The tale of a toy designer: drawing inspiration from the classroom – The Guardian

About two years ago, I was asked to be my son’s show and tell. I’m an architect and his class was doing an architecture project. I tried to find a fun, hands-on kit to take with me but I couldn’t find anything suitable. All the art toys I found were either fashion-focused or very crafty. So I did my own thing and, knowing children like the absurd and bizarre, I based it on famous lookalike buildings including London’s Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe), Cheesegrater (Leadenhall building), Shard and Pringle (Olympic velodrome) – as well as Glasgow’s Armadillo and Beijing’s Bird’s Nest (national stadium).

The kids loved it. And the seed of an idea, which turned out to be Skinny Sketcher, was planted.

Being from a design background, I was in my comfort zone when it came to product development. And being a mum, I also had very strong ideas about what I wanted Skinny Sketcher to be and to achieve.

It was critical for me that drawing was at the heart of it and not just because I’m a designer. Drawing helps to develop a child’s fine motor skills, due to the pincer grip motion, and fine motor skills are needed in everyday life for tying shoelaces, doing zips up and neat handwriting. I do worry that over reliance on technology means these skills are neglected and underdeveloped.

There’s also a really lovely emotional connection with drawing. All parents identify with that heartwarming moment when their child hands them a beautiful drawing that takes pride of place on the fridge or family noticeboard. That can’t be replicated by technology.

I wanted to include a range of topics to tap into children’s different interests so I developed six drawing kits with subjects from famous landmarks to campervans.

There are aspects of product development that are unique to the toy industry. The big thing is safety compliance – as a toy designer you have to think about how children may use a product other than for its intended purpose and set an appropriate age range. My local trading standards officer gave me a lot of helpful advice regarding compliance and testing. Many people assume that trading standards are there to enforce regulations but they also are happy to advise companies during the product development process.

Being an inventor in this industry has its own challenges: it’s hard to get a foot in the door and get face time with the right people who can help make your idea a reality.

However, the industry’s trade magazine – ToyNews – is really supportive of the inventor community and runs an annual event, the Inventors Workshop, which helps designers to take an idea to market.

I attended last September when Skinny Sketcher was still in the early stages of development and I learned everything from safety testing, funding, design protection and how to pitch to retail.

I also got the chance to pitch my idea to the world’s leading toy companies, which was a massive opportunity for me, and I was signed on the spot. As one of the event’s success stories, I’ve been invited back next month to share my experience on a panel alongside the inventor of Jenga and one of Lego’s top designers.

After the massive high of signing the deal, Skinny Sketcher was put into development and showcased at London Toy Fair in January.

The next step was retail and that has been a steep learning curve. It’s the simple things you don’t think about when you are a consumer that stump you, such as, where to find a barcode.

Also, toy marketing is multifaceted. Children are probably the fastest moving market, with the hot craze of the moment constantly changing. But a product also has to appeal to parents and grandparents too. More grandparents are buying toys for their grandchildren than ever before, especially table top activities, that they can do together during holidays.

Currently, Skinny Sketcher is selling on Amazon and also through physical toy and gift shops throughout the UK. Because it’s an activity product, we’ve been holding lots of in-store demos and they’ve been a big hit, especially during the summer holidays.

I’ve made this journey sound so easy and straightforward but it’s not been without its challenges, including a hitch with my trademark application, which thankfully got resolved pretty quickly.

I was fortunate that startup agency Business Gateway placed me on their high growth programme and, from the very beginning, they have been on hand to advise me on growing my business. I was also lucky to get a place on Entrepreneurial Spark business accelerator where I had access to a network of mentors.

My biggest piece of advice to other designers and inventors is to not work in isolation. Collaboration and support are essential for creativity.

Gillian Logan is the inventor of Skinny Sketcher. She is speaking at the Inventors Workshop, which takes place on 22 September in Northamptonshire.

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