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CAMPUS & CAREER GUIDE : Toymakers in Training

Design: Otis College will become West Coast's first degree program for future toy and games designers.

February 04, 1996|ELAINE WOO | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The idea struck Mark Salmon, vice president of academic affairs for Otis College of Art and Design, one day in late 1994.

The prestigious arts school was contemplating a move from its cramped facilities on Wilshire Boulevard near MacArthur Park. One possible site for a new campus, Salmon discovered, was just two miles from Mattel, the nation's largest toy manufacturer.

"I just connected the dots," Salmon said. And the West Coast's first degree program in toy design was on its way to becoming a reality.

This fall the school, whose graduates form a veritable who's who of the fashion and fine arts worlds, will select 25 to 30 students for its first class of toy makers-in-training.

Students will spend their first year in general art and liberal arts courses--what Otis calls foundation classes. The next three years will concentrate on the various aspects of toy design, from model making to child psychology.

The program eventually will enroll no more than 100 students, Otis President Neil Hoffman said.

"Our ultimate goal is to keep it small and selective," he said.

The program will be launched on Otis' new campus in Westchester, which will open in time for the 1996-97 academic year.

The proximity of the campus to Mattel was not the only reason that a toy design major was so compelling, Otis officials say.

The toy industry produced U.S. sales of $18 billion in 1994. Los Angeles County, which is home to 500 toy companies employing 6,000 workers, can take credit for almost one-quarter of that sales total, or $4.3 billion.

Demographics suggest a rosy outlook for the toy market for years to come. According to Hoffman, the number of youngsters age 14 and under is projected to increase through 2005 before it begins to level off.

"That kind of demographic increase has implications for an expanding market and expanding job opportunities," he said.

A number of schools have offered courses in toy making, usually as part of an industrial- or product-design program. But toy design experts say that toy inventors need specialized training to meet the industry's needs.

The first--and until Otis, the only--school in the country to offer a degree in toy development was Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology, part of the State University of New York.

The New York program, founded in 1989, is small but highly competitive, producing 15 to 20 graduates a year.

Founded after Mattel sponsored a design competition for FIT students, it took three years to develop and now boasts a 100% placement rate. Graduates have moved on to careers developing products for such household brand names as Playskool, Fisher Price, Mattel and Hasbro.

"Our program came from a joint merger of business and education, which is why we have been so successful," said Judy Ellis, chairwoman of the toy design department.

Like the pioneering New York program, Otis' program will train students in the technical aspects of developing plush toys, such as stuffed animals, and hard toys, such as games and electronics, as well as safety issues, game theory and business practices.

Courses in anthropology, history, sociology, psychology and literature will be geared toward enhancing the budding toy makers' understanding of children and the cultural context and significance of toys.

"What we are trying to do is treat toys very, very seriously," Salmon said, "because it's our belief that toys and their use through play are the cultural mechanisms that lead children to society. . . . Toys are much more important than people think."

Otis has worked closely with toy makers. Mattel already employs about 10 Otis fashion graduates in its Barbie division, where they design clothes for the popular doll.

This year, 20 Otis students are working on a senior project sponsored by Mattel for which they must devise a line of Barbie "fantasy evening wear" inspired by a major figure in art history, such as Andy Warhol or Michelangelo. They also have to translate their designs into ensembles to fit a runway model.

The project is supervised by Margo Moschel, a senior vice president of product design, and three designers, two of them Otis grads.

Moschel welcomes Otis' decision to enter the toy design field.

"The creative scholastic community has noticed that toy making is going beyond toys to works of art, if you will," she said. "They have noticed that there really is a career called toy design . . . and it's a very successful business."

Graduates will be prepared to work on their own as inventors and entrepreneurs or for toy inventor companies (called "inventor houses" in the trade). They also would be qualified to work on the design staffs of toy firms.

Otis is still assembling the faculty for the program, but Hoffman said they will be industry professionals.

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