The vinyl toy industry is undergoing a period of truncation. What used to be the preserve of invite-only artists is embracing cottage industry principles with a new focus on undiscovered talent. You no longer have to be an established name in order to become a collectable toy designer. Today, it only takes a good idea to see your creation brought to life through a well-targeted pitch.
Producers like Toy2R, Momiji and Kid Robot are on the lookout for new designs and readily produce work by up-and-coming artists whose ideas they think will spark the interest of collectors. And while toy designers can't expect to become super-rich on the back of it (although it can still prove to be a profitable sideline), they can expect to raise their creative profile.
The process of just a few years back has been flipped on its head. While famed artists produced limited runs for the core toy companies, it was both affordable and relatively effortless to produce your own range. But the days of small run productions are over. The Western banking crisis has levelled the playing field and cheap Far East manufacturing is a thing of the past. It's still possible to self-finance a vinyl toy run, but with huge costs and the industry's shift towards new talent, a more traditional route into the industry carries both the least financial risk and the most marketing clout.
"For us, it's the artwork being created by new talented artists that makes a successful toy," explains Toy2R's CEO Kevin Winnik. Over the last 15 years Toy2R has produced Qee, Toyer and other figurines, asking artists to customise the basic shapes. These figures have featured designs by some of the world's foremost character artists, including Jeremyville, Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, and even The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. For recent releases, however, Toy2R has found a new wave of character illustrators and toy designers to create original collectable series.
"We've always attempted to build the designer art toy community by getting new artists involved," Winnik explains. "While we love to work with icons of this industry, the newer artists are developing designs and looks that are unique and mind-blowing." He believes that the industry has refocused on new artists to prevent the scene becoming stale, while retaining the desire for existing work. And while he admits there are perhaps up to 10 times as many toy designers than there were just a few years ago, there is room for more, and companies are keeping their eyes peeled for new talent.
So what exactly is the best way of approaching a manufacturer? Winnik says that fundamentally you need to understand the market. Vinyl toy collectors are often prepared to pay many times over the original retail price to obtain a particular figure. This is an industry, and needs to be treated like one: "While your designs may be the best thing since LEGO Eggos, remember you're asking a toy company to invest, with risks, in your design concept - especially in this current economic climate." he says.
"Understand all of the components that go into toy production, and most of all the cost. The days of cranking out small runs overseas have come to an end, so each and every project is carefully reviewed before pursuing. One other tip - have your concepts ready for review using a professional presentation. Sketches on bar napkins aren't the norm, so your designs need to pop and be presented in a way where it knocks it out of the park."
The most important aspect of any new toy design is the concept. Qees, Dunnies and many other platform toys are launched as part of a series, and a strong concept makes it easier for the manufacturer to create a marketing storm. Most toy series are launched at events such as Comic Con, and the presence of a clear, understandable and marketable concept is key. Toy2R's new Skelanimals is a case in point. As well as the toys, the brand has spawned an iPhone App, fashion lines and animated shorts - all key to growing the brand and artists involved. A good toy design is both commercially and creatively exciting, and offers designers a space to develop a style and grow their reputation.
Joanna Zhou is an award-winning Manga artist and author whose toy designs for the Momiji brand helped establish her creative profile and led to new work from top-line clients. Zhou believes that toy designs are a great marketing driver. Indeed, her Momiji work has appeared in magazines including Elle, Dazed & Confused, Cosmopolitan and Grazia, and led to exhibitions at London Design Week and the South Bank County Hall in London. "Since toys have a strong tactile element, allowing people to touch and play with them creates a stronger emotional bond," she says.
Like a solid portfolio or clear website, a vinyl toy raises your creative profile and leads to more varied work. It isn't, however, the core money earner in any creative's output. More often than not, vinyl toy design is a fun and community-driven addition to an existing creative income.
So what makes a successful design, and what piques a manufacturer's interest? There are a number of factors, but chief among these is a new idea professionally pitched. "I get sent lots of submissions and it's hard to say what makes me decide that an idea feels right," says Momiji's creative director, Claire Rowland. "My advice would be to call the company and have a chat about what they're looking for and how their submission process works. Usually I like to see one or two design ideas, and then chat about how we might work together to make a collection. I'd also say that you should research the company you're approaching, and become familiar with their style and how they do things. I'm often sent beautiful artwork from someone's portfolio, but the designer hasn't considered how it might translate as a 3D character - the elements that make it work in 2D would be lost."
This is a stance echoed by Jats Gill, head of UK-based vinyl toy manufacturers Bitbots. The company was started with the core ethos of bringing new artistic talent to the vinyl toy scene, and after a successful launch show and first series, is looking to recruit more new collaborators. "We focus on giving Europe and the UK more of a vinyl toy basis," says Gill. "I feel that the public is hungry for new talent and new platforms to work with. More amazing artists will appear over the next year."
Gill also believes that vinyl toy design can act as a self-promotional facilitator for further creative work: "The toy world is not just about toys. It can lead to animation, print design, web design and any number of creative fields," he says. "We have one vinyl artist that has years of experience in web design, and by creating a toy for us they were able to receive a number of freelance offers for web work."
It's certainly an exciting time within the vinyl toy market. Opportunities are there for the taking if you have the right idea, and many new ranges from previously unknown names are already in production. And while the rewards may not be financially massive, the possibility of building your own personal brand with the help of a multinational toy manufacturer is a springboard no designer should ignore.