It may have been foreshadowing when 5-year-old Tony Morley tried to create his own puzzle by snipping and reassembling a piece of paper.
Later, he tried to build his own rock tumbler using washing machine parts. And he remembers, as a teen, his parents calling down to his garage workshop reminding him to abandon his projects and head to bed.
Early career in fun
Fortunately, all that tinkering paid off. Morley, 66, has conceived of an estimated 1,000 toys, turned about 500 of them into prototypes and seen more than 30 make it to market. For the past 31 years he’s supported himself and his family working as a full-time toy inventor out of his West Lakeland, Minnesota home as the co-owner of Red Racer Studio. His wife Taia, is the other co-owner. She is a professional book author, illustrator and toy packaging designer.
“The most rewarding part has been being able to make a good living … essentially doing what I did as a kid, tinkering and building and putting things together,” Morley said.
Timing plus talent
Some of Morley’s claims to fame include: a toddler toy called “Wobbling Tobbles” (manufactured by Fat Brain Toys and a one-time finalist for Toy Industry Association Toy of the Year) and a set of stacking action blocks Fisher Price has been produced for over a decade. He’s also received industry attention for his twirling Fat Brain toddler toy “The SpinAgain” and another called the "Oombee Cube", a 3-D toddler puzzle that tethers the pieces so they don’t get lost.
“Timing has a lot to do with it,” he noted of his successes. “I’d shown the Oombee Cube around five or seven years ago and nobody was interested. I thought I’d take it out of the closet and show it again, and it got licensed and manufactured and is doing well.”
That may be because toys that reinforce skills in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) are particularly hot right now, according to national trade group The Toy Association. That includes puzzles, memory games, building blocks, stacking toys and others that teach critical skills like problem solving, creativity and critical thinking. Last year, U.S. domestic sales of toys in the infant/toddler/preschool segment rose 3 percent last year to $3.19 billion, the organization reports.
Narrowing in on a niche
A California native, Morley graduated from Brigham Young University with an industrial art degree before embarking on a series of jobs in product design that took him to six different states.
Gigs included designing Star Wars-themed toys for Kenner Products (which later became Tonka Corp., then Hasbro Inc.) and creating games for Milton Bradley, where he met fellow game designer Taia. After getting married the two moved to Minneapolis so she could work for Tonka and he could join two partners in a small, independent toy design group. After that company dissolved he struck out on his own with Red Racer, and Taia soon followed.
As an independent, Morley has focused primarily on toddler-level toys, trusting his gut to work on items he thinks may be fun, affordable and relatively simple to manufacture.
“I’m not that smart [about figuring out] market research,” he joked. “That’s way too grown up for me. And I’m about as low-tech as you can get; I don’t even do battery things, much less electronic things. I don’t think the world needs me for that – I don’t have the aptitude for it.”
He designs both on the computer and via real-life models, then markets his work by contacting manufacturers’ reps or pitching directly at a couple of annual industry shows, including the New York Toy Fair. If a company reviews and accepts one of his designs, it’s placed under contract and an advance is offered. The chosen toys are typically re-designed by the company before hitting the market, and he receives royalties from the sales.
The vast majority of his designs are never chosen. But he says he’s OK with that, noting that he has made a “prosperous but not wealthy” living through the years.
“You keep a positive mental attitude by expecting negative results – it’s better to realize that up front,” he explained. “You don’t want 100 percent rejection, but if you have 95 percent, that makes it all worth it.”
While he knows other designers who have made a lot of money, he also knows many who have dropped out of the industry out of discouragement.
Morley points to a low point about 20 years ago when Red Racer wasn’t making enough and he strongly considered seeking another job with a game company. But the business rebounded when a friend from Minneapolis’ Manhattan Toy Co. offered them a packaging design job. Though inexperienced back then, the couple’s results were so successful they were asked to design an entire packaging line. The extra income saved Red Racer until business picked back up.
Beyond the rejection and financial uncertainty, other challenges of the industry include brainstorming truly unique ideas in today’s low-attention-span world, Morley noted. The regulatory environment can add further strife; at one point the Consumer Products Safety Division wavered on whether a 4-by-1-inch plastic tray that held his original "Wobbling Tobbles" presented a drowning risk—ultimately deciding it didn’t.
But even with the challenges Morley still enjoys the work.
“I don’t know how to not do this,” Morley noted. “I’m probably not as disciplined as I used to be, but I keep doing it and keep trying to dream up new stuff and make work for myself. The fact [that] I’ve been able to do this 31 years now is astonishing to me.”