Reading children's minds

by Annelise Chan

Lee Hoi To, graduate, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU)

A serious revenue-earner, the toy industry means big business in Hong Kong. However, creating the next big plaything to hit the shelves depends on holding the key to young consumers' imaginations

Designing toys is far from being kids' play. Just ask Lee Hoi To, who has made it his career. And do not think that his special clientele are not as discriminating as their parents: they are very much the average demanding consumer of today.

"Children grow up faster and faster these days," marvels this Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) graduate. "Three year-olds think like 10 year-olds [used to]. It's getting more difficult to please them."

However, Mr Lee describes the task as fascinating, "because you have to design for a group of people whose thoughts you're never able to pin down".

Trial and error is the only way to produce the ideal plaything to absorb young and agile minds, he notes. Children's varying responses to new objects never fail to amaze. The lesson: "You have to be flexible," he observes, citing the case of a toy cash register, which children took to using as a telephone due to its shape. "I can only try to read their minds."

Next to watches, toys are Hong Kong's second-biggest revenue-earner. The 2004 Toys Fair in January is expected to help put the bounce back into an economy still reeling from SARS. Making big bucks, however, was not a priority when Mr Lee decided to specialise in crafting toys while taking his diploma in industrial design at PolyU. He preferred to dabble in outside activities, such as working as a clown at Ocean Park: "I love kids and like making people happy."

Nonetheless, while at PolyU, he and some friends established a small toy and game shop. A doll he designed, patterned after a famous Chinese scholar, was displayed in the storefront. Despite not being for sale, it attracted attention and publicity from a number of local publications.

Although the business closed down after a year, Mr Lee was not idle for long. He worked on commissions for a number of companies, even conceptualising a Kobe Bryant doll for Adidas. Along the way, he polished his practical knowledge of production techniques, including assembling, finishing touches and safety. "School teaches you a lot of theoretical things," he says. "When I started working, everything became totally new for me."

A sizeable number of toy designers are in Hong Kong, as all the world's leading brands, such as Mattel, are represented here and jockeying for the business - competing with homegrown companies. Maisto, the company Mr Lee is currently connected with, is a licensee for certain foreign brands, but is also able to carry out its own projects.

You have to be flexible

While Hong Kong designers are still ahead when it comes to design and production expertise, manufacturing has shifted almost entirely to mainland China due to cheap labour costs. Mr Lee's praise for toy designers in mainland China, particularly in Shanghai, is high, although he believes they still need to strengthen their international outlook. "But in 10 years' time, if we in Hong Kong don't improve ourselves more, who knows?"

Until then, job prospects for someone in his field remain plentiful, with salaries ranging from HK$10,000 to HK$15,000, he says.

However, excelling as a toy designer not only means being young at heart. "You have to know what is happening in the world," says Mr Lee. "Kids are very aware of things going on around them. And so should you [be], in order to come up with toys that will capture their imagination."

Taken from Career Times 10 October 2003
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