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Mattel taps its creative juices with the power of Platypus

To the rest of the world, the platypus is simply an odd-looking hybrid of bird and animal - an accidental creature. But to Mattel's Ivy Ross, this pairing of the unexpected symbolizes a whole new world of toy creation. A senior VP of design and development for girls at the toyco, Ross is also the mind behind Project Platypus - a new program that immerses Mattel staffers in an organic process designed to unleash the creative juices that lead to innovative and unique new toys.
March 1, 2003

To the rest of the world, the platypus is simply an odd-looking hybrid of bird and animal – an accidental creature. But to Mattel’s Ivy Ross, this pairing of the unexpected symbolizes a whole new world of toy creation. A senior VP of design and development for girls at the toyco, Ross is also the mind behind Project Platypus – a new program that immerses Mattel staffers in an organic process designed to unleash the creative juices that lead to innovative and unique new toys.

‘We’re now in the age when we, as companies, have to start looking at how we can become as innovative as possible,’ says Ross. ‘There’s one strategy that works for the established brands, and there’s another for creating the unknowns.’ And it’s these unknowns that Mattel is hoping Project Platypus will yield. The process? Take 12 people from different divisions of the company out of their regular jobs, throw them into an open-plan office, and charge them with tackling a product sector in which Mattel is not yet active.

The inaugural Platypus group created Ello, Mattel’s first foray into girls construction toys. A combination building set and craft kit, Ello is billed as a ‘creation system’ for five- to 10-year-old girls. The set has colorful panels, balls, miniature flowers and other quirky pieces that can be used to build houses, people, pets, jewelry or anything else young minds can dream up. Scheduled to hit mass this month, Ello was released in limited quantities at FAO Schwarz late last year, and Ross says it flew off the shelves.

‘The response was excellent. People couldn’t find it and they were writing letters and e-mails wanting to know where they could get it.’ says Ross. ‘If we do the dollars that we’re expected to do, and early indications are positive, then this will be an extremely profitable line.’ All the more so because Ello was created in half the time it would normally take to come up with such a full-fledged product concept. ‘People are amazed at what we got done in three months. We basically delivered a brand that had all the research done, the merchandising was thought-out, and the product was ready to be manufactured.’

Each Platypus session begins with what Ross calls ‘grazing.’ Two sets of speakers are brought in – the first to teach participants how to get into a creative headspace, and the second to give market and technical information about the product category. The first set of speakers starts off all the sessions and trains the group to work within an organic system rather than a linear one using techniques like observing the details of a Japanese tea ceremony. Project Platypus director David Kueler comes from a theater background, so improv skills are also used extensively.

Plus, a brainwave specialist sets up listening stations that play music intended to put people in a fertile mindset, and all the participants spend some time in the sound chair at least three times a week.

The second week features speakers that relate to the project at hand. For example, the Ello group heard from an architect about engineering principles and observed a group of girls building with things like pipe cleaners and cardboard.

After the participants – or Platypi, as Ross calls them – have taken in the information, the dialogue begins. The room is specially designed to encourage flexibility, with desks on wheels so people can literally pick up and lock gears with whomever they feel like working with, and all the ideas are posted on a 20-foot wall. ‘It’s really about organizing around what people are passionate about,’ says Ross. ‘I believe in immersing yourself in the task at hand, rather than trying to do seven things at once. Here, you’re always looking at the words and the thoughts – they’re constantly visible.’

There is no set schedule for the dialogue phase, an idea the Platypi find unsettling at first. ‘Some companies would have panicked about being five weeks into it and not yet knowing the story behind the brand,’ Ross says. ‘But then we got it, and we got it at such a deep level that we were able to run with all the other aspects of it a lot quicker.’

There have been two other Platypus sessions since the creation of Ello, but the fruits of those labors are being kept tightly under wraps for now. All Ross would say is that the methodology was the same, and the resulting products are both in categories Mattel has not tackled before.

‘We plan to do three sessions a year, and if two become successful, it’s more than paid for itself – on top of the amazing training it’s giving our employees,’ says Ross, adding that the Platypi culture is spreading across the street to Mattel’s headquarters. ‘People are coming back and saying, ‘let’s take down the wall or bring in the improv guy,’ which I really hoped would happen because you’re much better off if things can come from within and then just reach out and spread.’

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