History Lesson

snap town

Being a designer is a bit like being a parent. You have dreams for your progeny, do the best to see that they have a good start, and the rest is up to them as they go out into the world.

In 1984 we were in the process of recreating PlayBoosters after Landscape Structures had purchased Mexico Forge who had been our producer. We named the new system KidBuilders to be produced by Iron Mountain Forge in Monett, Missouri, who went on to become Little Tikes by Rubbermaid. This new relationship had me traveling to Missouri on a regular basis.

One of the joys of my work during this period was introducing the products to the early childhood education community. It was at one of the NAEYC conventions that I met Mike and Barbra Richter who produced and marketed a great line of educational toys and equipment and were located in Kirkwood, MO. During a visit, while passing through to Iron Mountain Forge, I suggested that they should have a sand and water table in their product range which they thought was a great idea.

Discovery table

Rotational molding of plastic parts, which we had introduced to playgrounds a couple of years earlier with PlayBoosters, had become readily available and I figured this was a natural material for the play table. So, not wasting any time, we went downstairs to their basement and I created a mock-up of the idea in cardboard. In a few months later, the product was launched to a great reception. People may think that designers must make a good income. My fee for the design was dinner that night. But more to the point, I got to hang out with this great couple.

The Richters were also selling a modular play system called Snap Wall which was comprised of interlocking plastic squares. I thought that the Snap Wall system had more potential and Mike wanted to see what could be done with it. It seemed logical to add triangle shapes, tunnels, and more interesting square panels.

Both the sand and water Discovery Table and Snap Wall went on to excellent market success for over two decades. The company, Children’s Factory, is still doing quite well although Mike passed away in 1977.

I’m sharing all of this because by following the history of a product it can inform one’s understanding of how a product can succeed and what forces lead to their longevity or discontinuation. In the case of the Discovery Table, it continues and has morphed into somewhat different shapes based on ease of use by teachers.

Snap Wall is a more interesting tale. It seems that the use of roto-cast plastic has become ubiquitous and many more innovative products have had an impact and it has lost its uniqueness. It was an odd product even in its heyday in that the pieces were somewhat hard to assemble and difficult to rearrange so the modularity was therefore not all that useful. In addition, functionally it was in a sort of no man’s land in that it was primarily a crawling environment which appealed to a relatively narrow age group.

The lesson that these two designs illustrate is this. A simple and straightforward solution to a recognized need will endure and generate improved spin-offs. A clever design idea that only somewhat meets the needs of the intended user group will persist in the market until replaced by more functional solutions. So, note to self, don’t fall too much in love with your bright ideas. Although in my defense, the original interlocking concept was by someone else and I only gave it a broader and bigger market, but the lesson is still valid.

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