Some children may still think elves are behind the production of Christmas toys. But today's toy-maker is more likely to be hunched over a drafting table instead of a work bench, and equipped with an education that includes knowledge in subjects ranging from computer-aided design to psychology.
The U.S. toy manufacturing business is not child's play: It employs about 50,000 people at more than 250 companies nationwide. Between 5,000 and 6,000 new toy products are expected to crowd the shelves this year, competing with more than 150,000 different kinds of toys for a piece of the industry's $12.5 billion in annual retail sales.
More and more, toy companies need designers who can create toys spanning that market, from "hot" items like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to classics--like Yo-Yos and Legos--that find new buyers with each generation.
To meet this need, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, one of the country's largest design schools, has added a new degree program in toy design. The program's two-year curriculum shows that making toys has come a long way from Santa's workshop.
Students are required to have at least an associate-level degree in art or design to apply. Once accepted, they must develop rendering skills for three-dimensional toys, study materials and methods used to manufacture both plastic and non-plastic toys, master safety regulations, and understand advertising, promotion and other aspects of the business.
Department chairwoman Judy Ellis said the school's requirements reflect the demands and responsibilities toy designers face.
"As an educational institution, we are preparing students to be hired as designers, but we also are hoping that our students will be able to make some changes--changes in what parents expect from toys, changes in the types of toys being produced," Ellis said.
She said there are no definitive trends in the toy industry, except that some toys appear to have eternal appeal--girls, for example, will always want to play with dolls, she said--and the popularity of electronic toys seems to be fading.
"They are extremely expensive," she said. "The talking bears and the talking dolls and all that--they have a price point that many parents can't reach. There is also a question of how much play value these kinds of toys have.
"You want children to interact with their toys, to use their imaginations," she said. "If the toy does all the work for them, (the children) are not going to interact."
Although Ellis said no particular design philosophy is pushed on students, her personal belief is that "less is more."
"If you have a concept that is really excellent and understand what play is about, you don't need to jazz it up, unless it's an addition to some basic concept, like new clothes for a Barbie doll," she said.
Although reluctant to attack directly the often crass commercialization of toys--with movies and television cartoons produced for the sole purpose of selling items--Ellis said the school tries to keep students focused on the creative aspects of toy-making.
"We want them to see that there is something to creating toys that are not dependent on commercials, toys that children can play with for extended periods of time without becoming bored," she said. "A toy should have a life. It shouldn't be played with for five minutes and then forgotten."
Yet the school also recognizes it has "to be responsible with our students," Ellis said.
"Since advertising is part of the industry, we have a course in advertising and promotion. But we also bring consumer groups in to speak. We expose them to the realities of life," Ellis said.
"What we are really trying to do is to understand what is both wanted and needed. The toy industry is really market driven, so it is important not only to provide what is wanted, but what is needed."