By Olivia Dimmer
am Unsicker (DSGN ’87) and Hiram Johnson (DSGN ’89) don’t go to work every morning. They go to play.
“I play every day,” Unsicker says of his job as partner at Big Monster Toys in Chicago’s West Loop. “I don’t have to be a real person; I can be a little kid the rest of my life. I love being here every single day.”
Unsicker and Johnson became friends while studying at Illinois Institute of Technology and went on to design products for Big Monster Toys, where they have both had a hand in creating the toys that have ended up on shelves across the globe for the last 20 years. Some of their successes include Polly Pocket, Hyper Slide, and the GeoTrax Airplane playsets.
Unsicker started at the company as a toy and game inventor. After successes such as the tabletop games Planet Hollywood: The Game and Bulls-Eye Ball, he now pitches ideas and manages Big Monster Toys’ invention space.
“I think to create toys and games for kids as a 50-year-old man, you just have to be a little off in the head,” Unsicker says. “Everybody here has quirks, tons of quirks, and I think that’s what it takes to be able to have that mindset to think as a child.”
For Big Monster Toys, the secret to creating the next big hit starts with asking the right questions. What movies will be out next year that kids will be excited about? What is technology going to allow toys to do now that they couldn’t a year ago? And how can designers build on the company’s previous successes?
“A successful toy for us is something that comes out of left field,” Unsicker says. “It’s something no one has thought of.”
This has led Big Monster Toys to some unusual toy ideas such as Barbie on a unicycle, an idea that was shot down for being too “unrealistic.” Another idea that turned into a successful board game was the first of its kind to utilize radio-frequency identification chips in a kid’s game.
“So for us, things that are successful are things that hit the niche of, ‘Hey, we never thought about that!’” Unsicker says.
Johnson, now a toy designer, started out by wanting to be a medical instrument designer before finding his way to Big Monster Toys in 1993.
He normally sits at a desk near the back of the Big Monster Toys warehouse surrounded by doll heads and colorful toy parts, and spends his time sketching up new toy sets and fabricating them via a 3D printer.
“For me, it’s about wanting to improve on things that are out there,” says Johnson, acknowledging that he equally enjoys working each day with the rest of the creative team. “[I love that] I get to be creative every day and make something every day.”
Currently, Johnson and Unsicker are working on the next iteration of toys that will wind up in the hands of kids around the country. One of the toy sets being perfected is a compact-sized Polly Pocket playset that unfurls into a carnival scene, complete with a dunk tank for the tiny doll. That toy is scheduled to hit the market in a year or two.
In the meantime, Unsicker and Johnson don’t plan on growing up.