A Gender Neutral Toy Brand with a Super Play Experience: The Making Of

The idea of changing the world can be daunting. It is understandable to think “I’m only one person; what can I really do?” Yes, if every person thinks that way, nothing will get done. Hellen Keller once said, “I am only one, but still I am one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; just because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” If every person did just one thing to make the world a better place today, which leads to billions of acts of kindness where social responsibility and generosity would take place, wouldn’t that alone change the face of this planet?

This thesis project gave me an opportunity to critically think of the possible ways a designer can make the world a better place. To be a designer means having a creative way of thinking and considering multiple perspectives when determining solutions to a problem. To determine a problem and create solutions that is dear to my heart, I had to reflect on my life experiences. Bullied when I was very little, I wished to be in an environment where everyone lifted each other up and motivated each other to be their better selves. 

With so much hatred and violence happening in the world around us, I believe that the way we raise the next generation will be our greatest contribution to healing a broken world. The future is in the youth. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin in children.” Toys have the power in introducing, teaching, and preparing them about the world, hence my decision in choosing it as a medium for my thesis project. With this in mind, Super Adventures was born; a toy brand that believes in the power of giving and positive self-growth.

I believe making the world a better place starts with striving to be a better version of ourselves, which is the entire premise of Super Adventures. Combining the art of storytelling and fantasy play, Super Adventures strengthens adult-child relationships, develops childrens’ character and generates an encouraging environment between children and their peers one act at a time. The play narrative promotes self-development and encourage others to do the same. Having strong relationships with others at an early age made me learn valuable important life values. For instance, my grandmother taught me to never stop learning and to always be curious, generous, and kind to one another. As I was introduced to these life values early, I began to incorporate them in my day-to-day life, which, later on, built my character as a person. My grandmother passed away during my final year of University while working on my thesis, and it is through Super Adventures that I continue spreading my grandmother’s legacy of teaching valuable lessons like generosity, bravery, creativity and love to younger generations.

Design Process Overview

Super Adventures is a byproduct of months of research and revisions I did during my final year. For 6 months, I collected industry and user insights, conceptualized various play experience options, strategized the brand, and built and implemented outcomes that resulted in the creation of Super Adventures. My design process is human-centered as it always refers back to the product’s primary target audience, which is adults and their young ones aged 2 to 6. During the design process, I considered aspects like the characteristics of the prospective users, the product’s possible interactions during play with their peers and surroundings, the product’s play flow, and found effective ways to deliver the values of the brand. I used insights from observations of the current children toy marketplace and award-winning storybooks to optimize my brand and its unique play experience. Ranging from semiotics like names, character design, illustration style, packaging design, product design, to their semantic relationships and how the products align with the brand, I gave extensive attention at each stage of the design process. Keeping in mind the personal and collective values I want my project to deliver, I was able to solve problems that emerged across design mediums. This comprehensive design process has delivered what I believe is the most effective brand experience.

Keeping It a Gender Neutral Brand

This project is also my take on addressing gender issues I noticed growing up that many of today’s toys still have. Toys, along with play scenarios, advertisements, language, and adult involvement, expose children to gender roles. Toys that are targeted mainly for boys or girls, I noticed, can limit children’s exploration in roles and skills that are not directly assigned to their birth gender. In a way, they are put into gender boxes that tend to be stereotypical. Although I noticed improvements in the toy industry, by walking down toy aisles at Toys R Us and Indigo in Toronto, I can still clearly see a difference in emphasis on toys that have similar goals. Generally, there is more emphasis on adventures and bravery undertones for toys targeted to boys and love and compassion for toys targeted to girls. Companies also create and market toys that encourage creative-thinking differently. For instance, craft kits marketed to girls are often about decorating while guys are about building. Why do we have to associate universal values as simple as being brave, adventurous, caring, and creative with specific genders? Why can’t both boys and girls be adventurous, courageous, compassionate, and creative? 

I kept these issues in the back of my mind during the development of my thesis project. I portray Super Adventures as a gender-neutral toy brand because I want both boys and girls to explore the play narrative to its maximum potential. I found new ways to break the conventional gender-specific designs prevalent in the toy marketplace particularly through the semiotic decisions I chose, like play-on words, engaging visual treatments and unconventional color combinations. From the way I illustrate and describe Super Adventures, to the stories that revolve around it, I did not assign the main character, Lilo the little owl, to a certain gender. Lilo could be a he, she, or they. Lilo refers to a shorter form of Little Owl. It also means “the generous one” in Hawaiian, which relates back to the play narrative since it has an emphasis on giving. I also acknowledge that colours can often be associated to a certain gender, hence my decision to keep Lilo in black and white. Similarly, I put other characters mostly in black which also challenges the perception that light is good and dark is bad. Super Adventures shows my design ability on creating a socially conscious toy brand that is visually engaging without the need of implying society’s construction of gender stereotypes.

Optimizing The Play Experience

This semester allowed me to optimize the play experience I developed in the previous semester. At the beginning of the semester, I struggled in finding an effective and imaginative way in introducing the play experience to young children. Having a story as an essential part in the Super Adventures narrative solves this problem. Not only it is widely recommended in educational literature and improves literacy skills according to Gallets (10) in “Storytelling and Story Reading: A Comparison of Effects on Children ‘s Memory and Story Comprehension,” incorporating a story in my play narrative also builds relationship between children and their adult counterparts according to Duursma et al. (554) in “Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence.” According to Duursma et al. (553), children “learn about their own personal narrative…something that is important for their self-esteem” when sharing a book with an adult. This aligns with the value of the brand, which is self-growth. Adding this to my design outcome also allows me to improve skills on new design mediums such as character design, illustrations, and story writing. Although the natural tendency is to stick with what already works, true growth comes from constantly challenging myself as it develops my project to its maximum potential. This phase shows the importance of optimization in my methodology of utilizing design as a process.

During the development of my story book, I found design as an important stage not only to visualize my concepts but also to gain new ways of thinking. Generating a story that ties into my play experience required countless hours of story-writing sessions and dozens of revisions. Storyboarding prevented me to spend too much time on just writing. Working with images sparked new ideas and plot twists I never thought of before, one of which is to incorporate hand puppets into the play experience. As Duursma et al. (554) state, the type of conversations as well as the emotional quality of the interactions and the discussions adults and children experience during shared book reading strengthen their relationships. Not only does puppet play help convey emotions, this process, in conjunction with story-reading activities with adults, can stimulate new approaches of engaging children into my play narrative. During this phase I also thought of how the storyline applies to the visuals and how the visuals relate to the brand values. It made me explore the most efficient way in making my illustrations, which, as much as I love hand-drawn illustrations, creating them digitally saved time and minimized potential errors. This book also helped me set the tone of the project. Due to time constraints, I decided to develop the Super Brave narrative solely for the purpose of the prototype. With the goal of strengthening their relationships, this process helped me optimize my narrative by finding a way to create quality interactions between adults and children.

There were aspects of the play narrative that I needed to reconsider from last semester to create an efficient line of product that is effective, commercially viable, and environmentally conscious. I begin by structuring aspects of my play narrative, like the wings, the medals, the story, and the character, from the least important to the most important aspects that embody the power of giving and self-growth. Because super medals build an encouraging environment not only to the user but also to their peers, they are more important than the actual wings. As super medals are not easily replaceable, giving away super medals also teaches the kid to be aware of the people in the kid’s day-to-day life. This ‘one-time-only’ transaction encourages the kid to value his/her medals and to appreciate the valuable people surrounding the kid’s day-to-day life. Thus, I simplified the play narrative by categorizing the powers in kits, which comes with a matching story, a hand puppet and medals. The kits emphasizes the importance of the story and the super medals since they play the most significant role in the play experience, hence my decision in changing the brand name from Super Wings to Super Adventures. With this in mind, I had to define the power of the medals in a way that does not have any negative repercussions that may prevail later on. For instance, I needed to not make the medals as the only way to gain the corresponding power. As I developed the play narrative, I captured this concept implicitly by emphasizing that Lilo does not gain the power by receiving the medal, but instead because of the journey Lilo takes towards it. In other words, it is about the journey and not the destination. 

Similar to the way I categorized the Super Kits and its play narrative to simplify the Super Adventures experience, I also altered my previous wearable Super Wings idea. I realized that having different wings for different powers not only are unsustainable, it also not as effective since kids will not notice the minor changes. Just like the way lightsabers are marketed in the Star Wars franchise, the one pair of wings that comes with Lilo itself is an elevated play experience of the Super Adventures brand. The new narrative of wearing Lilo’s wings helps the child to better associate him/herself with Lilo and its struggles. This narrative fosters a greater understanding of the struggles Lilo has and encourages the child to overcome similar struggles in his/her play scenarios and day-to-day life - Lilo becomes relatable to them. Thus, it helps develop empathy and build character. This narrative also fosters a play environment where the child associates him/herself with Lilo as a character. I recognized that the wearable wings is still important to the goal of the play experience. The possibility of wearing it sparks new play scenarios. Having able to exchange powers solely by inserting different super medals to just one pair of wings make the play narrative simpler and more environmentally friendly. From this whole process, I learned that it is important to alternate my process accordingly to new discoveries. In this case, between story making and optimizing the play experience, I solved problems I thought would never occur in the first place.

Prototyping with a Human-Centred Approach in Mind

Envisioning my end-users helped me determine my design decisions during the production phase of all the Super Adventures play components. Ranging from the printing techniques I decided to use to the materials I chose for my products, I kept in mind aspects like tactility, materiality, production techniques, efficiency, and usability. For instance, I decided to change the material from 100% cotton to cotton sateen as it is more durable and more resistant to stains. I tried different wood materials and chose the one that is nontoxic for children. I learned how to properly print on fabric so that it is safe for children through steaming it and washing it with specific chemicals. With practice, I found faster more effective ways to sew my play components. I brainstormed fun play-on words and curated the most essential information to put on the packaging to engage children and their parents. Taking into account the hierarchal relationships amongst visual elements, I arranged this information in a way that is easy to understand for prospective buyers. I constructed the kit’s packaging design so potential customers can read the book and have a better understanding of the super medals and hand puppet without having to tear the packaging apart. Always keeping the end-users in mind allowed for an efficient design process which resulted in successfully delivering the values of the brand.

Conclusion

This six-month long thesis project instantiates a new perspective for products targeted to children as a way to address wider societal problems happening in the world. Through Super Adventures’ play narrative, it raises the importance of giving and self-growth for a child’s development which is beneficial to building socially conscious future generations. By providing play scenarios that revolve around universal values, I hope to raise awareness and stimulate conversations about empathy early in life amongst parents and their young ones. The ability in providing a positive environment and shaping the future of humankind through a commodity as simple as toys showcases the benefit of the innovative nature of my design practice.

This project helped me gain a better understanding of my design process as a designer. By pushing my boundaries, I practiced new ways of thinking and developed new ideas. Super Adventures showcases my skills in many different design departments including toy design, product design, branding, user experience design, packaging design, children illustration, and copywriting, thus illustrating my genuine interest in all aspects of design. At the end of this project, I developed a more efficient design process, starting from researching and collecting insights, to product conceptualizing and brand strategizing, to building and implementing the final product with a human-centered design approach in mind. All in all, this project helped me become a better version of myself, and allowed me to give to others, which is exactly what Super Adventures is all about.

Super Adventures empowers children by encouraging them to be super together. Designed to encourage and maintain a positive play environment, it comes in a series of kits that consists of a book, a hand puppet, and 9 Super Medals. The design of Super Adventures utilizes the concept of positive-driven design; a term suggested by Hillary Davis, Frank Vetere, Martin Gibbs and Peter Francis in “Come Play with Me: Designing Technologies for Intergenerational Play” (Davis et al. 17). Rather than compensating for disabilities or mitigating negative experiences, my toy design is consistent with design approaches that aim to build on human strengths and capabilities. Each kit refers to a particular positive personal trait, including but not limited to bravery, creativity, and love. Super Adventures with Lilo, its first line of products, centers around Lilo the little owl who has tremendous curiosity and a passion for learning. Introduced as a series of illustrated children’s story books, journeys like Lilo’s Super Brave Adventure, Lilo’s Super Caring Adventure, and Lilo’s Super Creative Adventure all have a similar simple plot. In essence, it is a story about Lilo learning how to be super. The stories consist of a series of cyclical events that occur during Lilo’s travels, along with obstacles that Lilo is forced to overcome. These obstacles help Lilo learn new traits and build character. In addition, unlike many characters in the current toy marketplace, Lilo is gender neutral and its stories have no emphasis on stereotypical gender roles. Referring to common problems children may encounter, these stories remind readers of the great things that come out of curiosity, persistence, generosity, and exploring new things. 

Click to Read the Storybook

Along with the storybook, each kit comes with a corresponding, emotion-changing hand puppet and 9 Super Medals that encourage social interactions amongst adults, children, and their peers. The hand puppet gives an opportunity for adults to bond with their young one through puppet play. This integrated story reading session aims to strengthen adult-child relationships, which, based on my observation in today’s toy market, is often neglected. All stories end by encouraging the reader to share the included Super Medals amongst their peers. Text engravings on each of the medals act as words of encouragement such as “Super Brave,” “Super Caring,” or “Super Creative.” Children are encouraged to incorporate these medals into their endless play scenarios creatively. They can give Super Medals to those they are inspired by, those they think deserve one, and those they feel need a helping hand. Parents can use Super Medals as achievement badges when their child does something related to the power, too. Giving a Super Medal teaches kids empathy and encourages the act of giving at an early age. This unique play experience helps develop character, strengthen adult-child relationships, and generate an encouraging environment for children and their peers to be super together.

Reference Cited

Davis, Hillary, Frank Vetere, Martin Gibbs, and Peter Francis. 2012 Come Play with Me: Designing Technologies for Intergenerational Play. Universal Access in the Information Society. 11(1):17-29. Springer. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10209-011-0230-3. Accessed 7 December 2017.

Duursma Elisabeth, M Augustyn, and Barry Zuckerman. 2008 Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 93(7): 553-557. BMJ Publishing Group & Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/adc.2006.106336. Accessed 29 March 2018.

Gallets, Matthew. 2005 Storytelling and Story Reading: A Comparison of Effects on Children’s Memory and Story Comprehension. Electronic Theses and Dissertations East Tennessee State University. https://dc.etsu.edu/etd/1023. Accessed 29 March 2018.


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