Character designFeature

12 inspiring design toys for your desk

Here are our favourite 12 desk toys - warning: this may have severe effect on your bank balance.

desk toys
Designer Tim Easley has a love of desk toys

Step into any creative studio, and there's a high chance that you'll see a sea of small, brightly coloured plastic faces beaming back at you. In a world where digital is the focus for so many, the physical appeal of designer toys have led to them adorning desks far and wide.

Designer toys, or 'art toys', have been growing steadily in popularity since their emergence in the 1990s. Pieces range from mainstream, mass-appeal productions through to more bespoke, items often limited in number.

desk toys
Graphic designer Nicola Jones shows off her favourite desk toys

Artists frequently release original designs, but DIY figures are also available, giving consumers the ability to customise their own one-off pieces. The practice of artists collaborating is commonplace, with many producing joint output, or individuals starting with another artist's existing pieces and taking them to a whole new level.

Whilst 'urban vinyl' is a term often used synonymously with designer toys, their production may involve materials including vinyl, resin, plush, or even wood or metal. Maybe one of them will be joining your desk soon!


01. Hobby

desk toys
Hobby is an ongoing project for the Swedish toy company
  • Price: from €46

Swedish toy company Acne Jr make the kind of desk toys that will stand out. Founded by graphic designer Sofia Ekvall and illustrator Mats Johansson, Hobby is their latest ongoing project for handmade toys, with this first one made out of bamboo with burned details. Every doll is made to order so expect a unique flair with each one. When ordering, you can note any specific wishes for a truly original desk toy. 

02. Whispering Spirit

desk toys
Whispering Spirit believes that our childhood and precious memory live in the forgotten soul
  • Price: from $98

"In 2013, I lined up Crazylabel and KUSSO to start producing Whispering Spirit and I also designed 3 colorways and created 2 new characters: Forgotten Soul and Smiley Slow Soul," explains designer Bubi Au Yeung. "It has been an unforgettable experience to make WS in vinyl, the final products took lot of time and effort. I am glad that two years of effort paid off – I really like how WS turn out."

03. Ron English's Cereal Killers

desk toys
The Cereal Killers series has proved hugely popular
  • Price: from $70

With previous designs selling out in a matter of days, artist Ron English has created a set of Cereal Killers you'll want to get your hands on as soon as possible. Raising awareness of popular brand's sugar content, the vinyl toys feature iconic cereal characters in a less than flattering light. Those featured above are just some of the toys still available.

04. Shirley Creamhorn & Shithawk

design toys
Design Toys: Shirley Creamhorn & Shithawk by Gavin Strange
  • Price: £35

Design by Gavin Strange, Shirley Creamhorn & Shithawk were created in collaboration with Columbian sculptor Alex Avelino. Strange explains: "When I was a junior designer in Leicester, I got given a silly name of 'Shirley Creamhorn' by my designer friend Andy Rudkin, who would order me rubbish stationary samples with 'Shirley Creamhorn' engraved on the side. Over the years I picked this up and used it as an alter-ego name for a bit of fun."

After Strange designed the characters, Avelino then sculpted the toy by hand before it was handed to a toy company in China that produced the mould and 500 plastic injection copies.

05. Tado Star Wars Chubby Series

desk toys
You'll want these Star Wars design toys on your desk
  • Price: £15 per set

"We began working on the series a couple of years ago – our good friend Dan at Unbox Industries asked us to help out with developing the new Chubby project they were beginning," explain design duo TADO. "We'd worked on Star Wars character projects before together (Star Wars Celebration Europe 30th Anniversary) so the Unbox guys knew we'd be keen on having a shot at them."

"The production process has been a very long one, with a huge amount of revisions and approvals to make sure the characters were aligned to the correct style guides, etc – it's definitely been a learning curve for us all! We're really happy with how they turned out and we even managed to keep a few little TADO-type details that people might spot."

06. Desktop Dumpsters - Ryan Christensen, Steelplant

Design Toys: Desktop Dumpsters by Ryan Christensen
  • Price: $100 blank, $250 hand-painted

During a period of injury Ryan Christensen formulated the concept of Steelplant, started sketching, and eventually produced his flagship product Desktop Dumpsters out of recycled steel. Each hand-painted model is unique, and purchasers are actively encouraged to experiment with their dumpsters, including sanding off old paint, or introducing deliberate rust.

Next page: six more great desk toys