Ahead of the game

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am

Sounds like a dream job for a slacker: watching music videos, trawling through YouTube and networking sites such as Facebook, and experimenting with emoticons in instant messages. But Alex Chan Ka-keung isn't just amusing himself: engaging in such diversions is part of his job as a toy designer.

It all helps him keep up with the fast-changing interests of his young customers. 'Toys that sold well six months ago may be outdated now', so his browsing is vital research, says Chan, product design manager for toymaker Blue-Box International. 'But it can be a lot of fun, too.'

Hong Kong's 4,000 manufacturers, most with factories on the mainland, are realising that research and creativity are crucial for survival. Even though global sales last year reached HK$160 billion, they're in for a tough time. Their woes don't just stem from a spate of product recalls following safety concerns.

According to the Hong Kong Toy Council, costs will increase at least 15 per cent because of rising wages, the higher price of oil and other raw materials, and the appreciating yuan. Worse still, demand is weakening in key markets in Europe and North America.

But some local toymakers hope to forge a new future by developing their own award-winning designs instead of manufacturing low-cost licensed products for overseas firms.

'This is the best, yet also the most challenging, time for toy designers,' Chan says. 'Although the wave of recalls was caused by safety issues, we could feel tension in the whole industry; everyone was so stressed. But it helps to improve our standards. We don't just compete on price any more. There's more concern with innovative design.'

The industry must be more inventive to survive, says Samson Chan Ming-yiu, president of the Toys Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong. 'Cheap toys don't cut it any more,' he says. 'Hong Kong toy companies have to invest more in sophisticated and innovative design to stay on top of the game.'

That's a tall order: only one in 10 concepts make it into production, says Alex Chan, 40, whose team developed an award-winning set of iPod- and computer-compatible guitar, drumsticks and mixer - the Mi Jam series - after studying the US tween market.

The key to designing a best-selling toy is plugging into the world of the youngsters who will buy it. 'Children today are globalised. The tastes of US kids are similar to those in Hong Kong,' says Chan.

Xanga and YouTube provide a lot of clues, but it helps to try to think like a child. 'It's like role playing,' Chan says. 'You have to imagine being a kid.'

One of Hong Kong's oldest toymakers, Blue-Box uses focus groups to track responses to new products, but Chan also likes to test his creations on friends' toddlers - for instance, to check whether the toys fit their hands.

Children are honest about new products, he says. 'If they like it, they won't put the toy down. But if they don't, they don't bother to touch it. They may not be able to explain why they like or dislike a certain toy, but we trust their instinct and try to analyse their reaction.'

As with digital gadgets, the product cycle is getting shorter. In the past, Hong Kong toy companies made only slight modifications to update their best-selling products for the next season. Now they need a new look or function to compete for the attention of children who are increasingly mature for their age, he says.

Many youngsters now prefer sophisticated electronic toys, and as more children use iPods and mobile phones, toy firms must create stylish products to match. 'We're in this era of age compression,' Chan says. 'Tech-savvy kids compare adult consumer products with toys. They know the latest technology and aren't easily satisfied with what their parents buy them.'

The founder of newcomer AOK, Jacky Ng Chun-yi, was quick to tap into children's interests when he designed a toy vehicle that turns into a robot at a touch of the remote control panel. The company's Radio Controlled Robotic Car won the Australian Toy Association's Boys Toy of the Year award last year.

'We knew the Transformer movie would be a great hit so we decided on the robot-turned-car transformer to match the trend,' says Ng. 'Cars and robots are children's favourites. So we know children will like the transformer car because it's a combination of both.

'It's designed for kids aged six and above but it has appeal for adults, too, because both are fascinated by the hi-tech look.'

Similar awareness of the teen psyche enabled Manley Toys to win the gold award in the Hong Kong association's design competition last month with a tabletop electronic keyboard that allows children to play music over their favourite MP3 tracks.

Teens and tweens don't just like listening to music, says Samson Chan, who is also Manley's chairman. 'They like playing music to express themselves to.' Children under eight still like traditional toys, but tweens like to act like adults, and show off their taste to friends and look cool, he says.

Toymakers are also latching on to a strong swing towards playthings that are made of environmentally friendly, recycled or natural materials. 'The demand for eco-friendly toys is particularly strong in the US, especially after Al Gore's documentary on global warming,' says Samson Chan, whose company produced a series of toys made of recycled materials last year.

American parents want to use toys to teach their children about global issues, and the worsening pollution in Hong Kong has also spurred local parents to try to instil green values at an early age, he says.

Eastcolight, which specialises in educational toys, recently launched products in a similar green vein, among them a digital weather station that can measure wind speed, air pollution and rain pH, a paper recycling set and an 'energy-saving series' of toy cars powered by solar energy.

'In the past parents worried that their children spent too much time playing,' says Eastcolight general manager Salley Lam Ha-ngan. 'Now they realise toys can also teach children positive life lessons.'

The company also designed an adventure series that encourages children to explore nature, including an 'insect hotel', with insects placed in the transparent container fitted with lights and a flexible magnifying glass. 'Such toys are more popular in the US where parents don't mind if their children's hands get dirty,' Lam says. 'But this type of toy has started to pick up in Asia, particularly with parents who worry computer games may dull their children's creativity.'

But however well designed the toys may be, they can never replace quality time with parents, says Alex Chan. 'Good toys are more than consumer products,' says the father of two. 'They can provide stimulating experiences for children, and it's great if parents can be involved.'