Toy packaging then and now

The modern day strategies for packaging toys encompass pretty much every trick in the packaging designer's arsenal. But has this always been the case? Dom Hall breaks open the bubble pack and finds out.

Like pop music and football teams, the toys of our own childhoods are always much better than anyone else's. Not for us the utilitarian, worthy and slightly educational train sets of our parents' generation, or the cynically commercial film and TV tie-in toys of today's consumers. No, the toys of our own youth - the magical first wave of Star Wars figures, Evel Knievel Stunt Bike sets and Transformers - were proper toys, weren't they?

Whatever the toy may mean to the companies manufacturing and marketing them, they are all just product, and, like all product, they need packaging. If you haven't been in a toy shop since you were a kid, you'd probably be surprised by how much toy retailing has moved on over the intervening years. And nothing has changed quite so much as the way toys are packaged.

Whereas once the average toy manufacturer's strategy was to plaster a simple box with an enormously exaggerated illustration promising much more than the £7.99 chunk of plastic inside the box could ever possibly deliver, today's manufacturers are aiming at a much more savvy audience. Not only do today's kids want to see the toy they've been lusting after for so long, they want to see what it does. They expect 'Try Me' buttons to push so they can hear what kind of noise the toy makes, and they want branding, so they can instantly relate the toy to the TV series or film from which it has been inevitably spun off. They want to get straight to the very essence of the toy in roughly five seconds. If not, it's on to the next one.

Toy packaging is a competitive and cutthroat game. It's the one area of packaging where manufacturers are prepared to use every single low-down-'n'-dirty trick in the book to make sure they get their prey. It's no surprise, then, that it's a difficult discipline to get right.

Jason Cawdell, creative director at toy packaging design specialist Jumping Monkey, has been involved in the dark art of toy packaging for around five years and, through producing work for some of the largest toy manufacturers in the world, has learnt every trick in the book.

"Toy packaging is a real balancing act - it's about making the toys inside the box look really exciting without misleading the kids," he says. "Some products have huge illustrations on the front and the products inside are really small and bear little resemblance to the design. We get asked to make things look more exciting all the time. It's difficult to get right."

But has toy packaging always been like this? Did the dynamics of the packaging in the 50s and 60s work in a different way to the bells, whistles and Try Me buttons of today's toys?

Stephen Clifton is one of the UK's leading authorities on the original geek-friendly sci-fiTV series Thunderbirds and has amassed a massive collection of original 1960s toys, many of them still housed in immaculately preserved packaging. Original Thunderbirds toys clearly originate from a more innocent age of toy packaging, when a fantastic illustration and a box roughly the same dimensions as the toy it housed was enough.

Clifton says photography on toy packaging was extremely rare during the Thunderbirds' first 1960s heyday, but the packaging was an essential part of the overall experience.

"The packaging was very important," he says. "Photography was rarely used on toy boxes, so the whole experience was akin to unwrapping a Christmas present. You were looking at artwork but you weren't quite sure what was inside."

The first wave of Thunderbirds toys, like many of the toys produced in the 1950s and 1960s, were packaged in simple cardboard boxes with two-colour print design. Like contemporary food packaging of the time, the designs were pared down to reflect the product inside. Although based on a popular TV program, early Thunderbirds toys did little to anticipate the branding and TV tie-in frenzy that was to dominate the toy industry from the mid-70s onwards.

Although Jason Cawdell thinks the packaging design of the Thunderbirds era was stylish and restrained, he believes it failed to join the gap between box-on-the-shelf and product.

"The Thunderbirds boxes generally had great vivid colours and nice exciting and dramatic illustrations, but what's the product? I think it's very important that the packaging tells us what the product is and how cool it is, and some of the Thunderbirds stuff failed to do that."

While TV and film tie-ins were important in the 1960s, it was during the 1970s that the successful cabal between toy manufacturers, TV companies and advertisers really came into its own. This was the era of global television trends and box-office smash hits that would turn the way toys were marketed and sold upside down. The toy world had discovered the importance of the brand.

"Branding became much more important in the 1970s," Jason Cawdell says. "And, when that happened, the toys became less important than the brand - you were buying the brand, so the brand, the toy and the package all became part of the same thing."

The 1970s were, of course, the start of the modern era of toy manufacturing. It was enough for toys to simply be part of a bigger whole for children to want them. This was the era of the Star Wars toy, the era which saw the now-ubiquitous action figure creep onto our toy shop shelves and the era when a big logo from a TV show or film plastered onto a box was enough to give the product visibility and presence. One of the real cross-Atlantic success stories of the mid-70s was Ideal Toy's Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle Set, which featured an all-American action illustration package and contained a toy dear to the memory of many a 30-something on both sides of the Atlantic.

For Jason Cawdell, the packaging of the Evel Knievel toys was fantastic. "This toy came out around the time when licensed toys started to hit the shops in a big way and, like a lot of modern licensed products, this shouts Evel Knievel. It's beautifully illustrated and, more importantly, I think this would still stand a chance in Toys R Us today. I'd buy one anyway!"

Once the toy industry had formed its symbiotic partnership with the TV industry, there was no turning back. The relationship really found its feet during the 1980s when the toy companies themselves funded cartoons and comics in order to create a market for toys. One such product line was the phenomenally successful Transformers range of toys, tied seamlessly in with a range of comics and long-running animation series.

"Packaging for Transformers toys moved things on a bit with the use of plastic moulds, cutouts on boxes, and massive logos. I remember the packaging and it was fantastic," Cawdell says.

The lessons and advancements made during the 1980s pretty much leads the story up to the modern day, where the ubiquity of cut-outs, plastic Vacform moulds and Try Me buttons are all-important. But while today's toy packaging is certainly state-of-the-art, it's also probably racked up some of the very biggest crimes in the entire packaging industry in terms of excess and waste.

Richard Bowman, a director of environmentally friendly toy manufacturer Russimco, says the packaging used by the toy industry today is "wasteful and bizarre in its nature". In response, his company has developed an eggbox- like material called Gekopak, which is 100 per cent biodegradable, recycled, and uses no wires, screws, ties or cellophane. It may be less eyegrabbing than much of the packaging it's competing with on the shelves, but it's far kinder to the environment.

"None of the big toy companies are really taking environmental concerns into account at the moment," says Bowman, "but they will have to in the future."

Whether or not the toy packaging industry will respond remains to be seen. For the moment, though, the wasteful plastic and cardboard behemoths seem to be the order of the day. Perhaps it's time the industry went back to basics. If it was good enough for Evel Knievel!