Toys or Tools?


toytools_smallADOTAS – I love toys. Gizmos, games, whatchamacallits, gewgaws. I spent years directing toy commercials and loved the whole process, because I loved toys before I started doing that, and continued to love them after I stopped.

Creatives love toys. Take a walk around your creative department — if you don’t find a ton of toys scattered across desktops and perched on cubes, you either (A) made a wrong turn into accounting; or (B) have draconian office decor rules that resemble a gulag and you really should lighten up.

Toys are fun. Toys have personality. Toys inspire creativity and remind us that the entire world isn’t one giant spreadsheet with a deadline — even when it seems it is. The problem with toys, beyond inspiration and diversion, though, is that they’re not usually all that useful.

Enter tools.

Tools do things. They accomplish something. They help you achieve or lighten your load. In the digital world, tools organize, sort, research, remember, file, retrieve, respond and a whole host of other things that you can’t or won’t do on your own. You might play with a toy, but you use a tool.

The problem with tools, though, is obvious to most any creative. They’re boring. At best, they’re invisible — at worst, they’re dreadful, clunky and intrusive. Which is why, when creatives are creating digital things for clients, their first impulse very often is to create a toy.

A while back an interesting discussion about augmented reality broke out on my Facebook wall. Most of the people participating in the discussion were digital creatives and most of them had the same opinion: AR is cool and all, but beyond making cityscapes and flowers grow out of the paper you’re holding in front of the webcam, what does it do, really?

I suspect that some who espoused this opinion were, in fact, stating that the joy of the toy was fleeting and were wishing for more toy joy to be built in. Still, I suggested that when presented with an opportunity to create AR, we think of more ways to use it as a tool. The logic being: the technology is fun to play with.

That’s its nature. It comes embedded with the properties of a toy. Make a tool out of it, and you’ll have that rarest of rare things — a fun tool. Or, if you’d rather, a useful toy. Either way, the hybrid animal is superior to the purebred.

But the logic isn’t just about AR. It’s about digital — and creative, in general, now that the world is so influenced by digital. Think about it. How many apps do you have on your phone? How many apps do you have that you’ve messed with once or twice, on the day you downloaded, and haven’t launched since?

If you’re like most, your answer is: a lot. The ones you use regularly are the tools. The ones you play with once are the toys. The ones you like using regularly are the fun tools/useful toys. That’s the goal now.

If we want to engage customers and prospects with the brand, it helps to engage them regularly. A toy may provide joy, but the joy of a pure toy is usually fleeting. A branded tool may accomplish much, but without emotional reward in its use, no connection is made between the user and the brand.

Some apps, some sites and some AR executions have proven that the divide between toy and tool is not impenetrable. Play with that for awhile, then put it to use.


  1. Interesting piece Ernie, and out of interest I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role that digital tools can play in the creative process itself?.

    What could anyone from an ad creative to an architect be using to assist the creative process? How is that process likely to evolve as we use, in all walks of life, digital tools more and more?


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