Ruth Green-Synowic on Happy Meals and More!
I feel as if I've know Ruth forever. A friend, a colleague and one of the most talented people in our industry. We tease her that she has served over 18 billion, meaning the thousands of Happy Meal toys she and her team created over the years. That's boot camp for toy designers!
She also makes a scrumptious strawberry rhubarb pie and unusual combinations of ingredients for jams that will make your taste buds sing for more!
WHY AND HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE TOY INDUSTRY?
I really believe the Toy Industry found me. When I was in second grade, my teacher held a contest encouraging each of us to be on our best behavior for several weeks. We were to be helpful, studious, neat, etc. The winner would then be awarded a big basket of toys. Wow! Well, what kid wouldn’t want a big basket of toys, right? I worked diligently to be the best helper, do all of my homework, and to be the kindest kid in the class. Sadly, even after my best efforts, I didn’t win the grand prize. I was heart-broken. I thought for sure I had won. Seeing that I was crushed, the teacher took me aside and reassured me that I had done everything right. She explained that she had decided to give the toys to a little boy in the class who didn’t have as much as the rest of us. This seemed fair to me and my love of toys grew even stronger. I can remember designing my own toy and game concepts as early as fourth grade and sending them in to companies. There were a couple of TV shows I liked so much that I designed a game based on one of the shows, and wrote a script for the other show and sent it to the late Larry Gelbart for consideration. He wrote back to me twice.
Fast forward to after college, when I spent a year teaching English in mainland China in a Foreign Languages Institute. Since we didn’t understand Chinese and there was no point to watching television, most of the foreign teachers, myself included, got together every night and played games or created our own.
When I returned from China, I published and marketed my own artwork for a couple of years at various art shows and galleries. One of the prints I created depicted dinosaurs in the Chicago skyline, as they might have appeared in prehistorical human settings. This poster ended up in a film with Jessica Lange called, “Music Box.” I decided to create plush dinosaur toys to compliment the posters, and to my surprise the toys sold even faster than the posters. So long story short, I’ve been creating toy and game concepts in some form or another for most of my life.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE TOY INDUSTRY?
My first official toy design job was with BMT, Breslow, Morrison, and Terzian – now Big Monster Toys. During the job interview, I showed the aforementioned dinosaur toys and poster. Out of 150 applicants, I got the job and I’ve been in the Toy Industry ever since. It was a great opportunity to work at BMT – they’re legends in the Toy Industry and I’m honored to have worked with them.
WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU LEARNED FROM WORKING AT BMT?
There were many things, but the one that’s stuck with me is to visualize your toy concept as a TV commercial. It really helps to frame it up when you think in those terms for mass market. Is it TV-worthy? What does it look like in a 10, 15, or 30 second commercial? If you can’t visualize it in this context, it’s probably not a strong enough idea.
WHERE DID YOU GO AFTER BMT?
After BMT, I worked for a small manufacturer creating gift products and a line of plush toys based on my original character designs. This is where I had the opportunity to work with Licensors, Engineers, Marketing teams and overseas manufacturers. Having direct contact with manufacturers and vendors is super helpful for any inventor and gave me a solid understanding of the process and design parameters.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO DESIGN HAPPY MEAL TOYS FOR MCDONALD’S?
The Happy Meal toy process is like no other product development process I’ve ever encountered. It’s a quick race to the finish line of strategy, brainstorming, sketching, designing, overseas costing reviews, safety reviews, R & D, research, and presenting to clients and licensors. It’s boot camp for toy designers!
I was enlisted on a Happy Meal tour of duty for over 16 years where a typical day in the trenches might include working on programs for North America, Latin America, and Europe…and, sometimes multiple programs for each zone. By ‘programs’ I mean a series of 8-16 final toy concepts for each presentation. Sounds easy, right? When you think in terms of generating a minimum of 8-10 ideas for each final toy concept, you’re looking at a whopping 64-160 toy ideas you’ve generated for just one program. Only 8-16 of those will actually make the cut. Although this is done with a team of people, some of the development timelines could be as short as one or two weeks.
Any designs we created for retail toy ventures had a similar process but the approach was quite different from promotional toys and the pace was much, much slower.
As you can imagine, the clip at which these toy concepts were created required a very finely tuned and regulated development process…one I haven’t seen anywhere else in the industry. All in all, it was a great experience for sharpening one’s product design, development and marketing skills.
DID YOU EVER MEET RONALD MCDONALD?
Sadly, no. A few other clowns along the way, but not Ronald.
WHAT WERE THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU LEARNED OR OBSERVED FROM DESIGNING TOYS FOR MCDONALD’S?
Delivering designs that exceeded or met the expectations of the client and the licensed partner was key. As decision-makers for their brand or market, we needed their buy in to move forward. Any delay could mean a bit of a program pile up back at the office.
Knowing the target consumer, (kids and moms), and how they interact with brands was critical.
Focus testing concepts with kids and moms was super important to recommending licensed properties and to proposing some design details.
Working with a product development team of Engineers, Industrial Designers, Marketing, Researchers, Safety specialists and Licensors was invaluable when it came to learning and understanding the product design and development process.
IF YOU’RE WORKING FOR A COMPANY IN THIS CAPACITY, LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN. IT’S GOOD TO KNOW ALL OF THE ASPECTS AND IT WILL MAKE YOU A SMARTER DESIGNER. WHAT ARE YOU UP TO NOW?
I now run my own design consultancy, Ruth Green Concepts, Inc., and have been designing and developing everything from: pet toys, to plush toys for babies and Alzheimer’s patients, to electronic toys, to plush characters, apps, books, greeting cards, posters, and packaging for retail toy, educational, and novelty markets, as well as eco-friendly toys. It’s a blast and I’ve used most of what I’ve learned throughout my career.
ANY ADVICE FOR TOY DESIGNERS, INVENTORS?
Understand your consumer – know their likes, dislikes and activities they engage in, as well as the trends they follow.
Generate lots of ideas. By lots, I mean hundreds. Be passionate about your ideas, but don’t become too attached to any one idea.
If you’re designing toys for kids, interact with them regularly and observe how they play. They don’t always play the way you think they will. This can be a real eye opener for an inventor or designer.
Research the product line of the company to whom you’re presenting concepts and see if there’s a gap in their line, or if there are ways you can enhance an existing product.
If possible, create a rough prototype of your toy. It doesn’t need to be too finished or fancy. Leave some room for modifying the concept, based on the company’s needs.
Attend industry shows, trade fairs, and subscribe to trade publications or websites.
Approach creative challenges with joy and the outcome will undoubtedly be something fun.
Thank you, Ruth, for a terrific interview!