options. You know, they can line them up, they can classify them, they can make them into little families, it just kind of opens up more possibilities if you don’t have scarcity of a toy. And so dinosaurs I think have this fantasy element because so many of them were so huge and they don’t exist anymore, so it’s almost like that opens them up for all of these stories in kids’ minds.Sana Qadar: That’s Alexandra Lange, talking to our producer Diane Dean. Alexandra is the author of The Design of Childhood. And earlier you heard from toy designer and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Barry Kudrowitz.Thanks today to our sound engineer Andrei Shabunov, and to producer Diane Dean. We going to be discovering more items in the creativity and design toy chest in another episode of All in the Mind because in this one we didn’t even get to the world of boxes and the gazillions of things they can be imagined as.I’m Sana Qadar, catch you next time, inside the box.

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