An Interview with Jonny Henton, Development/QA Director of Vivid Imaginations

In One Sentence, who are you?

I’m a big kid trying to be serious about life and add some great toys to the world.

What was your favorite toy or game as a child?

I had several..  Lego was always a favorite and no doubt provided the (literal) building blocks for an interest in design and creativity, but I also liked pushing the boundaries of what Scalextrics and the Evel Knievel stunt motorcycle could do too!  I had a vivid imagination (not an intentional plug for my company but so be it!) which I can see my eldest son has inherited, so role play and acting out storylines was always a lot of fun.. To that end I made use of whatever there was around me to improvise with too.  I remember becoming completely absorbed in my play as a young child, the carpet patterns becoming a road network for my diecast cars, tin lids becoming steering wheels etc etc.  When I was older I became more inventive and demanding of my toys.. taking them apart to try to fit bigger springs or further tune their trigger mechs etc ..I loved finding new applications for materials or components and achieving even the smallest of enhancements!

How do you activate creativity?

I’m quite a logical person who at the same time looks to push the boundaries.. hence, ‘Design a toy?’ doesn’t inspire me in itself.. but when you load in a target audience, or category, or whatever, then I start to picture the world and the possibilities differently.  I love brainstorming with the wider team as they’re full of original and very different ideas to my own which naturally draws out all sorts of unusual stuff we wouldn’t have got to alone.  The sessions are always very hectic, creative and fun!  We keep them interesting by constantly shaking up their focus..  Sometimes its about selecting a brand from a different area of the childs world and focusing on what the toy line might be; at another it could be about coming armed with a selection of things you bought for no more than £5; or taking inspiration from interesting mechanisms that surround us in everyday life..  Sometimes we just limit the time and have an unannounced ‘Quickstorm’!  

What are your passions?

I love spending time with my children and exploring new activities with them.  I feel that part of my duty as a parent is to find them a real passion in life, something that will inspire, educate and entertain them.  Like me, they’re very individual in their tastes and interests, but there’s a lot of commonality too which means we get to enjoy some great loves of my own like cycling and skiing!  Seeing their independence and confidence grow is so rewarding.. especially if it’s taken some left field thinking to get them turned on to the fun.  (I recently redefined a rugby session in the park as ‘time to see who can get the muckiest’ –It made it a lot more fun.. until I had to the laundry.)

Who is or has been your mentor?  What piece of advice did they give you?

I've had several mentors who have helped shape my outlook on life.  I guess like many I naturally admire people whose thinking goes beyond my own.. Be that in terms of their logic or strategy or ability to break down and overcome a problem; but I’ve also admired those who effortlessly inspire and lead with a relentlessly positive outlook.  In terms of advice, it would be to ‘think positive and try again’.  Those that predict failure stop trying once the failure they predicted comes true.  Those who are positive don’t receive knock backs in the same way and keep trying time and again until they have succeeded.  I struggle to think of a project I’ve worked on that hasn't presented problems or challenges.. It’s how you overcome those issues and making a successful item that is ultimately what makes something satisfying and rewarding.

What is your place of inspiration?

The Alps.. whatever the season!

If you could only have two tools to create with on a dessert island, what would they be?

My Leatherman, and my dads book of knots, coupled with my mantra of ‘assess, improvise and overcome’!   By the time I was rescued I’d be basking on the porch of my bamboo mansion!

When is breaking the rules okay?

When you’re absolutely certain it’s for the better..

Where did you grow up and how did that influence who you are today?

I grew up in a very normal city, but in a very large and diverse school.  It taught me how to be tolerant of different people and how to work with them and thereby negotiate the characters of life.  It also inspired me to follow my passions and push to excel at them.  Even in a big school it was possible to find a niche that was all yours and make a name for yourself.  In many ways it taught me to apply myself and see how far I could reach.. . 

What is your superpower?

Being able to find the good in others and play to their strengths.. It’s not the most imposing of superpowers I admit.. but it has it’s uses.. I’d like to think so anyway!

Describe the best day you ever had?

Any day that I've been with my children in the mountains, skiing, riding mountain bikes or hiking -they’re all cloud 9 stuff for me..  I've been lucky enough to have had a lot of ‘best ever days’!

What do you like about what you do?

My role is very diverse, fast moving, creative, challenging and inspiring.  Hence, every day brings with it a fresh mix of challenges and I can’t think of one that turned out exactly as I planned or anticipated it!  If, amongst all the mayhem, you stumble across a gem of an idea or have a eureka moment yourself it puts a huge grin on my face makes everything good in the world!  We’re trying to generate fun and entertaining products, so there’s always going to be a lot of fun had along the way..  Our industry is hotbed for the funniest and most unusual debates.  We used to keep a book of quotes of which the better ones would be read out at an annual company dinner.. You’d always come back to reality with a bang if you’d argued a point only to hear someone say ‘that’s going in the book’!

What don’t you like about what you do?

Email.  It takes up so much time and however necessary it is I never feel as productive answering emails -I prefer to be hands on.

What is the objective of your role?

My role has several functions as I head up both the development and QA functions of the business.  So I’m tasked with finding new product ideas which are fun and innovative, and then to make sure they’re reliable and safe.  It’s been said that the two roles conflict, but I’m okay with it as I’m able to engage the compliance requirements early in the process like any other aspect of a design brief.  Hence although we work vigorously to ensure product is thoroughly reliable and safe, we are able to do so while delivering an exciting and appealing product.

What do you do to live a balanced life?

I make sure I have down time too.  It’s very easy to get wrapped up in work and be too tired for life outside work, but I find maintaining a balance is absolutely key.  Proper down time is important to keeping my mind and general outlook balanced.  By getting out for a run or spending good one on one time with my children I find I’m generally happier and I’m sure more effective when I am in the office too.  So put time in to plan your time out! J  

What current trends do you see in the Toy and Game space?

I think the toy and game world is becoming a very exciting space once again..  For a while it was just dominated by licenses and whatever properties were around, and we’d have to wait for relatively simple technologies to become cheap enough before they could be integrated in to toys.  I don’t think we’ll ever lose the domination of licenses, but it’s recently become very possible to make use current or even quite advanced technologies in toys which opens up the scope of possibilities enormously.  We currently have Cayla, an internet connected doll that you can engage in real conversations, and Real FX which is an advanced car racing system that’s the closest thing to a video game in the real world I've ever experienced. 

What advice do you have for inventors?

For the less established inventors in the world I’d say ‘Don’t forget toys!!’  I see both game and toy inventors, and although there are many experienced and well-known players inventing for both areas, of those new to the inventing world there are many more focusing on game concepts than toys.   Although I can understand how this comes about, I would love to see more apply themselves to toy ideas as I think they’d surprise themselves.  I’d also encourage inventors to stress test their ideas or concepts.. Ideas need to have a strong originality (to be worth a royalty and to have stand out amongst the competition), so you need to be well researched and confident they’re ‘new’.  They also need to be novel and have a degree of heritage.  Product ideas that are easy to understand and yet also able to use historically successful product lines as frame of reference are more likely to be hits.  Other things to think of are how expandable the idea is.. could it be part of a bigger line, higher or lower price points, different applications, or different demographics etc.. The more you've thought of these points the better.

How do you get the best from inventors?

It’s almost impossible to be offered the perfect product idea at exactly the right time.. so we look to work with inventors as much as possible and have more of a collaborative approach.  The end objective is to have interesting and exciting products in the market place.. Lots of rejected ideas don’t create revenue for anyone.  Hence, it’s important to work with the inventor community and to find ways to shake up and engage different creative sources.  Doing so will generate a more tailored concept for your business and no doubt a more successful product line too.