“Toypography” – Distributing Creativity in Toys

Dainippon Type Organization: Ping Mag Interview on Japanese Characters

OK, a lot of you will think that this is kind of a strange post on a blog that’s about making and designing things. Especially since recently I’ve been focused on 3D printers, and fabbers and other fun stuff like that. But with that in mind I wanted to get back to looking at why I want a 3D Printer and the connection between “distributed manufacturing” and “distributed creativity”. What sparked this was this interview in Ping Mag with insanely creative Japanese Typography Designers, Tetsuya Tsukada and Hidechika from Dainippon Type Organization.

Even for those who don’t have an interest in Japanese, Chinese characters or typography you’ll soon be able to appreciate the incredible creativity of the guys’ work. Their major creation is to experiment with the Japanese phonetic alphabet and use it to make Chinese characters that have different meanings. It’s the English equivalent of taking your name, rearranging the size and shape of the letters in it so it now visually resembles a different word (one you ideally hope is a lot cooler and describes you). One example they have is with the name “Takahashi”, which they rewrite so it says “Master” (which also happens to be the name of a popular game player in Japan). You can still read the characters for “Takahashi if you look carefully, but if you were to look at it quickly you read “Master”. It’s a potent mix of language, creativity and meaning.

As they’ve developed this technique Hidechika and Tetsuya have also partnered with major Japanese stationary company Kokuyo to create a toy they call “Toypography“. Reminiscent of tangrams. it takes English and Japanese words and allows you to create the chinese character equivalent. As well as being fun for the language learner this is just fantastic design and I personally want a set right now! They have examples in the article on Ping Mag and it’s also garnered attention from teachers both in Japan and overseas (Kokuyo’s involvement is not unusual for a stationary company as they are involved in educational tools as well as goods). While it’s a long tail market it’s not hard to think that this could be something that really takes off. The comments on their blog are already asking “where can I buy these”.

So here is where I get to my point. And this is just my opinion but it’s my opinion as a consumer with a really strong interest in this product. I happen to think that this is a great example of where a “distributed creativity” model could be of great advantage to the designers as well as to consumers like me. Honestly Hide, Tetsuya, I want these! And I’d love some now, and though my Japanese is reasonably good, even I don’t want to go through the process of finding out if/when/how I can buy these and get them to my home in New Zealand, or as gifts to friends in San Francisco. So what’s my suggestion? I suggest you sell some of your designs to me (and other consumers for that matter). I could download them as a pdf and then print and cut out. That way I could be playing and using them right away. And so could thousands of others who are interested. Basically I’m interested in your creativity but there is a distribution problem in getting to me when really there doesn’t need to be.

Now I know there is some risk of some ingrate thief taking your idea and building a copy cat product. But the same risk is there if you just sell the physical product (in fact it’s probably greater because the ingrate will want to match everything about your product to piggyback on your branding as well). Even in the Ping Mag article there is an example where someone has poorly copied your ideas. However I think the benefits of being able to share the value you have in your design by putting that into my hands in a real world way is much more valuable to you as designers. Also the coverage you get from being able to get in front of so many more people globally is also of a huge benefit to you.

This is where the coolness of “distributed creativity” comes together. Two insanely creative guys in Japan can spread their idea to me physically without having to pack or ship a thing or engage a manufacturing partner. I’m willing to pay for the design and find my own way to the physical creation. I won’t pay as much as for the physical product, but I’d pay you the margin, and directly to you at that. I’d also then have a customer relationship with you directly and you with me. Anytime you design something else in the future I’d be interested. I think that’s of huge benefit to you as well.

I think there are lots of cool designers out there with the kind of funky, thoughtful expertise that these guys show. While all design doesn’t lend itself well to a distributed creativity model yet, I think that designers and craftspeople who embrace distributing their creativity will open themselves up to a whole new world. If anyone else has any example of product designers who really lend themselves to this type of idea then feel free to leave their sites in the comments.

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