In our latest ‘meet the associate’ article, where we talk in more depth with each member of the Fundamentally Children Associates Network, we are having a natter with Vicki Thomas
You can find out more about the Associates Network here
Over to Vicki…
1 – Could you tell us a bit about your background in children’s industries and how you got to where you are now?
Well, I am still eight.
Like many adults, I still value and draw on my childhood experiences. That does not mean I understand the world of an 8-year-old today, but I think I have a playful and inquiring mind. I started designing toys for the Vicki Thomas Associates consultancy as I discovered that no one seemed to be trained as a toy designer in the UK.
Product design students were given one project usually to design an educational toy. Illustrators and graphic designers were recruited by industry to provide variety amongst standard product types. It is a multi-disciplinary subject, and no discipline trained anyone adequately.
I searched for a toy design course and went to the London College of Furniture course, which was run by John Gould. It was closed two years later (more changes in design education and no place for part-time specialist City and Guild courses in a University).
After that, as a consultancy, we worked on projects, often being recommended by the Design Council to design toys. We were approached by charities like UNICEF and the Leprosy Mission to design playthings for their fundraising catalogues. We worked with the RSPCA and BBC on the Animal Hospital series, as their studio supporting licensees.
When I became a mother, I looked for a project that would provide steady money for childcare, so that I could carry on working as a consultant. So, I have been working a senior lecturer at the University of Northampton. They were particularly keen to involve staff who were active in business.
The University was approached to design dolls houses and toys for Sue Ryder under a government-funded scheme (Knowledge Transfer Partnership). The project was very successful for all involved and several others followed, including local firms like John Crane Toys.
I was asked by the University to help put a case together to show the impact of our work on the wider community. So, I organised two exhibitions on the creative benefits of play for all. By all, I mean for children, yes, but also undergraduate designers, charities, men in sheds and creative staff in digital offices and for our everyone’s health and wellbeing.
I went back to the firms I had been working with locally and to the graduates who were working in local playground firms. I also approached designers I knew who had been working in the toy industry since the 1950s, with firms like Abbatts and Galt and saw how the educational toy came out of the classroom. I also discovered that Northamptonshire was the centre of UK toy innovation in the 1950-60s. There was a story to show and tell. A year later I helped with research on Toy Town – an exhibition in the local museum, just about the history of the toy industry in the region.
2 – Could you tell us a bit about your current role?
At the university, we continue to work with toy and play related projects on the course with the first year students working with Green Owl Toys this year. I have written up aspects of my research for specialist conferences and journals. I also teach on an interior design course where students are often keen to design play centres and play therapy room spaces for schools and hospitals.
In the consultancy, I am working to get a range of mathematical jigsaws launched into the education market. As a licensing advisor with the National Parks, we are creating playthings and experiences allowing families to enjoy the parks in new and different ways together.
In the last week, we’ve have had inquiries from India and China, that could involve play and possible collaboration between the university, the consultancy and government bodies offering funding and support.
3 – What services can you provide to Fundamentally Children’s clients as an associate?
We have a wide overview, as we have varied practical design experience. We design for children of all ages – so a toy can be designed for an 82-year-old. We understand the social as well as the functional requirements of a toy or game.
Our work complements that of Fundamentally Children, which I see as having more expertise in child psychology and advising on toys for young and developing minds. It is great to share and contribute our expertise and be able to work with others.
4 – What’s the best thing about working in the children’s industries?
It is fun and relevant to all our futures.
5 – And the worst?
So many things are just a reworking of the same old ideas in a very similar or even poorer way.
6 – What’s your favourite industry event and why?
I attend trade shows of course but I think I am most inspired at the International Toy Research Association Conference.
7 – If you didn’t work in your current role, what would you like to be doing and why?
Money no option? Making positive change. Travelling and toying with things and ideas.
8 – What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given from someone in the children’s industries?
Everything takes three times longer than you expect.
9 – What’s your all-time favourite children’s toy or app?
Too many to choose from and I still have many of them. Possibly a deck of cards or jigsaws, but maybe this puzzle, that I saw back in production in Hema this week. Anything where there is not just one solution or one way of playing. Off to the opening of Toy Story 4 tonight. What does that say about me?