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Designing Toys for the Next Generation

by Art U News

Sondra Wiener, director of product design at Hasbro, shares advice and insights from her 15 years in toy design

By Nina Tabios

At a recent industry presentation at Academy of Art University, Sondra Wiener, director of product design for Hasbro’s action brands team, pointed out the surreal reality of being a toy designer. Like many people in attendance, Wiener grew up playing with Hasbro toys. Someone, decades ago, was thinking of the dolls, games, and puzzles that made up her childhood memories. Now, she and the other 150 designers in the Burbank office get to do the same for this next generation.

“Being a toy designer is quite fun, I must say,” she told the room of students from the Schools of Animation & Visual Effects, Industrial Design, and Game Development in the 79 New Montgomery Theater. “I have an excuse to be a big kid, even at my age.”

Like a kid in a toy store, Wiener beamed as she talked about her 15 years at Hasbro. Designing toys early on for My Little Pony and Littlest Pet Shop, Wiener became engulfed in Hasbro’s culture and vision. She moved to other brands like Angry Birds, Star Wars, Marvel and, more currently, Power Rangers and Overwatch.

Wiener explained for most of its nearly century-long history, the toy manufacturer stuck with just that—toys. But in more recent years, Hasbro started to consider itself a “global play and entertainment company.” Using storytelling and consumer insights, Hasbro’s development team aim to create holistic brand experiences entire families can enjoy, from clothing and gaming to animated shows and theme park rides.

“How you feel about My Little Pony or Transformers when you’re five years old is going to be really different when you’re 30,” Wiener said. “But you have a nostalgia factor for that in some way and we want to make sure there’s an experience for you tailored all through your life, from when you’re a kid to when you’re a kid at heart.”

Though attendance was small, Wiener held the attention of every student in the audience, especially Maurilio Sanchez Olivarez. The industrial design student has a “big emphasis on toy design” and was itching to learn more on what designers like Wiener are looking for in potential hires. Originally from southern California, being hired to work for Hasbro’s Burbank office would be ideal for Olivarez.

“Showcasing your ideas is really important. It’s more about the journey in a lot of ways because it’s the creativity and the challenge of what it is that you’re trying to come up with is where your thinking is,” Wiener told him during the Q&A portion of the evening. “When you’re doing the little quick sketches, the ideation, the napkin sketches, things like that, throwing that in the mix would be a great way to show you’re always thinking of ideas rather than just the end result.”

“I’m just looking forward to the behind-the-scenes part of toy design,” Olivarez said. “I’m cool with going into a system and contributing to projects and say we made this as a team … It’s a big deal for me to work with someone like [Wiener], someone that’s been in the industry as long as she has.”

With Olivarez as the only toy designer student, the student demographics of the room was interestingly somewhat reflective of how Wiener described Hasbro’s development team. According to Wiener, about only 10 percent of her Hasbro toy-making team actually have a toy design background whereas the majority of others come from traditional industrial, automotive or fashion.

“Whatever major you might have done actually might be tailored to a petite version of that, for toys,” Wiener said. “This is the greatest part about being in design in general that you don’t have to be such a straight shooter about it. You can ebb and flow in different ways and that’s what’s great, is just showcasing a lot of creativity, being curious. If you just display a lot of that, there’s always an opportunity to offer anyone to work in any category.”

Like every kid, game development student Henry Kuh grew up with Hasbro toys but it was video games that inspired him to become a character design artist. Now that Hasbro is venturing into gaming, maybe there’s a space for Kuh in the future.

“I think if one of my video game characters becomes a toy, that’d be a very cool thing,” he said. “The way Sondra described it, Hasbro sounds like a dream job for her and I hope to find the same for me one day too.”

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