• Michelle Carlos

My Toy Pitch

How do you create toys that would sell? Here's a narrative of my thought process in creating toy designs for the first Make Art That Sells My Toy Pitch course amid our relocation from Dubai to Stuttgart.

Icky ingredients | Watercolor | 2021

Guinea Pigs

Who would ever think that designing toys could be so instinctive? That was my realization when I participated in the Make Art That Sells My Toy Pitch 2021 course. Since this was the first and maybe the only e-course of its kind, batch 2021 became the guinea pigs. In our growing MATS community it was the most anticipated class of the year and the creators and organizers did a great job in making this course accessible to artists of all skill levels. That was a combined genius of brilliant art agent Lilla Rogers and raved toy inventor and creative director Riley Wilkinson, also a MATSie now a toy agent for Lilla Rogers Studio. Watching them together is like watching a talk show for creative people!


In my former studio in Dubai

Yes to Challenge!

Do you know that feeling of initial hesitation when standing at the edge of a diving plank as you look down the pool of water below? Before diving into this course I thought this would test my professional illustrator as well as my creative abilities. When I found out that we were moving from Dubai to Stuttgart right in the middle of the course, I dreaded taking it and almost bailed out. I thought to just skip the intensive five weeks and work on it on my own time once settled back in Germany. But I did not want to miss the momentum of a live course and as you know, I would not say no to a fun challenge. Mind you, I am slightly acrophobic and not a swimmer!

Which reminded me when a five year old girl bested me at jumping off a 3-meter plank in Aquaventure in Atlantis Dubai. She made 3 round trips while I was still stupidly freaking out at the edge of the platform before finally caving in from embarrassment and jumped. Only I forgot I did not really know how to swim and just paddled to safety. The life guard reprimanded me never to do that again.

But I am a more experienced illustrator now and I have learned how to hustle my time so I dove into the first assignment.

“Do you know that feeling of initial hesitation when standing at the edge of a diving plank as you look down the pool of water below? Before diving into this course I thought this would test my professional illustrator as well as my creative abilities.”

Pretend Play

To jumpstart our thinking process, a classic Lilla mind tricking technique, we were asked what we loved playing when we were kids. For some reason my neighbor’s dog house was in our backyard and I built a doll house from that one using matchboxes as furniture and ballpoint pen and bottle caps as dishes. I made my second hand Barbie’s own clothes out of my mother’s stockings and leftover fabric from the local seamstress. My Mom taught me how to make my own paper dolls and I loved drawing the dresses. I also loved role playing with my friends and even continued until high school where I wrote, directed and designed my own school plays and even pushed that further in my professional work in film production working in the art and costume departments. In college I helped a friend build his architectural scale models and then later created worlds as a digital matte painter.


An IKEA pretend play kitchen at our friend's house.

So I guess play sets and pretend play is my groove. There is a difference between the two toy categories, though. Pretend play is more for younger children and the goal of the play is to mimic adult professions as in play doctor or chef. The toys are also bigger and easily held by the child. Play sets on the other hand are miniature make believe worlds the child plays with a character like a doll house or a toy train set.

For the first week we had a theme for the pretend play toy, which is restaurants. My internal engines started running away with ideas. You know one of the key strategies in MATS courses is to lock in on one concept as quick as possible to give yourself more time to execute. At one point our teachers suggested connecting the toy to a picture book because children’s books and toys often overlap. I remembered my picture book story, “The Tiger Named Japan” where the character, a pink tiger, loved baking pies. That’s it! I would create a pie making set.


According to Google, gorgeous fruit pies out of felt are sold in Etsy, which is not mass market, while mass market Play-Doh manufactures a pie set. I dislike plastic toys and never enjoyed clay or any sticky stuff on my fingers so I went for felt and wood. I studied the construction of the Etsy pie sets while looking up for pie recipes. The TV show, "Pushing Daisies” became an inspiration for the quirky diner look and of course the pie designs. I will add tools and unexpected ingredients. Cool!


"You know one of the key strategies in MATS courses is to lock in on one concept as quick as possible to give yourself more time to execute."

Around that time I was also conceptualizing my version of Alice in Wonderland, which involved watching the Tim Burton films. When the White Queen held up and sniffed the buttered finger while concocting the potion cure to Alice’s overgrowth, I had an epiphany! Sure, sure, pies are delicious and fruity and pretty but that is exactly what people will expect of a pie set for kids. Why not umpfh the concept further and make an icky pie set with ingredients like spiders, teeth, eyeballs and buttered fingers? In toy biz lingo, these are twists or add ons that make the toy more interesting or unique. Et voila! My Freaky Pie Set came fresh out of my drawing desk days ahead of our weekend deadline. I was giggling the whole time while working on it and imagining the conversations the child will have with her freaked out customers.


And then I sold all our furniture.


Proposed packaging of the "Freaky Pie" set | 2021

"Why not umpfh the concept further and make an icky pie set with ingredients like spiders, teeth, eyeballs and buttered fingers? In toy biz lingo, these are twists or add ons that make the toy more interesting or unique."

The Great Sardine Run

Oh, this was the week to really hustle my schedule. Initially I thought I would skip this one and come back later. Around that time all our furniture would be sold while the rest would be packed and shipped off as we moved out of our flat and into the hotel days before our 7-hour flight to Stuttgart that coincided our Toy Pitch Friday live Zoom pop-in session. During breakfast in a German bakery, I was quietly planning my strategy for the whole moving week and game week assignment. If I invented a game in advance, I could get a head start at it and lessen the stress. While deep in thought and halfway through my meal, I spotted an adorable crocheted plush toy of a dinosaur and a cloud mobile toy hanging by the store window. How odd, I thought but a lightbulb just lit up. Since he caught me nodding my head, I explained to my husband my game concept, who also suggested a few things to make the game more logical. I love his brain that way! Excited as I was to execute the concept, I only sketched and formulated the rules but still waited for Monday for the big reveal of the assignment. It turned out that we were supposed to make our version of checkers with sea creatures as theme. Hmmm…


Back to my non-existing drawing desk that I sold days before. I was drawing anywhere flat, on the floor mostly in our empty apartment, or a cafe table and then in the hotel room. I packed my tools, paints and scanner in my now overweight luggages.

First I reviewed the rules of the game via a YouTube video then brainstormed ideas. What is checkers all about? Two teams have a go at eliminating each other until no piece from the opponent is left on the board. Eliminating—that’s a key word. Also brutal like sharks feeding on fish. Ding! Ding! Ding! A prey vs predator educational checkers game it is!



From May to July in South Africa, a shoal of billions of sardines rush near the eastern coast as the cold current carries them north towards Madagascar and all the way to the Indian Ocean. This activity attracts all kinds of predators from land, sky and of course sea who feed on the sardines. If you watch videos of the phenomenon you would be awed at the spectacle and blood bath. Sharks, dolphins, cape fur seals, tunas, whales, cape garnets, cormorants, as well as local fishermen feast on the well coordinated sardines until they are completely eliminated. It is a game of wit and strategy against the attackers. The sardines win by swimming together in great numbers while the predators attack from all sides in calculated moves akin to a checkers game.



The pieces are made of wood primarily with inset magnets and the box functions as storage. The lid as the checked game board is made of clear acrylic filled with fluid to mimic the turbulent ocean during the feeding frenzy. The game set also included trivia cards about the featured animals, an educational twist. I imagined this as something BBC, NatGeo or Discovery Kids would produce. It works as well as a conversation starter coffee table décor in a cozy beach house.

I submitted my pitch a day before our flight out of Dubai.


"It is a game of wit and strategy against the attackers. The sardines win by swimming together in great numbers while the predators attack from all sides in calculated moves akin to a checkers game."

Adding a twist into the toy idea

Pets and Patterns

We moved into the temporary apartment in Stuttgart, which had an extra room with a desk. I always made it a point to have a second room with lots of natural light to be used as my studio. Once settled and had my desk organized, I checked our week 3 assignment, which highlights characters.


The requirement was to create a memorable character that children will love, similar to creating a beloved children’s book character. Here is where the overlap between the two industries become more obvious. The theme was pets.

Often I do not go for the obvious choice, which in this case could be a doll or a plush toy. But I also made sure not to overcomplicate my designs. I believe toys should be attractive but also intuitive for a child without underestimating their abilities.


"I also made sure not to overcomplicate my designs. I believe toys should be attractive but also intuitive for a child without underestimating their abilities."

One of my pattern-heavy pieces, "Atomic Bomb"

So far I have created a hilarious pie toy and a sophisticated checkers board, so what else can I create this time? My toys would definitely be wooden or fabric. Masks fascinate me and I have always wanted a project that involved masks, which are great characters. With a theme about pets, I searched for animal masks in the market and sure there are already a lot of them: paper, felt, fabric, DIY, etc. I moved on.

I’ve always loved those German wooden figures and animals such as the Ostheimer toys and wondered how these are made and painted for mass production. I also enjoyed wood sculpting in art school. How could I incorporate my art style into a wooden toy? I reviewed my more graphic abstract pieces and thought of patterns in clothing.


Alexander Girard's Wooden Dolls by vitra.

One of my favorite art pieces are Alexander Girard’s hand painted wooden dolls now manufactured by vitra. and these have always been a source of inspiration. What if I made wooden dolls using my graphic patterns as in my more abstract wall art pieces but with an activity involved?

So I scrapped the masks idea and decided on a wooden stackable toy. I searched for existing products out there and studied the mechanics and purpose of the toy. It usually needs a base or simply the objects to stack onto one another. Since we were doing pet characters that can also become a picture book character, I thought why not make bunnies in different poses? The base to balance on will be the moon. I needed something to make the crescent shape more stable and so I added clouds. There you go, a glow in the dark Bunnies on the Moon wooden stackable toy.


“Another good thing about doing this in an e-course is that you can dream of whatever you want in a product. You have less pressure from thinking about the nitty-gritty of how it will be produced. Though obviously you need to be realistic, too, and consider that the basic parts can be manufactured.”

"By the Pond" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2019

Flower Children

This week I was more relaxed and ready for the next assignment, which is a play set. I was so relaxed that over the weekend I have already begun work on the dino game concept and thought I would submit this as life size play set with a game as a twist prior to knowing what exactly was required for the week. I finished much earlier.


However, it turned out that the theme was 60’s San Francisco, which did not fit with my dino game set. The retro theme also did not inspire but finding what interested us most in an assignment was part of the challenge. I debated if I should create a second toy that complied to the requirements. I had time after all. I reviewed the given mood board and kept reverting to the bold floral patterns. Our teacher, Lilla, also mentioned she was a flower child and I took that as a cue. As always, my starting point was to use wood as the main material of the toy that would encourage active participation of the child. Remember that a play set is a miniature world for the child, which made me ask myself what did I loved playing as a child? At the back of our house where I built my doll house, we had weeds and I used to make up stories about my dolls’ adventures in the wild. This reminded me of the artwork I created earlier, “By the Pond”, which was a style defining piece of work.


From that image I created a toy with mechanisms inspired by Tender Leaf toys. My thinking was, how could I translate one of my artworks into a 3D toy?


Flower Children Wooden Activity Playset | 2021

Mash-up

For the last assignment we were asked to create a mash-up of all the toy categories or choose to improve any toy we have created from the previous weeks. Remember the dino inspired game I invented earlier for game week? Well, that came in handy. I accidentally finished my week 5 assignment and submitted again in advance as I no longer want to fuss about it. Client work was coming in. For confidentiality I will not elaborate on the specifics of the game. Toy concepts and designs are usually kept top secret. Suffice to say that the game involved a dinosaur bounce house.



Keep it Simple

Due to the relocation I was juggling errands that I did not bother thinking of wowing anyone with wild toy concepts. MATS reviews always celebrated elaborate eye candy and professional looking pieces that could be dissected and inspire more product ideas out of one pitch. To be more efficient I kept my concepts simple but original and feasible but fun. I created toys that the child or any audience would understand right away and I made sure the idea was clear through my semi realistic renders and careful page layout. We were encouraged to create prototypes but I missed my crafting tools that were still in the boxes for shipping.


Out of the five assignments the only hiccup was probably checkers for lack of experience in playing the game. In addition, the sardine run was not a popular natural event and not many in the class could relate to it. This only confirms that one must pitch a toy concept to the right toy maker. Otherwise everything was surprisingly a breeze. I even finished ahead of the fifth week by accident and got in a few live reviews.



If there was one thing I learned from the whole process, it was to simplify my concept. Toys are supposed to be intuitive, therefore not overly complicated, must allow the child to imagine as well as create their own world and obviously fun. Safety is necessary while sustainable and educational are good pluses. One must also consider the tastes of the buyer, who are the parents or adults. I always thought that my pieces could become collectibles even for the young at heart.


In this course you are often reminded of your childhood and how creative you were whether playing alone or with friends. Once you were in that childlike mindset, creating a toy became instinctive. Ideas flowed in and you were a child again!


A rare picture of my brothers and me playing.