Brian Gulassa never lost his childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. It’s a good thing too, since that same sense if wonder has allowed him to design toys for over 30 years at 50+ major companies. When he’s not teaching in the Industrial Design department at California College of the Arts, Gulassa is the Chief Design Officer for ThoughtFull Toys, the company behind the award-winning line of modular cars, Modarri. Modari toy cars invite children to be apart of the design process by allowing them to rebuild and customize everything.
In this interview, Gulassa talks about his design process, what makes designing toys different from designing consumer products, the do’s and don’ts of launching a Kickstarter campaign and how hiring a high school band saved the company:
Core77: What makes Modarri cars different than other toy cars on the market today?
Brian Gulassa: The entire goal of Modarri was to make the “Ultimate Toy Car”. We studied all the major toy cars on the market with an objective of keeping the best aspects from them and eliminating any negative aspects. For example, we loved building models when we were kids, but it took too long and the glue was messy—it killed a lot of the fun. That’s why we developed our modular building system that uses “layering” and quick hex screw assembly, for fast, non-messy car building.
We also love the open-ended play aspect of Legos, but they never looked like real cars, and they were too fragile. When you build Modarri cars, they all interlock seamlessly, and they have real automotive surfacing, so it looks like a real car that you’ve designed yourself. Once the cars have been screwed together, they stay together, so you can play with them any way you want.
We also realized that with most toy cars, you’re not actually touching them while you play. You either watch them run down a track, use a remote control, pull back or wind up and let go. Maybe you just push them once and watch them go in a straight line… or maybe you buy the car and put it on a shelf for display, never to be touched again.
That was a big “ah ha!” moment for us. How could we make a real, “hands-on” driving experience? That’s what led us to design the finger-drive bucket seat, real independent spring suspensions, and our patented steering mechanism.
While assembling and driving the modular cars, kids and adults begin to understand the small, basic mechanics that make up the entire complex system, so they start to discover how everything works. For some kids, building Modarri cars will be their first time using a real tool, which develops new motor skills. Our unique hands-on steering system allows kids and adults to explore new tricks and driving techniques while mastering new skills as well. Overall, we wanted to encourage kids to be the designers by providing them with an easy, open-ended system that encouraged creative exploration through their own choices. Design with training wheels.
What challenges and obstacles arose during your design process?
We actually started with a completely different method of steering, and David the “forever inventor tinkerer,” came up with our new system by disassembling RC cars. He built a perfectly functioning prototype using just a Dremel, hot glue and duct tape.
The tooling was definitely a challenge to figure out. Prototyping was one thing, but making consistent injection molded parts was a whole different story. Trevor and I spent some time at the factory with X-Acto knives and superglue trimming away excess material of our non-functioning “first shots” to come up with the master model that worked perfectly.
Unfortunately, when they rebuilt the injection molding tools, it created loose joints, so our first container of cars had to be completely rebuilt by hand! These are the things you don’t plan for… We had the factory fix the suspensions and air freight them out to us, and then Trevor hired a local high school band who was trying to raise money for a European tour to come in and swap out the suspensions on about 2,000 cars. This had to happen fast, or we would miss our Christmas ship date—which could have been the demise of our company. While sometimes painful, every challenge is there for a reason. On the other side of every obstacle is less competition.
You started this project on Kickstarter, what was that process like?
We had the impression that you just needed to put up your campaign and people will find your page and back the project. But in reality, you have to plan well in advance and get your social media and PR buzz humming ahead of time so that you already have a large group of backers the moment you launch the project.
“Most designers think of getting funded by Kickstarter as the finish line. In reality, you have only qualified to advance to the starting line.”
We actually had to cancel our first Kickstarter and re-launch because we made this mistake. We launched and we didn’t get much traction. The second go-around, we were prepared and had promotions and partners creating buzz before launch and throughout the campaign as well.
Do you have any advice for designers who are trying to use Kickstarter to launch their product?
Plan out a good launch! Our marketing manager will tell you that Kickstarter is not a “set it and forget it” thing… you need to actively search for new ways to promote your project, new networks to leverage, and new partners to team with every day. Unless you have an insanely great product that goes viral, you’ll need to work on promoting your project almost every day that it is running.
One important note from our marketing team is that Kickstarter uses algorithms and thresholds to discover projects that they might want to highlight or feature on the Kickstarter website. Being featured by Kickstarter can be a huge help for a project, as the majority of Kickstarter backers come directly from browsing the Kickstarter domain itself. Therefore, having a strong launch and gaining a lot of backers in a short initial time frame is key to getting noticed by the Kickstarter team and having a chance to be a featured project on their site.
Most designers think of getting funded by Kickstarter as the finish line. In reality, you have only qualified to advance to the starting line. You may have raised enough funding to tool up your product and maybe deliver it to all of your backers, but now comes the hard work if you want to stay in business. How do you get your product out to the rest of the world? How do you account for problems arising?
Thank goodness for Trevor and David. Having owned a toy company before, they knew exactly what they were getting themselves into. It is important to plan your sales, marketing, and distribution strategy as best as you can ahead of time. Taking a product to market is a complex world that requires knowledge of all sorts of things like retail sales, marketing, distribution, warehousing, logistics, cash flow, etc. It is stressful but very exciting—and there is a lot that needs to happen right if you want to succeed. Get your team in place before you start, and make sure you’ll be able to cover all of the early-stage roles. David calls the first few years of launching a toy brand the “race through the valley of death.”
When I spoke with you and David at New York Toy Fair, you both mentioned some great mottos like “build to play, not display” and the concept of “play value”, can you elaborate on these ideas and how they shaped Modarri cars?
Before we even had a product idea, we walked through New York Toy Fair to see what products we liked. We quickly realize that a lot of toys have lost their sense of play by falling into categories like novelties, one trick ponies, collectible figurines or entertainment. Even lego has become more scripted—follow the instructions exactly and build this set.
So we started out with the goal of creating a better play experience by breaking down what makes great play. My measure of success is when a toy allows you to get so deep in imaginary play, that you lose track of time.
Our Long list of requirements was distilled down by David’s formula: Play Value = (Level of Fun) x (Amount of Play Time). When you get a toy that is short-lived or just isn’t that much fun to begin with, you’ve got poor play value. Great play value is when a toy is played with for a long time and is really fun throughout. If kids keep coming back to play with your toy because it offers fresh experiences—you know it has good play value.
“My measure of success is when a toy allows you to get so deep in imaginary play, that you lose track of time.”
Every potential feature for Modarri was looked at through the lens of engaging play. When we say things like “build for play, not just display” we really mean that our entire design is deeply rooted in the value of the play experience, and not just the aesthetics (this might not be as common as you’d think for most of today’s toys).
For example, the modularity of Modarri cars creates moments of exploration, discovery, creativity, surprise and almost unlimited newness—all while remaining simple and fun. This is by design, and there are certainly paths we could have gone down that may have over-complicated the system and taken away from the “flow” of the play experience. Our Modarri Delux 3-pack allows you to make over 235,000 different car combinations from one box, and it takes less than two minutes to build a car—that is a lot of potential for explorative play.
Your minimal packaging really stands out compared other toy packaging. Is this a conscious effort and why?
Kids these days are a lot more sophisticated. Most of them have bought Apple products and have experienced the unboxing and understand the quality. But Apple has the advantage of a well-known story—they can get by with very minimal imagery and messaging. We wanted to create an Apple-like aesthetic, but since we are not a household name (yet), we have to make sure we communicate what our product is.
I teach my Industrial Design students at CCA a lot of marketing principles so that they learn to effectively pitch their ideas. I used some of my own rules directly from my class. It’s all about quick communication. A common mistake is to overload with graphics, bright colors, multiple effects, and make everything as big as possible to try to make a mediocre product get attention. When everyone is yelling, no-one gets heard.
“It’s mostly an exercise in restraint. If it’s not absolutely necessary, does it need to be there? Try to let the product tell its own story.”
The first objectives are to get their attention and quickly communicate exactly what they’re looking at. Then you can tell the rest of the story. You have about three seconds (maybe even less these days) to let people know what it is, what it does, how you use it, who it’s for, and what the benefits are to the user.
On top of that, our target age kids are not necessarily reading yet and we sell in international markets, so we try to do as much as we can without words. It’s mostly an exercise in restraint. If it’s not absolutely necessary, does it need to be there? Try to let the product tell its own story.
Be minimal, but clear. We found out that our mix-and-match system was not as obvious as we thought. Some kids built the cars from our three pack and didn’t realize that you can interchange the parts across all Modarri cars. We ended up changing our primary tagline from Modarri “The Ultimate Toy Car” to Modarri “Design and Drive Building System” to make things more clear.
The first Modarri package we did, I included a lot of text information. Our packaging company later translated everything into seven languages. It ended up looking like a wall of text. I now look at IKEA instruction booklets for inspiration, because there is no text in them, and they are globally understood.
Do you have any general advice about the toy design process?
You have to stay curious and current. I never lost my sense of childhood wonder and exploration. I have been designing toys for over 50 different toy companies for over 30 years. I love designing toys because one day I might be designing an architectural house, the next day some cool cars and the next day a spaceship.
Designing toys is a different skill set than designing consumer products. Most of it revolves around some sort of narrative—you want to spark an idea but also give space for them to imagine and be a participant in the rest of the story. Toys are props for priming play.
I recall one day I had to design a junkyard playset for micro machines. I went on a field trip and spent the day in a junkyard. I told the workers what I was doing and they were just as excited as I was. They even let me climb inside the car compactor, now that I think about it, that was probably violating some OSHA rule. It’s easy to rehash what others have already done so it’s important to be authentic.
I remember another early experience where I had to design some vehicles, I knew what they wanted and was sketching those up while I was thinking to myself, “If I were designing this I would do something totally different. But wait… I am designing this!” So I threw my concept in as well, and they loved it because it was different and fresh. Make sure you add your voice. There are enough throwaway toys out there in the world, so do something meaningful. Be passionate about everything you create, it’s infectious!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.