8:15 AM: About 40 minutes outside of midtown Manhattan, Design Edge is located on the Gold Coast Studio lot (the largest studio lot in the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.)
Before property was the studio lot that it is today, it was the headquarters of Grumman, housing fighter jets of the Cold War and planes of WWII. It was also where the Apollo was built. After the Cold War, the facility was shut down and New York struck a deal with the movie industry to take over the space.
If you were to walk into Design Edge, you would be greeted by cutouts of Han Solo and Chewbacca next to a modern Pac Man machine in the lobby. Behind a security door following the lobby, is a 5,000 square foot facility dressed in music and movie posters, old toy catalogs, vintage toys and musical instruments. A few of the features inside the facility are a design lab, workshop, photography room, recording studio and offices.
Matt and Design Edge’s production manager Chris, who is also Matt’s cousin, arrive at the facility about an hour before the design team to speak with the China teams about current developing projects and quotes.
Design Edge as a whole operates as multiple businesses while its diversely skilled team wears numerous hats. The company designs and engineers toys, invents toys to be licensed, represents inventors to bring toys to large companies for licensing deals—Matt’s involved with every moving piece at a high level. The design and product development studio has offices in China which manufacture and source for different toy companies.
After WWII, Asia, specifically Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and China, first began producing toys for foreign economic trade and has been the hub for manufacturing for the past 70 years. Because of this, America is programmed to trust versions of toys from these parts of the world and company’s are accustomed to the low cost of production, which is significantly reduced compared to American based products. The retail price of toys would skyrocket exponentially if all manufacturing was based in the United States due to the labor-intensive design details of the majority of projects.
For a better grasp on the details of product development, and without giving away any top-secret current projects, Matt uses designing a board game as an example. Details he works through while in development are the artwork of the game, graphics, a marketing message, sizing, weight, functions of the product and cost as a primary dictator. We’ll come back to this example, so hold onto it!
Matt met with the design team to review projects, take notes and make revisions.
Design Edge consists of a few hundred employees to date and is constantly growing. Over the last two years, Matt has participated in numerous podcasts and public speaking events which have resulted in talent reaching out to connect.
In a given day, anywhere from one to four projects are being worked on with multiple hands in each assignment depending on the discipline or skill required. The scale of team size requires communication and collaboration, which Matt finds to be a naturally implemented concept at Design Edge. He takes note of his ability to motivate others and over the past 30 years has built a diverse team, balanced with a wide spread of skills.
"A good development company is an ecosystem into itself. Think of it like a band… you can’t have a successful one with all drummers. There needs to be a distribution of talent."
Matt does admit that clients, from time to time, do not always foster the collective collaboration Design Edge strives to maintain, but the team always moves as one smoothly operating system, regardless.
When looking at the timeline and processes of product development for a small to medium-sized toy company, the lifespan is around 18 months from concept to retail. The first step is the presentation of an idea to Design Edge from a toy company joined by a solution and hopefully a prototype followed by an extensive briefing period. During this time, the team will discuss product function, price points, features (triggers, lights, buttons, etc.) and a whole lot of brainstorming. Matt normally has a ream of paper and a few sharpies during this time and draws quick sketches.
The toy’s “play value,” which represents the experience the product will give to the child, is considered when briefing the predicted success of a product. Essentially, the more times the product can give a new experience, the more play value it has. If the toy, as opposed to the child, does all the work, it is considered to be a “look at me” toy—the team tries to avoid these.
After the quick drawings and sticky notes that have reached the walls, Matt hands off the draft image to the more detail-focused illustrators in his company to do renders or rough concepts. This process takes a few weeks to finalize. After the renders are complete, the team then builds a pitch deck and submits it to the client to discuss and refine. With those notes from the client and Matt, the team goes back to the drawing board to continue to perfect the design. Once this is squared away and the concept is fully decided on, the more technical aspects of the project begin.
Matt left the team meeting, went to his office to work on new concept renderings and stopped by the shop to focus on the building of certain prototypes.
When toggling between the concepts of tried and true designs vs. trending ideas, Matt considers both the client and market. Each toy company Matt represents has a different personality internally and externally in which the design is catered towards. The customers of Fisher Price, for example, have certain expectations for the brand’s toys.
"When thinking about new concepts, the goal is to figure out an innovative way to do what the successful companies already do."
Industry and market knowledge is crucial to maintain while developing new ideas. In 2014 and for a Chicago Toy and Game Week article, Matt stated,
"An understanding of the marketplace is the most powerful tool a designer can utilize… After all, whatever I design is going to have to sit on the shelf next to its competition."
He goes on to explain the best tool of understanding the market is a pair of sneakers—walking the toy and game aisles in retail stores is the secret sauce. He advises studying the shelves. See what’s moving or not moving. Talk to workers to gain feedback and visit a variety of locations. The best way to gain direct insight on the market and its competitors is to get into the thick of things and see what the consumer sees.
When it comes to building prototypes, the team normally builds about four between the product conception and the time it hits the shelves.
Here is a glance at each:
- “Functions Like” - this initial prototype is quite literally built with a saw and block of foam to establish a rough sense of the product’s scale, size, function and potentially moving parts.
- “Looks Like” - this is the second prototype, normally designed on a computer, printed out and painted to be given to the China team.
- “Looks Like, Functions Like” - this third prototype consists of all details from the first and second versions.
- “Pre-Production” - the final prototype is the one that will be sent into mass production, but isn’t from mass production. It is one of a kind and is commonly used for TV commercials, PR write-ups or sample runs. The retail buyer often doesn't pull it out of the box or tamper with it and it is used in planograms for retailers to determine where it will live in a store.
If a buyer wants to sell the product, the next step is to receive the purchasing order, or PO, and then produce the amount that’s ordered. If you estimate before you get the PO order, you might have too much or too little and that’s money down the drain—no one likes that!
After lunch, Matt joined a conference call with clients to review progress, take on new projects and put out any and all fires that may have ignited.
Many of Matt’s clients have been working with Design Edge for 20-30 years. Matt tends to turn down bidding jobs due to past experience and attributes the longevity of Design Edge’s success to come from playing smart. As opposed to the structure of a niche industry focusing on one specific thing, Design Edge operates from a lateral perspective in the sense that all parts of the processes—design, packaging, samples, illustrations—are completed in-house. This very concept is the reason Design Edge expanded beyond the toy industry. Toys are usually just miniature versions of everyday things utilizing various materials like wood, metal, glass and plastic. Design Edge’s factories have the knowledge of how to make things utilizing these resources and because of this knowledge, began to support other companies to make parts more cost-effective, like packaging, for example.
When measuring progress or valuing success of a product, it’s important to first nail down what the focus is. The toy business is like the fashion business, in the sense that “what’s hot today, tomorrow’s not.” Big, trending hits that project to generate huge revenues can become depleted in a matter of months. This concept occasionally comes into play with products that are rushed to market from trending or cultural moments, which don’t turn out the best from Matt’s experience.
An example of the aforementioned fire Matt might come across is the common (and usually frantic) last-minute adjustment of buyers looking to lower retail selling prices of products. This requires cutting production costs close to shipping deadlines. If shipping happens late, huge fines are sure to follow, so this time period can be quite stressful for all involved.
To put this into perspective and sticking with the board game example from earlier, if a buyer is looking to lower the retail price of the game from $34.99 to $19.99, a few things can be adjusted to accommodate. Things to evaluate include the weight of the materials, the quantity of playing equipment (like cards) or boxing/packaging style. With certain games, the plus side to these reductions is the projected customer focus of content over materials.
"Cutting material costs never dilutes the content of the game. This can be compared to a book, in that, if it’s a good one, it won’t make a difference whether the cover is hard or soft."
Matt spent time reviewing the status of projects and acted on an urgent deadline adjustment requiring project details to be expedited.
A simple but highly effective tool Matt utilizes for projecting tracking is sending himself email reminders. Design Edge also relies on excel spreadsheets and BOMs (bill of materials) which details the materials and design aspect of each toy for the manufacturing teams. Certain materials are kept in house, like those for sampling and the practice of taking old toys apart to build into new ones keeps processes resourceful, as well.
Matt wrapped up the day in a race to ship prototypes and email layouts to clients. Other days, he is directing an in-house photoshoot, sound recording session or creating pitch videos.
PRO TIP: Matt is much more likely to consider a pitch if a solution of execution accommodates the product suggestion. Everyone has an idea… how will yours become successful? (Having a prototype is a plus!)
After work, Matt likes to go skateboarding with his kids, cook dinner or relax with a beer (or two.)
To wind down, Matt normally draws in his sketchbook or watches classic movies.
To Matt, drawing is a skill of the eyes, as opposed to the hands. Anyone interested in testing this theory is challenged to draw an object in their home and then study it for a week afterwards; the shape, size, curves and details. He then suggests drawing it again after the week of studying and comparing the two drawings improvement guaranteed!
Drawing in his sketchbook has been a habit for decades and he fills each page, cover to cover, with fine art.