1. Me as Papa Gepetto
In the early 1970s while I was working on Polaroid SX-70 and spin-off products such as the OneStep, I was retained by Tonka Corporation to do a corporate identity program for it and its flagship toy company, Tonka Toys—the tail that wagged the corporate dog.
Let me begin at the beginning.
I began making toys for my children when I was 34 years old. I had just finished building a studio and the house we would all live in for 26 years, and there were a lot of pine cut-offs to work up on my band saw. It was one of my most productive years, recognition of my Polaroid designs, watercolors, and editions of silk screen prints. The bathtub toys given to the kids wouldn’t float right-side up, so I endeavored to make some that would. The fanciful duck, below, and the more recognizable woodie, are just two of the many I carved and painted with sign-painters’ One-Shot paint.
The lighthouse was designed to accompany the excursion steamers, made in two sizes, patterned after the Bunker Hill, from a print I saw in a newspaper.
CBS at the time was entering the educational market and expressed an interest in these as manipulatives but my efforts seem to have disappeared in the deep black hole where publishers filed my work.
In 1967 I began publishing my own titles as The Scrimshaw Press. While working on my Early Explorers of America, our son Andrew, said he would like to make a ship model. It was quite a challenge for a five-year-old, but I concocted this color-coded galleon made up of cut-offs and dowels.
2. Jouets Weber, Lausanne, Switzerland
From 1955 through 1959, my young wife and I spent almost two years traveling and living in Europe, which included a stay of almost a year in the maid’s quarters of a villa along Lac Leman, near Morges in Canton Vaud. The nearest big city was Lausanne, where we were mesmerized by the wonderful graphics and intelligent design that distinguished the landscape and cityscape throughout the country. The fabulous toy store Jouets Weber was one such establishment, along with the several Schweitzer Heimatwerk shops which displayed superior quality handmade toys and whimsical folk art.
My efforts at toy making for my kids was done with the hope that my designs would have the same economy of design and good taste that’s so very apparent in the Swiss products that I like to think had been etched in my subconscious.
Fifteen years later I got a call from the Tonka Corporaton in Minneapolis, where John Sandbo, whom I had met at Polaroid, was Executive Vice President. He wanted to know if I could do for the corporation and their subsidiary Tonka Toys what I had done for Polaroid.
I jumped at the chance. I knew their toys. We bought them for our son.
I even had one of their rotisserie grilles where I cooked the striped bass and bluefish I caught in those halcyon days of yesteryear when a 14-inch striper was a keeper.
3. Tonka and me. What were they thinking at Tonka Toys?
Minneapolis in winter was colder than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. I quickly learned that it was not a good idea to draw a deep breath during the brief sprint from the airport door to the taxi, particularly when the temperature registered 26 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit.
The corporate identity program went off without a hitch, since Tonka had just created this umbrella entity and there were no design or image mistakes to undo.
The toy company was a whole other matter. It was located in Mound, a town on Lake Minnetonka, for which the toys are named. “Tonka.” in the language of indigenous Dakota-Sioux Indians means “big,” I was told. The first toys were created using a heavy grade of steel with crimped edges so that children would not cut themselves. Tonka toys soon became famous throughout the world for their solid construction.
The enamel paints had always been of exremely high quality and applied by dipping the toys in paint baths as they traveled the assembly lines. Those responsible for the high quality were local housewives who worked the paint lines except for two weeks around Christmas when they stayed home to bake for their families. That’s the kind of factory Tonka Toys had in Mound, Minnesota.
Management was something else. They had come up with stuff I could not believe. Without question, they had brand -- as good as it can get -- but wasted it on mindless production no-brainers. They began by using many oval marks for product identification based on an original design by Erling Eklof.
At first the bottom of the oval was blue, with wavy lines to indicate the lake.
Then someone decided to make the lake gold, and when that was too expensive or impossible to do, then yellow. I couldn’t restrain myself to remind them of the unfortunate connotation that created. Worse than that was trying to register color printing on a design so complicated, especially printing flexography on corrugated boxes and in tiny sizes for decals.
Why they hadn’t thought of this before, I don’t know. The simple solution was to print with Tonka dropped out of process color magenta over process yellow, shown above. I kept the k hooked to the cap T for recognition because it had been around forever, but I moved the registration mark from over the a so it wouldn’t appear to be a Danish å. Whatever they paid me, this solution alone saved them printing prep costs multiples of my total fees.
My logo solutions for Tonka in all sizes from the smallest decals to corrugated cartons.
4. Tonka & Me -- Vehicle Identity
Below are my suggestions for their trailer truck fleet. Their emphasis was to be on promoting toys for both boys and girls. I thought that their design in use, above, was effective, but too cluttered.
I should have simply cleaned it up with the corrected logo instead of making such a clean break as the solution shown above and the alternate below.
5. Tonka & Me -- How I got involved in the first place
John Sandbo left Polaroid to return to his home town of Minneapolis and to be Executive Vice President of a start-up Tonka Corporation, the umbrella group in which Tonka Toys was a subdivision. The corporation had bought up a few companies and wanted an international look as part of the corporate identity program I designed for them.
John was a great client, as was the CEO of Tonka Corporation. Unfortunately, it was not long before both of these worthy gentlemen left, which is almost always the kiss-of-death for outsiders like me.
Above is an embossed letterhead for correspondence; below it, a logo I designed for a planned joint venture with the venerable Smithsonian Institution.
I did the same thing for the toy company, but in their case redesigning scores of printed pieces and collateral material.
6. Tonka & Me -- Product Identification
Along with a corporate identity program for the toy company, which included all office paper and signage, I redid product identity as well. The corrected logos made for very visible marking on the toys themselves and were complemented by better product identification.
Prior to my resetting all of these in the same recognizable typeface, they had been hand-lettered by company draftsmen.
So These are two examples: mine in the foreground, their old version behind it.
7. Tonka & Me -- Product Identity via Package Design
My new oval marks now approved for more compatible toy identity, I turned my attention to the overall packaging image and how it could create the better product image these splendid toys deserved.
In my first package suggestions, shown here, my feelings were that the product was so well crafted and beautifully painted that it should be enhanced by package design that would add a strong sense of outstanding quality, particularly in a field of crappy product in schlocky environments. It was, I thought, what made my Polaroid packages so successful, even if retail outlets for cameras were definitely upscale from American big box toy stores.
8. Tonka & Me -- a lose, lose situation all around
Here again, I think I expected too much and too soon from the toy division people. They were happy with the packaging they had, shown on right. My argument was that it was too ordinary for such a great product. (And that's putting it mildly!) Not only that, but it fought against it. The jarring logo on a 45 degree angle and product illustration dropped out of a solid brown panel brought Tonka Toys down to the level of the made-in-China knockoffs that filled toy store shelves.
Furthermore, the idea that someone at Tonka thought brown a suitable color with their proprietary red mark really says a lot about who I was dealing with at the toy company.
Even Tonka mini series toys were gems that should not have ever been hidden by atrocious package design and bad color choices. These are alternate choices in a color I suggested that would stand out at point of purchase based on my observations of what was then on display in the stores I visited.
It came as a huge disappointment when I later learned that my packages came in second to the in-house brown and red designs, shown above, when subjected to the whims of focus groups conveniently arranged by Tonka Toy management and which I was not invited to observe.
The head honcho of the toy company had become CEO of Tonka Corporation. I guess I forgot to mention that earlier. I'm sure he had an aversion to Easterners and their advice.
"And so it goes," to quote author Kurt Vonnegut, another Cape Cod wash-ashore.
9. Tonka & Me -- Apologia
I must repeat, I think I expected too much too soon from the toy division people. They were happy with their packaging. The same execs who thought brown a suitable color with their proprietory red mark were the same guys who didn’t pick up on a yellow Lake Minnetonka in their logos.
So I can only say that I shot myself in the foot by serving up lobster when they really wanted hash, and what has happened to Tonka and its memorable, wonderful toys must be laid at their stumbling feet.
Like the demise of Polaroid, it’s one more example of bumbling management being totally oblivious of the products they were charged with promoting and protecting in a frenzied marketplace of hyperbola and shoddy merchandise.
10. Tonka today
I have no idea what's really going on with Tonka Toys today, except that they were bought out by toy giant Hasbro of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, who manufacture most of their product in China where wages and the age of factory workers are desperately low. Below are some examples gleaned from the Internet as examples of just how far the Tonka Toy image has sunk.
And, if you think is bad -- and it certainly is -- wait until I show you what happened to Polaroid in a similar time frame. That will be next.
Coming up -- Polaroid's slide on the slippery slope of ugly.