Some questions have come up in the lounge recently about toy design, so I thought I would follow Seedling's suggestion and make an info thread here. I know that there are other toy designers on CA who work in vastly different areas of the trade than I do, so please, feel free to chime in!
What do toy designers do?
Those who work in toy design wear a lotta hats. There are different levels of involvement in designing a toy, from the roughest concept sketches, to the tightest turn sheets, to the first sculpts in plastiline. I will focus mostly on the 2D aspects of toy design, although a good 2D artist who can also sculpt well is very valuable to a toy company.
It starts with an idea and an artist to come up with initial concepts for new toys and new brands. Sometimes these artists work in-house, sometimes they work off-site. The sketches they create are often very rough, loose and don't take into consideration the limitations of the actual product (more on those limitations later). This is OK though, because these base level artists create a wide scope of ideas for the next stage of production. This is the most fun position to be in, IMHO. You have the most creative freedom at this point.
Once a concept sketch has been approved, an artist then creates tighter turn-around sheets known as control drawings. Here's where it gets technical - the toy is drawn from front, side and top views, each piece to scale, with measurements listed, sometimes down to the hundredth of an inch.
This was the first control drawing I had ever done. It's a fairly organic design but the measurements still needed to be fairly accurate. You'll see there are some inconsistencies with the scale and shape of some parts... Thankfully the sculptors were able to pick up my n00b slack.
I apologize for the small image, I wasn't able to upload the prototype sculpts. Just the same, here is the final product - the sculptors take every little detail in your work very seriously, so if there is a mistake on the paper, it will show up in the clay.
I also picked out the colors for each piece, using Pantone colors. If you haven't worked with Pantone chips before, you will become VERY familiar with them in the toy field! They come in a swatch book or in a fan like this:
Each color has a numbered code, sometimes abbreviated with the prefix "PMS". So one of my favorite shades of orange would fall under "PMS 143 C" (the C stands for "coated", indicating that the pantone swatch has a coated finish on the paper, rather than matte.) Photoshop and Illustrator also have various Pantone color swatch libraries built right in. We usually used the "solid coated" variety. If you are a freelance toy designer, it's generally a good idea to have a swatch book on hand AND a natural light bulb to view them under, since the regular light bulbs tend to yellow out colors. Also, the fans and swatch books will set you back a couple hundred dollars and need to be replaced every year or two, since the colors can fade.
What are the types of skills that I need?
As a toy designer, you must have strong 3D drawing skills. I don't mean Maya or a 3D program, we're talking good old pencil and paper (or wacom, or cintiq, if you have one.) You are designing a tangible object afterall and odds are it will be sculpted overseas - your visuals are so much more important when there is a language barrier!
The other skills you should have depends what kind of toys you will be working on. Here is a very small list:
-Fashion design, for toys like Barbie or Bratz
-Graphic design, for labels, box art and graphics that go onto toys, such as Pony butt symbols
-Industrial design, for toys like Transformers, Zoids, RC cars, baby toys or video players
-Character design, for toys like My Little Pony, Pokemon, or any brand that has a cartoon show or is a story-based line
-Sewing and pattern knowledge, for plush toys and dolls - even G.I. Joe has a team of seamstresses keeping him looking suave in his fatigues
Still, a good designer is a good designer, no matter what the discipline. If you know how to use colors and shapes effectively (i.e. large, friendly shapes for young children, angular detailed bits for older boys) you can do quite well in toy design.
Do I have to have a degree in Toy Design?
While I've had my arse handed to me many times by my co-workers who have their degrees in toy design, I would ultimately say no, a degree is not neccessary. If your artwork is strong and your portfolio reflects that, the degree (or lack thereof) is irrelevant.
In my case, I did not go to school for toy design and never had a toy design class. I majored in Illustration, leaning towards the animation/character design side of the field. Toy design is another branch of illustration, so I was able to cross over into the field because I had learned basic design principles and also because the line I had worked on was character-based. I was able to sketch clearly and show how something might look from 4 different angles. The brand I worked on also relied on graphic designs to define each character, so it was a god fit for me. However, if you asked me to design a Nerf gun or a Transformer, I'd probably wither up and die.
What should I have in my portfolio?
Show your thought process! Finished concepts are great and should be included as well, but what was is most important is showing how you arrive at your idea. Clean sketches showing your thought process are VERY good to include. Sculpts are a nice addition to a toy portfolio, but are not mandatory. Remember, a concept artist is paid to think first, then draw!
It also helps to know your toys! Having knowledge of a company's line of toys can be vital. For example:
I interviewed for an internship at Hasbro during my senior year of college. I snuck into the interview in the first place (they were looking for ID students, not illustrators) and it had ended with the usual polite smile and "don't call us, we'll call you" air to it. I was about to walk out and accept that I had been passed up, when I turned around and said "Hey, how is the new My Little Pony line doing?" The interviewers brightened up and we ended up talking for another 20 minutes as I told them my opinions on the new line, what I liked about the old line and some ideas that I thought were cool for future toys.
The interview did a 180 and they asked me to send more sketches to them, showing my thought process, handling of 3D shapes and breakdowns to how some toys might work. They wanted to see clarity and follow-through to my ideas. Even though 99% of the stuff in my portfolio wasn't toy-centric, it showed them that I had the drawing skills which I could adapt to their needs. I ended up doing some light sculpting while I was working in-house as well.
Would it help if I had sculpting skills too?
Absolutely! You can go in a couple directions for toy design if you have a grasp on sculpting - you can specialize in it and become a full-time sculptor, or you can stay sharp with sculpting and let it bleed into your drawing skills as a designer. Generally, full-time sculptors have less creative control (if any) over what they create, but the designers of course have more control.
Like I said, it's good to be a jack of all trades - if you can come up with an idea, sketch it out in a few solid angles AND do a mock-up sculpt, more power to ya.
What were those limitations you had mentioned?
There's a whole host of limitations in toy design. Aside from needing to please both the child AND the parents who have the credit cards, there are limitations from marketing and the usual budgets... but that's not all! There are mold limitations where sometimes different parts need to be cast in the same mold of the same material, so you better make sure that those parts are all the same color in your design. A lot of times toys won't meet price points, so accessories or in the nightmare scenario, entire toy waves get cut. Sometimes the factories overseas are difficult and production is slowed (language barrier anyone?) sometimes there are bad years on Wall Street, with shrinking toy departments toy companies compete for shelf space with every wave, then there are the stupid children who eat everything they touch...
So, I guess that's that. Keep in mind, I am just one designer with but one experience with getting into this field - I sure as hell never thought I would be here!
Feel free to ask more questions or, if you are a designer, please add to what's been said!