A peek into the making of an IKEA soft toy
The journey from idea to cuddly character is full of adventure for a soft toy at IKEA, with all the trials and tribulations it entails. Danguole Gvaldiene tells us about the care and joy that goes into developing IKEA soft toys, while Jessica Bondesson shares the delights of helping adults connect with their inner child to do so.
"Our soft toys should be inviting to hug and hold, and it's part of our development process to make sure that they are", she says with a smile.
For the past five years, Danguole has worked with developing products for children at IKEA. It's work she truly loves, not least due to the team spirit and energy inherent to it.
"Working with products for children, especially soft toys, brings a lot of fun and joy into the development process", she says. "For a soft toy, we put so much effort into every detail—its softness, its facial expression, its eyes."
In practice, that means aiming for the softest material applicable for the skin, just enough filling to make the toy a perfect mix of sturdy and soft, and designing the right look for each unique character.
But it also means ensuring that the soft toys are as safe as they are inviting. In fact, safety shapes the entire product development process. And testing for it is what leads our soft toy characters down a particularly winding road towards stores and homes.
"Kids are kids and play in so many creative ways, so there are more perspectives to consider in our development process", Danguole points out. "Here, we make risk assessments at a very early stage of the project. Even before we brief the designer, we meet them to tell them what shapes and dimensions to avoid, to eliminate risk already at a sketch level."
Once passed from idea to sketch to prototype, the soft toy goes through a series of tough physical tests. Pull tests for each and every part of the soft toy, testing for chemicals and durability, and multiple rounds in a washing machine, to name a few.
"It's made for children to play with in whatever way they want to", says Danguole, adding enthusiastically: "We hope it gets dirty! So, we also have to secure that the parents can wash the soft toy to keep it clean and safe for the child to play with."
It's made for children to play with in whatever way they want to.
Soft toy safety developments for care and character
Once a soft toy has passed all safety tests – and found the enthusiastic approval of the development team – some meet yet another test before landing in a store: that of child’s play.
"With some products, we take one more step. We give them to children to test function, durability, and use", Danguole says, adding knowingly, "And sometimes we learn things we did not even think of".
One such example features a long-necked brontosaurus soft toy, part of the dinosaur collection JÄTTELIK. After only a few weeks of play, the neck had lost its shape, making it hard for the brontosaurus to keep its chin up. This led the team to strengthen it for the final product.
"With soft toys, each collection also requires different textures. When we did JÄTTELIK, we accepted some roughness and sturdiness in parts of the toys, like teeth or nails, while keeping the rest of the toy soft and nice to cuddle", says Danguole.
Noticeably passionate about product development, Danguole happily shares curious facts about solutions related to safety development at IKEA. One that she holds particularly dear dates all the way back to 1997, years before she started working at IKEA.
"At that time, some of our experts realised that it could become a safety hazard to use buttons for the eyes of a soft toy. Since then, all our soft toys are made with embroidered eyes instead", Danguole explains.
"It's something that added the safety perspective but also gave us a lot more space to create unique expressions for each soft toy. You can make the eyes much livelier with embroideries!"
When adults go to Children's SchoolA group of suited-up adults walk into a room. To their surprise, it's set up much like a playroom. Soft toy animals; colourful decorative items; pens, coloured pencils, and paper spread across tables set for small groups. The adults – part of an IKEA supplier management team – sit down, somewhat awkwardly, next to soft toy panda bears, dogs, and sea creatures. They then turn their attention to Jessica Bondesson, Leadership and Competence Developer at IKEA.
"Then we got everyone to do head, shoulders, knees, and toes to start the day", Jessica recounts with a chuckle. "At some point, the suit jackets came off."
As a child, Jessica spent much time organising fun and play for herself and other children. As an adult, she enjoys doing some of the same while leading the Children's School at IKEA.
An immersive full-day introduction to the basics of working with products for children, the Children's School allows Jessica to direct adults – working in everything from design and development to supply and retail – towards their playful inner child.
"This is where they get a first look at why we must think differently when we have children using our products. We go through children's development and how we believe they should be able to play all around the home and connect it with risk assessment and safety, which is a very important part of the product development process", Jessica explains.
"And, of course, we play!"
Having groups of creatives and technicians engage in play is a tool not only for making the training fun and memorable. It also encourages keeping previous product knowledge and experience in mind, as well as tapping into a child's mindset in working with product development.
"Everyone can relate to their childhood and having played, and play is so different to different people. You can't really predict what children do or don't do, but everyone works together to make our products both fun and safe by thinking about them in so many different ways", Jessica says proudly.
"We put so much work and care into every product, all so that our customers get to see and enjoy the result: products that last, that are safe, and that can stand the test of any child's – or adult's – play."