My Interview with Hong Kong Toy Designer Gary Man

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Gary Man started his Hong Kong based Hedgehog Design company in 1999.  Hedgehog, though located in Hong Kong, does a great deal of toy design work for US toy companies.  I thought it would be interesting to explore with him how he goes about bridging Western and Asian culture in creating products that have global appeal.  Here is my interview with Gary.

Richard:

One of the things that impressed me when I spent time with you in Hong Kong was the number of US companies for which you have done design work.  Can you tell us why you think western companies come to you for design work? After all, you are on the other side of the world from many of them.

Gary:

True. Our customers are mainly US Toy companies. Although most of them have their own design teams, they turn to us in many cases.  Apart from being fortunate, we have an excellent reputation for creativity. In addition, we are extremely efficient; in-house engineers and model makers support our design teams; our designs match with engineering and manufacturing requirements perfectly and that helps to shorten development time.

In addition, we are located in Hong Kong, which is a bridge between China and the rest of the world.  Therefore we benefit from the proximity with China because our designers and engineers can visit Chinese factories easily in order to supervise the process through on-site discussion with our Chinese partners on engineering and manufacturing issues. As you know, those parties still need to discuss with designers on-site and face-to-face.

All of these factors give our western clients a clear advantage.

Richard:

I have to ask this question: Why did you choose to name your company after a hedgehog?  After all, there are 12 animals in the Chinese calendar but no hedgehog. 

Gary:

Ha ha! I used to be called "the guy with hedgehog hair style" at many Chinese factories.  Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals, and I usually work at night due to time differences with US clients, this well describes my impression to most people.  And above all, a hedgehog is cute and sounds very smart too.

Richard:

You are a native of Hong Kong yet your personal style (and Hong Kong style for that matter) is very western. Do you feel that one of your strengths is your ability to bridge the cultural gap between western toy companies and Chinese manufacturers?

Gary:

Actually Hong Kong has a fusion of cultures very much like New York City.  Growing up, people my age were usually surrounded by American and Japanese toys, comics, video games, movies, as well as fashion.  I was especially fascinated by US comic books and toys of the baby boom generation such as the 3.5" GI Joe, Start Wars, Rubik’s Cube, Master of the Universe, Micronauts, Transformer, Chogokin as well as Micro Machines and TMNT…..Our style is a mixture of Japanese & the American. With a careful adjustment of the proportion of these two cultural aspects of features & styling, we will naturally suit the preferences of contemporary Chinese toy companies.

Richard:

China has opened up as a big market for western companies like Lego, Hasbro and retailers like Toys R Us. I am interested in knowing whether you think that western intellectual property needs to be modified for Chinese tastes.  And if so, have you ever been asked to make any modifications?

Gary:

Richard, I can’t agree with you more! It is essential to localize the products for the China market due to taste and culture difference. Nowadays, many western toy companies have made the entry to the China market as their long-term global growth strategies, however certain expertise and experience is necessary.

Although China is unified in the geo-political sense, it is still fragmented socially and economically. We don’t consider China as a single market as there are huge variations in different provinces in terms of GDP, consumer spending habits, education levels, lifestyles, as well as government policy and regulations, etc. When we handle toy business in China, our profound understanding of each target region to localize toys to suit Chinese tastes is critical to success. Of course, our close relationship with the China toy companies & China media companies are also vital.

We have many interesting experience in modifying western intellectual properties to suit Chinese tastes. For example, we proposed and designed a line of transforming warriors utilizing the Chinese zodiac animals & traditional Chinese armors for styling. Another cute example was to design figures of a fire department play set with faces & features like Chinese revolutionary heroes. Major styling customization or little retouch of details might improve their marketability.

Richard:

You seem to enjoy teaching new designers.  Can you tell us about that passion and how you are applying it?

Gary: 

There are several toy design and engineering courses in Hong Kong but the toy industries are demanding more professional toy designers with hands-on experiences.  As a design company, we need to teach & train our designers to get them equipped and act professionally in terms of efficiency, creativity as well as practicality.  It has been my privilege to impart my intensive experiences and esoteric knowledge, which I learnt from many of my talented clients which I pass on to individuals with high potentials.  This way I am able to attract more talented people to the industry.

I have some interesting examples of toy subjects:

  • Do you know that some vehicle factories would refuse any toy car production if it has a ”4” printed on it?  As some factories think that producing number 4 cars will bring accidents and ominous incidences.
  • Do you know that Zombies are not welcomed by Chinese families? As playing with “corpses” is considered ominous & will bring bad luck.
  • Do you know that orange is not considered a girly color?
  • Do you know that consumers only spend 3 seconds to look at toy packaging at shop?
  • Do you know that in the Middle East, fashion dolls with hair exposed are considered as indoor clothing?”

From time to time designers trained by Hedgehog have been welcomed by the toy industry & bring us compliments as well.  Therefore, we decide to give back & not limit our training within our staffs but for the industry instead.  A well-organized Hedgehog Design training course will be launched in first quarter of 2016.

Richard:

What is your prediction for the future of world toy design?

Gary:

Internet and technologies impact all industries, toy business in not an exception. The toy industry and the markets are changing rapidly; technologies speed up the development process and shorten the product life cycle of toys.

However, despite all these new elements, a good toy is always a good balance of everything.  The formation and the goal of a good toy remains the same – to entertain and bring happiness to everyone, especially kids.  Therefore I believe if toy makers are able to fully utilize those new tools and keep observing what our users are looking for, they could enjoy success even quicker and bigger.

For example, 3D printing is a trend. With the decrease in cost and improved design software, we can make rapid prototypes using 3D printers at the early stage of design, which reduces the time to turn a concept into a production-ready design.

With the initiatives of “Industry 4.0”, we believe that there’ll be significant changes in the toy industry.  It is possible that not all toys will be mass produced, and customization will become the norm e.g. consumers will print out personalized toys with easy access to 3D printers in toy stores, malls or even at home. As the core of toy business, we have to embrace technological change and prepare ourselves for the changing business environment in order to be more successful.

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