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Simplicity in Innovation: Melissa & Doug

by SOFIA DUMERY, Senior Vice President of Design at Melissa & Doug

Innovation isn’t rocket science. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. At Melissa & Doug, the road to delivering incremental growth isn’t through cutting-edge technology or incredible feats of engineering, but through simple insights.


These insights stem from identifying a problem, making keen observations, and staying true to our mission to inspire open-ended play and to our commitment to sustainability.


I’ve long admired the story of how Sam Farber, the inventor of the OXO Good Grips vegetable peeler, came up with the idea for that iconic TPR (thermoplastic rubber) handle. It started by identifying a problem (lack of tools for arthritic hands), using clever observation (seeing the ergonomic potential of a bicycle handle), and utilizing TPR in a novel way.


Similarly, at Melissa & Doug, our products often start with identifying a problem. How can we make kids less fearful of going to the dentist? We know kids often use pretend play to act out real-life situations. What if we could create an immersive dentist play set with all the attention to detail given to doctor play sets? What if the accessories in the play set were so realistic and authentic that kids would really feel like they were at the dentist’s office? To develop our Super Smile Dentist Kit Play Set, we used our powers of observation to get all the little details just right! Everything from the tiny blue drinking cup, fun flavored “fluoride” treatments, easy-to-put-on braces, cavity stickers, floss nestled in a dispenser, and trendy clear retainers. But none of it would work without our commitment to delivering open-ended play that is built to last. To that end, we added a service card, which encourages dialogue between the dentist and patient, a drill that vibrates, and molars that partially pull out.


Innovation Doesn’t Mean Complex

That attention to detail and focus on simplicity can be seen in a classic product, like our 100-Piece Wood Blocks Set. With nine different shapes in multiple bright primary colors, it’s a great developmental toy, earning it STEAM accreditation by The Toy Association. Sometimes the true innovation in toy making comes from kids themselves. Think about seemingly ordinary blocks and the extraordinary things kids will do with them.

Likewise our latest introduction, Sticker WOW!, a sticker stamper and activity pad set, is based on our tried-and-true approach to innovation. Working with internal and external consultants, we pushed ourselves to create a novel new entry to the arts and crafts category.

Stickers had not seen anything new in ages, and there was a specific pain point we could address: younger children often lack the fine motor skills to easily peel off the backs of stickers. From that keen observation, Sticker WOW! was born. It’s a whole new way to play with stickers, with a character-based sticker stamper preloaded with 300 assorted stickers and a 24-page activity pad. Developing the dispenser proved to be quite a challenge. After much trial and error, we realized that a simpler dispenser was just as effective as anything more technical. When it comes to innovation, simplicity often truly is the answer and the way forward. But simple doesn’t mean easy. The design process includes multiple teams working through various engineering, production, quality, and compliance hurdles. It’s the painstaking attention to detail, materials, safety, testing, and real kid feedback that take products to the next level.


As toys are the tools that will build our future innovators, keeping things simple, open-ended, and child-led allows room for the child’s imagination and confidence to grow. It may not be rocket science, but it sure is special!


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