Justin Discoe - Coffee, Loud Music and Build Strong Relationships
What do you do in the industry?
I work primarily as an independent toy designer through a company I share with my wife, Lori, called onepartART. We do toy design and illustration work for manufacturers but have done invention for royalty and more recently, I have worked as an expert witness in IP disputes in the juvenile products industry. As an independent toy designer, I typically get a slot-list from a client which may just have price-points, categories and a couple of descriptive lines to work from. Depending on the budget and timeline, it may just be creating renderings to put on a B-sheet or turn-key development that will include works-like samples, works-like/looks-like samples, and product spec sheets.
We are a small studio, but try to be as full-service as possible and made some investments in new 3D printing equipment and a 60W CO2 laser, which has been a game-changer for making flat parts and a fun addition to the studio. We are a nuts and bolts studio and haven’t really had to advertise or even host a website, maybe someday!
What is your claim to fame in the industry?
Along with my friends, Chris Clemmer, Eric Listenberger and David Bowen, I co-founded Sprig Toys out of my Colorado barn in 2007. We were early pioneers of eco-friendly toy products and thoughtful design, with the development of biocomposite materials that didn’t exist in injected-molded forms and countless trials of eco-friendly packaging and merchandising solutions. We also patented a battery-free electronic technology that harnessed the kinetic energy of the child to power the electronics. The idea for the battery-free electronics came from watching my son, Charlie, play with a Tonka dump-truck we had in the barn studio. He would put his hands on the rails and run like hell through the field and I thought, “if you could harness that energy, you wouldn’t need batteries,” so I built a bread-board that worked and we started a company around it. Eric left Sprig for Hasbro and has had a highly successful career, currently the VP of Design running the Nerf brand.
Chris took a deep dive into new materials to push the idea even further and made huge discoveries in biocomposites, which we branded Sprigwood. With David’s incredible eye for toy design, the Discover Rig was born and garnered three TOTY award nominations in 2009 - and this, competing against mainstream toys and billion-dollar brands. We were honored with a TOTY award in the Specialty Toy category in 2010, but I think it was more of a nod to the impact we made in the industry from our humble operation in Colorado. It was truly one of the most amazing moments of my life, right up there with seeing my two kids born. Our company was acquired by Wham-O Toys in 2010 and soon after, Chris and Davis left to start BeginAgain Toys, a leader in eco-friendly toy manufacturing, smart design, innovative materials, and bringing partners like John Deere into the world of eco-friendly toys.
Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?
After finishing design school in San Francisco, I worked under contract for Ziba Design, a well-respected industrial design firm and was developing the 1100-series copier, scanner, fax machines for HP. The contract ended and I knew that it was not the life for me. I took some time to think about what I really wanted in a career and came across an advert for game designers for a little brand called Radica Games in Dallas. I had seen the Radica Sub Assualt and Tank Assault games at truck stops while on road trips and thought this was the opportunity for me. I applied, interviewed and got the job!
While the Radica office was mainly a non-descript concrete warehouse, the design team housed in the walls and cubicles was a powerhouse headed up by Kevin Brase and design supervisors, Andy Riggs and Ron Bagley. It was there that I honed my design chops by being immersed in a design pool, deep in talent and where I met future Sprig Toys-partner, Chris Clemmer, and where David Bowen worked from our Bay Area office (although David and I met in design school). Radica was a hotbed of creativity, productivity, producing talent and a bit of the whos-who of toy industry with leaders like Gretchen Forrest, Lori-Dawn Howl, Pat Feely, Gene Murtha, Jim Wagner (after the Mattel acquisition) and others. The design team was kept in check by Mr. Lam, who was the VP of Engineering and a wealth of manufacturing knowledge and gave you actual reasons why you couldn’t do what you wanted to do. He basically your dad in Hong Kong when you go there on business trips, even 20-years later! I have made some of my best friendships from the Radica days.
What advice would you give a young adult graduating from high school or college today?
Take a chance on doing what you really want to do, put in an honest effort, push a little harder and have no regrets. Start saving in your 401K earlier than you think, be disciplined about it and do it with regularity. Stick to an industry, make your mark, do excellent work, make friends and build strong relationships. It’s those relationships and a strong work ethic that will get you through hard times and bring you opportunities when you need them or least expect them.
What was your favorite toy or game as a child?
The Shinsei Mountain Man radio-controlled Chevy Blazer. I got it for Christmas when I was 11 or 12, and loved that thing. It was indestructible, looked cool and was probably the most expensive toy that I had. The batteries killed me as a kid with no job and short on chores, but my grandfather always seemed to come up with enough to run it by digging through junk drawers. Ah, the memories.
Where were you born?
In Santa Cruz, on the central coast of California.
What was your life like growing up?
I had a good childhood. My older brother and I were raised by an indulgent single mother that worked hard at a uniform shop owned by my grandparents, always told me that I was the best and instilled in me the example of having a good work ethic and common sense. When I was fourteen, my step-dad entered our family and brought a new role model for me to evaluate as a teenager. He is now retired from the bicycle industry and where I had my first experiences learning about product development, design, prototypes, manufacturing, and really was responsible for setting me on my path of product design.
How do you jumpstart your creativity when you find yourself stalled on a project?
Coffee & loud music. If I am really stuck, solutions seem to come in the shower, almost like clockwork.
Do you have any kiddos?
Yes, my wife Lori and I have two kids. Our daughter, Kata, is a fiercely independent, strong, smart and creative sophomore in high school. She has a natural gift of aesthetic, good design and proportion and wants to study psychology in college, although she may be drawn to art school like her parents. Only time will tell. Our son, Charlie, is a freshman at Purdue University and is studying mechanical engineering with hopes of entering the auto industry. He was born a tinkerer and would look under the merry-go-round more than ride it at the park. He has a head for math and physics, and is an honorable, hard-working, independent thinker. He helped out on a toy design project for our client, Jakks Pacific, and has his first toy in Target stores across the country.