Anita & Rory make games and playthings that foster imagination, empathy and self esteem, because they want to see a world where these three things are fostered in every individual. We spoke to creative director Anita Murphy on struggles, success, vision, compassion in design and family.
Can you tell us about both your professional backgrounds and the routes to working together in your current positions at The Creativity Hub?
Rory would say comics, computer games and role playing games had a big influence on him. For me, I think I chose a creative profession in spite of my upbringing. Art college opened up the world to me, in terms of freedom to think, challenging conventions and the sheer joy of creating something.
Rory studied animation and puppetry. A teaching job and cross community project work in Belfast inspired him to delve more into learning styles, studying conflict resolution and personal development. Being true to who he was, he focused on teaching people how to develop their own creativity.
I studied Visual Communications and worked as a print and web designer, before completing a masters in Computer Based Learning. I worked in BBC Technology, where I quickly moved from the front end interface graphics to the solution planning. I realised I was really good at designing how all the parts fit together and the overall user experience.
When we set up The Creativity Hub (ten years ago) as a creativity training company, we brought these skills together. Rory would run workshops and programmes and I developed the training material in the background. We thought we would end up creating a book from the material we were developing. One of the tools we created for the creativity training was the Meta-Cube™, the predecessor to Rory’s Story Cubes®.
Following the economic downturn in 2008, our training income dried up. We had been selling Rory’s Story Cubes® online and knew there was an audience. We took it to London Toy Fair in January 2009 to see if there would be interest in it as a game. There was and we found ourselves working in the toy and game industry.
Creative problem solving and playful invention are vital components of your games…can you describe how you used these methodologies yourselves in the initial development?
We work really well together and we balance each other out. Rory’s creativity is the big picture, he spots things ahead of time and can see the whole thing worked out in his head. I spot the connections between things and tend to creative problem solve each step along the way. I will give you two examples of creative problem-solving in the initial development:
The first is the game itself. In its first incarnation, it was called the Meta-Cube™ and was based on a Rubik’s Cube with iconic images instead of colour. We couldn’t use this mechanism without approval from the patent holders. We wrote to the UK licence holders but got a negative response. Instead of killing the idea there and then, we worked out how else we could create a random story generator. By breaking the Rubik’s Cube into nine dice or StoryCubes, we hit on the final product.
The second is the packaging. We had been initially selling Rory’s Story Cubes in a small, jewellery box. I got so much customer feedback about how they loved the small pack, how it could be carried everywhere. When we spoke to larger game companies initially, they all said that it would need to go in a bigger box. Our gut told us not to become the game that would sit on a game shelf but to keep it small and portable. We were right to do so.
Can you talk us through the initial struggles and successes in delivering your idea to fruition and how does your day to day work schedule differ now compared to when you started?
Rory says that naivety is his superpower and I think this is true in the fact that if you could foresee the obstacles of anything creative and new, you may give up before you get started. We did everything ourselves in the beginning, not only that, but we were learning each step of running a ‘product’ business along the way. From compression moulding to safety testing, inner and outer packaging to shipping documentation, from pitching to distributors to retail display, we were figuring out everything as we went along. Because we were creatively problem-solving along the way, we did things that other companies (with proper processes) did not – and I think this set us apart.
We now have a team doing each of the jobs we used to do but because the scale is bigger we end up managing more than creating. We both miss the early days…
Was there a breakthrough moment when you felt it was working in terms of business success but also in terms of creativity and learning? Did you feel a greater sense of relief or vindication when you sold the first million sets?
I think a breakthrough realisation about business for me was understanding that there is a vast difference between what other people see as success compared to the reality. We started to focus on building Rory’s Story Cubes® in September 2008 and three years later we just broke even, the accounts were finally in the black. Three months later, we hit No 1 on Amazon.com in Toys and Games and people immediately perceived us as ‘successful’ and ‘loaded’ when in reality we still were not properly paying ourselves.
To be honest, I don’t even remember noticing when we sold the first million sets, it was definitely well after the fact. To us, it’s the anecdotes from people telling us how they play with StoryCubes and the joy and creative awakening it brings to others. It is also thrilling to see how far it has reached. To go into a bookstore in Tokyo or Seoul and see your product on the shelf in another language is surreal.
How much preparation goes into planning for a trip to a toy fair, what is the goal of these trips? Is it just as important to connect with the international community of makers and fellow designers, as it is to meet the buyers and distributors?
We attend different events. Nurnberg Spiel is the largest industry toy fair in the world. We exhibit at it to meet our distribution partners and meet up with industry friends. Our team create the stand, ship over everything needed and book meetings. The highlight of these events is the ‘Family Dinner’ we host for our international manufacturing and distribution partners. It really strengthens relationships and they end up doing business with each other outside of Rory’s Story Cubes®. People do business with people, face to face meetings are so important.
We also attend Essen Spiel (the mecca of tabletop gaming), Maker Faires, Education shows and most recently Comic Cons. Meeting other designers, and seeing the breadth of what is being created is crucial to avoid the trap of naval gazing.
Following the success of the original sets of Rory’s Story Cubes® you moved to expand the worlds they related to by adding sets that related to story genre. At the same time introducing sets that connected with the franchises such as the DC universe, Doctor Who, Scooby Doo and Moomins. Can you share some insights on the decision to work with licensing characters and how it has impacted on how you now operate?
The reason for branching out into licensed properties was simply to get more people telling stories. We have reached millions of people with the original sets, but most of these people already value creativity and storytelling. How could we reach those who consume stories rather than making them up? We partnered with licenses with existing StoryWorlds from which, many stories are already told. These brands like Batman and Moomins are known and loved by three generations. We want people to tell, for example, a Doctor Who story, then discover the whole range of Rory’s Story Cubes®.
We scaled up our team to grow this StoryWorlds range. We now have another full-time illustrator who works with Rory. We have learned a lot about business from these deals. We have also learned that it is different selling licensed products to selling the original game. Our existing distributors were not necessarily best for licensed products and we have reached out to new partners.
Your follow up product is The Extraordinaires® Design Studio. Tell us about the genesis of it and how you used your learnings from Rory’s Story Cubes® to progress the development.
I had the idea for The Extraordinaires® Design Studio while at an Education Show back in 2010. We listened as education experts and industry professionals discussed the skills that children need to learn to be prepared for their future life and employment.
Today’s children will have to continuously problem-solve and learn new skills throughout their lives. There is going to be exponentially changing job roles and constant new technology. As I listed the skills they were talking about: Divergent Thinking, Problem Solving, Multiple Outcomes, Making Connections, Discussion Skills, Presentation Skills, Self-Expression, Evaluation of Ideas, Giving Feedback, Collaborative Work, Empathy; I realised that I didn’t learn these skills in school, but it did learn them in my the first year of Art college.
So why not make a design game?
We set out to create a toy that let children explore these skills in a playful way. I hit upon the idea of using ‘Personas’ as in user-centered design and marketing. Instead of using regular people as personas, we decided to use the archetypal storybook characters that children were familiar with. We thought it would be fun to design things for a pirate, a superhero, a robot or a fairy. The larger-than-life nature of these characters would allow us to amplify real human needs. They would be no ordinary personas, they would be extraordinary! They would be The Extraordinaires®.
We launched the first version of The Extraordinaires® Design Studio in 2013. We had made an activity kit to introduce children to the world of invention, design and creative problem solving. It offers a ‘sand-box’ experience to role-play at being a designer. So we had launched and we thought that the success of Rory’s Story Cubes® would help sell it. It was a critical success, we won many awards for it, but as a concept it was really hard to sell in a toyshop, it was too innovative, too new We called it our ‘difficult second album’.
Last year we produced a ‘Pro’ version which we initially sold through Barnes and Noble in the U.S. This is selling really well into education and maker spaces. So we have switched focus for this to go back to ‘start-up mode’ and start building a fan base, customer by customer within the education sector. With that in mind Rory is currently in New York for the World Maker Faire where he is running educator workshops.
The film of your recent excursions to the USA, visiting Baltimore Design and Perrysburg schools as well as the Boys & Girls clubs is incredibly inspiring. Can you describe the motive and method for this project? The results are clearly there in the film but what is your take away from this?
We really believe in The Extraordinaires® Design Studio. We have seen young people being amazed by their own creativity, proudly presenting their designs to others. We wanted to show proof of this to others. An opportunity came up to run in a research study so we donated 1400 sets of The Extraordinaires® Design Studio to three very different learning environments across the U.S. It was introduced into lesson-focused and free play periods over three months. Afterwards, we visited each location to talk to the educators and students and discover what happens when you Play With Design. The takeaway for us was a renewed determination to get this into the hands of more young people. It’s quite a journey.
Another inspiring project is your recent and on-going work in the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey. How did that come about and can you describe the decision making process in going? We are all affected by the footage and stories of this humanitarian disaster but not everyone actually is pro-active in helping, how can designers use their specific skills to help?
We read an article in the Huffington Post, describing the Karam Foundation and its work bringing play to the lives of displaced children in Turkey, just at the Syrian border. We reached out over twitter, offering StoryCubes, but they requested that we go and run story telling workshops with the children. So Rory has been over twice so far.
What can I say? We all feel helpless, we can’t stop a war, but designers have the power of communication! Create visual things that can inspire others to open borders up, to donate, to care.
Can you talk about the challenges of balancing running a business and raising a young family together?
It’s really hard. It is easier that we work together rather than in two separate companies. For example, if one of our girls is ill, we know who’s work is more urgent and who can work from home without heated discussion. The benefits to our girls is great, they have got to travel to so many places with us. They put on t-shirts and demo, they sit in on meetings, they get to see how hard we work. I think that will benefit them in later life.