FIT’s Toy Design Program: 14 Years Young and Staying That Way
By Tim Connolly
Judy Ellis with her Students' Creations
In 1989, the Toy Design Department at New York’s Fashion Institute
of Technology became the first of its kind in the world. The program’s
alumni continue to create toys for many of the major players in the industry,
including Disney, Gund, Hasbro,
Leapfrog, Learning Curve International,
Lego, Lucas Arts, Mattel/Fisher-Price
and McFarlane Toys. And that’s only up to “M” on the list.
TDmonthly spoke with Judy Ellis, chairperson
of the Toy Design Department, to find out how the school remains relevant
in an evolving industry.
TDmonthly: Why do manufacturers say that FIT's students
are "two years ahead of other recent hires"?
Judy Ellis: I would imagine that it’s because FIT Toy
Design students come to the table with life experience. A great number
of our applicants have entered the program with a four-year degree and/or
work experience in a related area. They may have a master’s degree in
child development, industrial design or engineering, or a degree in fine
arts, but they all come to us with prior knowledge and we build upon that.
Of course, because of the intensity and exactness of the curriculum, it’s
not unusual to hear students comparing it to medical school.
TDM: What is FIT's relationship with the Toy
Industry Association (TIA)?
JE: FIT Toy Design was developed in conjunction with
the TIA. We began working together in 1987 and opened our doors in 1989.
We have continued to work very closely with them over the past 14 years
to ensure that our students have the most current information with regard
to safety and safety standards. Both groups share similar values to support
the positive development of children.
Currently, we also create an online technology magazine provided to all
members of the TIA to keep them informed of new technological resources
available for the design of innovative children’s product. This helps
fulfill a mutual goal of marrying scientific progression with the principles
of sound design—to enhance our children’s lives.
TDM: Can you comment on the "Discover Together"
program? Do you see toys designed for "special needs" children
as a market the industry is taking seriously?
Judy Ellis with FIT Toy Design Students
JE: The industry is very focused on the issue of special
needs. It is a particularly challenging design assignment, because children
with special needs want most to be respected as people. The product designed
for them must be aesthetically pleasing to anyone – it must not make the
child feel alienated, but rather help to make them feel included with
the mainstream. Of course, all design should be people-driven
and arise in response to specific needs.
Discover Together is a program in which we team students with children
of various ages for the purpose of exploring playtime activities together.
This allows students to learn directly from their audience.
As part of Discover Together, our students have had the wonderful opportunity
to work with These Our Treasures, Inc. based in Bronx,
NY. For several years These Our Treasures provided a number of child-development
experts, who visited with our department to evaluate student designs in
a number of categories, so that we would understand what children with
special needs require.
A number of companies have designed product to this end. Toy
R Us publishes a Guide for Differently Abled Kids,
which points out toys that are duel purpose. It is endorsed by the National
Parent Network on Disabilities. For several years, the TIA has
also published a Guide to Toys for Children who are Blind or Visually
TDM: The FIT toy design program draws upon a large pool
of applicants with diverse backgrounds, yet accepts only 22 per year.
Is there a defining set of characteristics someone must possess to be
a successful toy designer?
FIT Toy Design Students interacting with Children
JE: Honestly, it requires an incredible sensitivity.
It requires a real commitment to being responsible. Children are little
people. We have to affect them in a positive manner.
We are highly selective. It is not enough to have just drawing or design
talent. Applicants must also be curious, utilize their sense of humor
and have the openness and imagination of a child. It is of the utmost
importance to us that our students hold children in the highest regard.
We will always strive to provide the industry with designers who can produce
cost-effective product that enhances the life of the child, but we will
not accept a prodigious industrial designer who isn’t capable of having
fun. At the end of the day, if the product is not fun, you have not been
TDM: What do you see in the future for FIT's program?
Do you foresee toy design becoming an increasingly common field of study
in colleges across America?
JE: Toy design is one of the most challenging design
disciplines to teach, because it encompasses so many different areas:
safety and environmental factors, as well as engineering and manufacturing.
Does the product you’re developing inspire and nurture the growth and
development of a child’s imagination? Does it encourage open-ended play?
It took several very intense years to develop a program that could address
all of the industry’s needs.
For me, it has been the most challenging project I have undertaken. Thankfully,
our students have risen to the occasion, making a significant and lasting
contribution to the marketplace and to the lives of the people who interact
with their products.
For the future, I expect that our program will instill a balance of technology
and humanity, which is the essential focus for the toys of the future.
Our motto is that a good toy is a safe one that reflects the play needs
of a child, and a successful toy exhibits a keen understanding of the
market. But a great toy combines those elements and adds the elusive yet
paramount ingredient: inspiration.