Open ended design is challenging but fun, especially when your target audience is young and impressionable, providing designers unprecedented opportunities to shape personalities through gameplay.
Aishwarya Nair, our next pathbreaker, Toy Designer, aims to create playtime for kids by designing virtual spaces, games and content that will help the next generation be happier, kinder, innovative and emotionally intelligent.
Aishwarya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about spending her last 20+ years around children, and bringing to work her past experiences by designing specifically for children.
For students, our current environment has robbed children of their favourite activity, playing. Take this as a opportunity to design interactive experiences that foster engagement, learning and development that help them face the world ! Read on …
Aishwarya, tell us about Your background?
I was born and brought up in the suburbs of Mumbai. I was really good at academics, sports and arts. I loved conceptual physics but felt that the way it was being taught was too boring and stressful. I wanted to intuitively combine physics and arts by creating everyday fun products, not just do calculations or sit in front of a computer. At the age of 17 I moved to Bangalore to pursue a career in Product Design.
My childhood had a big role in deciding my career. At the age of 5 my mother and my aunt started a daycare center for babies and kids. So I was always surrounded by kids between 4 months to 12 yr olds! And subconsciously I absorbed all their behavior patterns, how they eat, imitate, play, how to talk and interact with them etc. On the other hand my dad played the most creative games with me which made me explore textures, become more observant and independent. He also got me one really cool toy a year, which I would patiently wait for. I would play with that toy in numerous unimaginable ways. I had very few toys all in all. So I would look at the tiniest details and explore all the unique features, basically obsess over them a lot. But having few toys also meant that I spent a lot of time playing outdoors, or finding new imaginary ways to play indoors with objects that I would find.
My parents are very intuitive people and exceptionally good with young children. I believe all of those experiences shaped my core foundation. Funny thing is I didn’t think about any of that until I became a Toy Designer myself.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I was fascinated with Product Design from a very young age. I found out what that field is at the age of 13, and I researched a lot about it. I loved the attention to detail, beauty and value for human emotions that a product designer imbibes, which a typical Indian Engineer clearly lacks. So I decided to pursue Product Design and enrolled for the 4.5 year undergraduate program by getting into one of the best Design schools in the country, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I never really had a lot of influencers, but I would always listen to people who had anything new or interesting to say. So at the age of 12, an aunt pointed out at a newspaper article about Design and spoke about it. I paid close attention and keenly asked questions.
I believe mentors are extremely important to have. I have been lucky to have a few. As a kid it was my drawing teacher. Later on there were few amazing college faculty who always guided me in my journey. One of my all-time mentors has been the Dutch Designer Tjeerd Veenhoven. And till date he helps me with every new step in my career. It’s extremely important that your mentors support and encourage you, but they should also challenge you to think beyond your boundaries.
You won’t believe this, but I think my first turning point was at the age of 5, when one summer morning my mother forced me out of sleep and asked me to go to a drawing class. Though I reluctantly went, I ended up loving it. I continued the class for the next 5 years until my teacher moved away. By then the seed for art and creativity was deeply sown in me, and I had gained confidence in that path.
The second turning point I remember was seeing the newly Designed Mumbai local trains in the 2000’s. The difference between the old and the new train just blew my mind. What I loved the most was that a product designer focuses on all the little things to improve people’s everyday lives, while people using it might not necessarily think about it. It’s almost angel-like, product designers would secretly keep improving aspects of your life that you may or may not notice.
Later on, getting admitted to a good design college and being able to convince my parents to let me follow my passion, set me up for a big change in my life.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?
I was very clear about pursuing product design, what I didn’t know was that my childhood foundation would have such a big impact on it. Eventually every product that I was designing in college became a product for children, because I understood children the best and cared for them.
Paying for premium design college is very tough. And I came from a middle class family. We took many different loans in the 1st and 2nd year (which we were able to repay within the next 5-6 years), then in my 3rd and 4th year when the financial situation in the family got worse, the college dean recommended that I apply for the JRD Tata Trust which I didn’t know about then. With my good GPA and ability to show dedication, I was able to get scholarships for both the years. The final 0.5 year project was another 1.5 lakhs that my parents couldn’t afford. I was all set to discontinue studying, but as fate would have it one of the studios I did a project for in my third year offered me a fully sponsored final year project because they liked my previous work. It turned out to be one of the best work I have done, and because of that project the studio was able to secure additional funding from their government.
Tell us about your career path
My first job was for a low salary at a small studio in Bangalore focused on doing Channapatna toys and products. I learnt about interacting with artisans and how designs need to constantly modify based on the craft. But I felt like I wasn’t being challenged enough and most importantly I didn’t have a mentor who guided me into finding my strengths. But in that job, I got bored so much that I ended up reading fascinating books about sustainable Montessori toys, that helped me define my interest better.
Post that phase, I had a difficult month contemplating how I will find the most ideal job with a good salary. The many interviews I gave didn’t align with what I wanted to do. I have always wanted to do work that made me happy. Finally, I took a week’s break and went for a cheap getaway. That helped me reset my priorities and reach a mental state where I trusted my own skills and decided to go with the flow. When I let that happen, out of nowhere, I got the most perfect Linkedin notification that a company in Bangalore is looking for a Toy Designer to make Montessori based fun wooden toys. What are the odds! I spoke to the founders and they seemed like really good people. I gave my best shot when they gave me some pre-hiring assignments. They loved my ideas and gave me a 100% hike, exactly what I wished for at that point. That job taught me so much in my first year since I was given all the freedom I wanted, but with regular guidance. I designed over 70 toys that year that I was really proud of. Best part of my day would be reading the amazing reviews from people regarding my designs. It was a confirmation that I was creating a real impact on so many children’s lives across the country. I had identified my goal.
After a year and a half of working there I realised that I was getting too comfortable in my job, it became too easy for me. I also understood my own work patterns, I am a person whose creative energy is at its maximum after 11am and I tend to work late in the night, I was looking for that flexibility. At the end of the day I want to do a good job, that is what pushes me forward, so if flexible timing aids that, then why shouldn’t I be doing that. I was approached through Linkedin again by another company, and I went for the interview on a whim, though I was technically “happy” with my current job. I honestly hated the new company’s products, and because I had nothing to lose I told them exactly that. The good thing was the founder knew that and was open to fixing it. Which meant I would have the freedom to completely revamp their product range and that’s exactly what I did. I redesigned science based activities and toys for 3rd to 8th grade for thousands of school children.
How did you get your first break?
My second job at Skola Toys was my true break. And like I said, it was a completely unexpected opportunity that I got through Linkedin. Break comes to you when you accept every opportunity that comes to you and give it your best shot.
Main thing is to work on your portfolio and make it really strong. Approach all possible companies, industry or people that align with your beliefs and intent.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
- My biggest challenge was convincing my parents to let me pursue this path. It was very new and completely unknown. Like any other parent, they were very worried about me jumping down this expensive path which may or may not yield any result.
- Second biggest challenge was money. At the age of 17 I had to run from bank to bank convincing all the managers to give me a loan to study in a private university. My family and I focused on figuring out the finances one year at a time. Thankfully it worked out.
- Third biggest challenge which is a constant challenge is trusting your own ability to grow and thrive.
- This was a very new and untouched field. I didn’t know anyone who did what I wanted to do. Now after 7 years I still know only a handful of people working in this field.
Where do you work now? Tell us what you do?
I had lots of good ideas that would benefit kids everywhere, plus the job I was doing wasn’t challenging for me anymore. So 4 months ago I started working on building my own startup.
What problems do you solve?
Because of the pandemic many children lost their precious playtime, their best learning tool. I wanted to create a virtual space for kids to come and play together. It’s called http://www.play-dates.com
Another problem that I am trying to solve is that today’s children have the most challenging world to live in, the only way they can thrive in this new world is if they learn real human values, values like empathy, emotional intelligence, innovation, courage and more. Because let’s face it many other training skills will be taken over by AI and other technologies.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
The most important skill to guide playtime is to remember how to be a child again. I have spent the last 20+ years being around children regularly, because of that a big part of me is very much a child!
Another very important skill is to be extremely mindful while interacting with kids. What you say to a child, why you say it and how you say it is everything. It’s important to treat kids with respect and value their uniqueness.
Next is of course designing, specifically knowling how to design for children. This comes with learning some theory and a lot of practice. I constantly read as well as teach to stay updated in this field.
What is a typical day like?
As an entrepreneur you end up doing everything – you are managing people, talking to potential people to collaborate with, talking to customers, figuring out marketing, branding, content and so much more. Other than that I spend time designing games, planning curriculum, creating content and brainstorming on potentially new toys
What is it you love about this job?
It is such joy to know that through play you are preparing kids for tomorrow. But the absolute best thing is being able to bring smiles to the faces of children everywhere, knowing that one day some of them will look back and cherish these happy memories of their childhood.
How does your work benefit society?
My aim is to help the next generation be happier, kinder, more aware, innovative and courageous. I believe my work will help kids to live a more mindful life in the next challenging 20-30 years.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Apart from toys I also try to incorporate natural materials and sustainability in my product design. One of my favourite projects of all time is when I created a hi-tech backpack by combining materials like cane, banana tree stem, coir, palm tree bark and more. Even after five years of continuous usage, it is still in a great condition. It proves that we can use nature’s waste to create products that were otherwise made with hazardous foam, metal and plastic.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Firstly become mindful of your own experiences, understand where you came from and what were the unique experiences in your life, good and bad. Understanding them will help you carve out your own niche and become a unique individual. Secondly, before joining a job ask yourself if you see yourself getting up every morning wanting to do that job, and are not just doing it to survive. Lastly, believe in your capabilities even when others question you, but be always willing to constantly work on improving your skills, talents and knowledge.
Well right now I have one foot on entrepreneurship. I would like to create a space, sort of like an experiential castle that kids will play in and also take a lot of learning from. But before I raise enough capital to create a physical space like that, I am currently focusing on creating a virtual space for playtime and learning it’s called – School of Play. We will be launching it in September this year.