The Kiss Principle – Keep it simple, stupid – is an acronym for design principles coined by the US Navy in 1960. The idea is that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated and that therefore simplicity should be a key concept with unnecessary complexity avoided.
I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly, and I expect that we can all find examples of complexity in design which admirably fulfill their intended purpose, but maybe that’s a topic for another day. However a discussion with some of my colleagues the other day – which started with an account of the Christmas presents requested by various offspring – led to the theory being put forward that, especially in the case of pre-teen children, comparatively simple toys and playthings continue to have a universal popularity – and needless to say, everyone was keen to put forward favourite items from their own experience.
The first candidate was Meccano. Yes, you can still get it, even though it was first created over 100 years ago – in Liverpool by Frank Hornby (yes, for model train enthusiasts, it’s the same man who created the famous Hornby clockwork and electric model trains!). It appears that Hornby first devised the model construction system when he constructed a model crane for his son, using perforated metal strips and nuts and bolts (sound familiar?). The components could be dismantled and used to make other models and, being something of a visionary, Hornby set about manufacturing kits for the mass market. He patented his system as ‘Mechanics Made Easy’ in 1901 and in 1907 the name Meccano was adopted.
Another candidate was put forward by someone who had played as a child with something called a ‘TinkerToy’. The set had belonged to her own mother (born in 1919) and although my colleague had never come across another, or even heard the term, it was only when she was in America that she realised that it was, in fact, an American concept and was still being made. Like Meccano, it consisted of a model construction kit which could be adapted to make different models, this time using wooden dowels and spools and research indicated that this was quite an early model, dating back to the early 1920s. History does not relate how it came into her mother’s possession.
The similarities to the history of Meccano are quite striking. TinkerToy was the invention of two men Charles H Pajeau and Robert Petitt in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. Apparently, Charles noticed that children tired quite quickly of the more expensive toys available, which only had one function, and also that children from less affluent families would invent playthings from anything they could find, such as pencils and threads pools. From these observations, the first construction kit was devised which, having no sharp edges, could safely be used by young children. It was marketed from 1914. Although the company was in fact called ‘The Toy Tinkers of Evanston, Illinois’, I love the idea that a TinkerToy is called that because you tinker with it – or maybe it was Charles and Robert doing the tinkering!
Now to another system you’ll be familiar with – Lego. Originally a family-owned business based in Billund in Denmark, Lego started manufacturing the eponymous interlocking plastic bricks in 1949. The company originated with a carpenter who began making wooden toys in 1939, and the name Lego is derived from a Danish phrase meaning ‘play well’. Like its predecessors Meccano and Tinkertoy, Lego’s charm lies in the fact that the components can be assembled and disassembled to make different models.
All of these systems are still being manufactured, although brand ownership is no longer with the original companies – apart from Lego. All three products have of course undergone considerable development and modification over the years, but the basic kits still show their descent from those early incarnations. Lego has in fact created a global subculture including games, competitions, films, theme parks, and children’s clothing.
So what does this show us? That, despite the sophistication and technology of modern life, a really good idea can endure for over a century, even if it is simple in concept – provided, that is, that it also capable of adapting to change. Maybe children don’t change as much as we might think?
My key message here is that please don’t be put off by simplicity – it is a powerful concept. Have you got any experiences with these brands that you’d like to share with me?