Professor Susan Adamo Baumbach, longtime faculty member, is now acting chair of FIT’s high-profile Toy Design department. Thriving in the fast-moving world of design, refinement, production and sales of toys and games, is a challenge she meets. While she’s a die-hard enthusiast for some games of the past— must-have toys like the Frisbee and a deck of cards–she’s constantly working on the next thing.
We asked the acting chair about her life in toys and her vision for the department:
Could you describe a few highlights of your week as acting chair?
SAB: I’ve been teaching Game Design during the spring semester for many years. The biggest highlight for me is when I see students’ work evolve, see that there’s been exploration and not just holding to the original concepts. I love playing games with them. Tonight I brought in Pie Face!, Boom Boom Balloon, Tapple and Chardoodles.
One of your early jobs was as an editor of a video game publication. How did it lead to toy design?
SAB: I got a cold call while I was at Video Games Magazine about an opening at CBS, which was starting a video games division. I didn’t design video games, I reviewed them. But I got the job, then went to their toys department. From there I went to Pressman Toys where I worked for a long time. (Games are the core of Pressman’s product line – classics and ones based on TV game shows.)
How much does being in NYC give the department an edge?
SAB: We can walk down any street and have an idea. One toy inventor told me that he is always asking himself, “Is there a toy here? Is there a game here?” He would go to Canal Street and buy random parts to see if he had something when he got home.
One of my favorite stories has to do with Chicago inventor Burt Meyer who was in NY for the Toy Fair. He and his boss, Marvin Glass, were looking at the lighted boards around Times Square and Glass said that if you could make that into a toy, then we’d really have something. Once back in Chicago, Burt started work on what would become Lite Brite, one of the top toys of all time.
What things are most important to you in a Toy Design applicant?
SAB: Good question: Fresh thinking that takes everything about the end-user into consideration, some art skills with a good sense of proportion, maybe whimsy, an unusual twist on something we think we already know.
Our department recruits students heading into junior year. Many students hear about it at FIT. They meet someone in the program, they find it in the course book. We do a “cookies and milk” event to publicize the department.
Where did you grow up and what toys did you play with?
SAB: I grew up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. A neighbor who was a year younger than me had a great stash of toys and games. When my older sister Jane caught on that I was a sucker for games, she started charging me a quarter to play with her.
How did your taste in toys and games evolve?
SAB: A game called Think-a-Dot made me aware that math had toy applications. That was definitely a leap. Etch-a-Sketch was quite a ‘wow.’ Mr. Potato Head (rebranded to Potato Head) —using real produce. I had a plastic train set I loved; Barbie, Ken, Midge and Alan, a 10-speed bike. My tastes grew with every new box I opened.
So many kids now spend so much time on social media. Do they have time for toys?
SAB: Well, many of their adults limit social media time. And sometimes kids feel spent themselves and want a new ‘flavor.’ Spring is here—Frisbees, bike riding, kite flying, drone flying—These provide their own experience as well.
I used to have a doll and it just sat there. At best, my dolls had eyes that blinked. Now they can practically do your homework. Is there less of a nurturing element with owning a doll?
SAB: Typical baby dolls have given way to plush, which may now, overall, give kids that toy-nurturing play. Plush feels so good, can have amazing colors and features and, if licensed plush, is like having your favorite characters at home.
Major news outlets are reporting a big increase in interest in toys and games for adults. A third of all toys and games are used by adults. Are you adapting your curriculum to this expanding market?
SAB: I don’t know that any one of us can keep track of all of it, so we have to keep asking each other, “What’s up? What’s going on?” I’m frequently using Google News to search “toys”, “games” and company names.
The biggest change is students designing toys in Solid Works, which are then printed in our Print FX 3D lab. Advanced hard-toy design and engineering, drafting and technical drawing—the department keeps up with the expanding market and a big part of that is our relationship with the faculty who, at their own full time jobs, are always ahead of the game.
With so much evolution in the toy industry, how do you recruit faculty members who are on top of their craft and are also good teachers?
SAB: Right now we are on the hunt for a couple of people who are good industrial designers. So saying that here is one way to attract them! We also get recommendations from our faculty.
Toys today cover a staggering gamut of playing experiences. Is there still a toy that everyone of a certain age “must” have?
SAB: I would say—Frisbee, deck of cards, couple of pairs of dice, chalk, ball.
What type of inter-disciplinary activities might you have in mind?
SAB: Right now we are involved with the Cooke School and Institute in South Harlem. Juniors and seniors also work with the Hudson Guild here in Chelsea. It’s an agency focused on those in economic need.
What toys do you buy for your own family?
SAB: Husband David and daughter Aurora are both players of SET, an amazing card game. They also like SpotIt! and Aurora is especially too good at it,
To learn more about the Toy Design major in the School of Art and Design visit: Toy Design at FIT.
All photos by Photography majors Sophie Lancione and Christian Steininger. To see more of their work go to: SophieLancoione.com and on IG: @sophie.lancione. Follow Christian Steininger on IG: @ccsteininger.