Graduate in toy design (Batteries not included)

As toys from China are recalled over safety fears, US universities are encouraging students to design their own trinkets...

Two US colleges, the Fashion Institute of Technology and Otis College of Art and Design, offer toy design as a major.

With her classmates looking on, Laura Mansdorf pushed around a plastic turtle on wheels. The turtle’s shell had been replaced by an ice cream maker that spun around as the turtle moved, mixing the ice with rock salt and the cream with vanilla.

Mansdorf, 25, isn’t a crazy inventor. She was presenting her Twirlie Turtle, a creation that would help her complete all the requirements to earn her bachelor’s degree in toy design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

“The day of the presentation, I didn’t have time to make the ice cream,” she said. “I was just praying the turtle would turn the heavy ball at all.”

Since graduating in 2006, Mansdorf has designed three CSI Activity Kits (referring to the CBS television show “Crime Scene Investigation”), two of which have made it onto the shelves of Toys “R” Us.

“Sometimes I’ll just think of how cool it is that I get to create products for other people to enjoy,” she said.

It’s a far cry from Santa’s workshop, but toy design has become a highly-competitive field, one for which it helps to have a college degree.

Two colleges offer such a degree, and schools ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia to Columbia College in Chicago have added toy design to their industrial design and arts programs.

With the recent massive recalls of toys made in China and Mexico, would-be toy designers from the US-whose skills are already much in demand-might soon be entertaining even more job offers.

“We have a 99 percent success rate for placing students in the industry after graduation,” said Judy Ellis, who runs the toy design department at FIT, which started in 1986 as a research project sponsored by Mattel. It was turned into a full undergraduate program in 1989.

Ellis, who used to teach graphic design at Parsons School of Design in New York, said that FIT students have gone on to work for some of the world’s biggest toy companies and inventors groups, such as Mattel Fisher-Price Brands, Lego and Disney. And the college’s graduates have designed some of the most popular toys of the last decade, including Tickle Me Elmo and the WWE Bash and Brawl Wrestlers.

Otis College of Art and Design is the only other college to offer a major in toy design, according to the Toy Industry Association. Every one of last year’s class members got jobs, said Deborah Ryan, the department chairperson at Otis. In fact, a 2003 Otis graduate helped design the iZ, an animatronic MP3 player that was nominated as the most innovative toy of 2006 by the toy association.

“Now if you graduate with a degree in industrial design, you have to compete with people who are much more experienced in toy design,” Ryan said. What helps, she added, is that the experience at Otis goes beyond manufacturing.

Now in its 10th year, the program also teaches courses in child psychology, package design and game theory, as well as offers classes with names like Juvenile Anatomy and Ergonomics and Toy Industry Practices.

Ryan, who worked for Mattel and Disney in the 1980s on such classic products as My Little Pony, said these are things you don’t get with industrial design or engineering degrees.

MIT introduced toy design in 2004 with the launch of the Toy Design Lab. Funded by Hasbro, the lab is a place for graduate students to do research into toy design and engineering. The toy lab’s success led MIT to offer, in 2005, a for-credit course called Toy Product Design for undergraduate students of mechanical engineering. Fifteen students were in the first class; 27 enrolled in 2007.

Barry Kudrowitz, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering who wrote his master’s thesis on the exploration of concepts for projectile toys, is a lab research assistant who teaches the toy design course. He is also the designer of the award-winning Automato, a ketchup-dispensing robot that can maneuver to a plate and expel condiments in desired locations. The product took first place at MIT’s first annual Unuseless competition in 2005.

In the toy design course, Kudrowitz said students work in groups of five or six to design prototypes for new toys, all based on a similar theme.

In 2006, when the theme was dental hygiene, students designed a light-up, light-saber-like toothbrush called the R2D2ooth; Flava Rama, a device to mix toothpaste flavors; and the Harry Potter Magical Toothbrush, which levitated inside its stand. The class in toy design, he said, is only offered in the spring and is very different from the toy design lab.

“The toy lab is a research lab where graduate students do work all year round,” Kudrowitz said. “The toy lab is currently home to two Ph.D. students, one or two master’s students, and five undergraduate research assistants, all of whom are doing product design research related to toys.”

To date, only one toy from the lab, the Nerf Atom Blaster, has made it onto shelves. The project started when Hasbro asked MIT to find a way to make a Nerf toy that could shoot projectiles further than anything else on the market.

Dave Mendez, 28, a sculptor and illustrator who lives in New York, is currently working on his application to get into FIT’s toy design program. He heard about the program from friends and quickly realized he wanted to make toy design his career.

“While I was making sculptures, I realized that I wanted to learn the process of making action figures,” he said. His sculptures and drawings run the gamut from an illustration of a duck with a pompadour to one-eyed purple squid with five tentacles made out of clay.

“Some of the characters are childlike, but some are not,” he said. “But with everything I was making, I felt like toy design is what I was meant to do.”