Barry Kudrowitz: Sparking Creativity - How Play and Humor Fuel Innovation and Design

by Barry Kudrowitz | 08 Aug 2023

Biographies and Interviews

I have always been fascinated with Disney World, specifically theme park rides. Growing up in Florida, we would visit the parks annually and it was my dream to work as an imagineer developing new types of immersive experiences. I was encouraged to study mechanical engineering as most people assumed ride design meant “roller coaster tracks” and not the more conceptual immersive theming.


After graduating with a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Central Florida, I jumped at the opportunity to join the research lab of Prof. David Wallace at MIT who was initiating a collaboration with Hasbro to explore new types of projectile toy for the Nerf and Supersoaker brands. This collaboration with Hasbro became my Master’s thesis, An Exploration of Concepts for Projectile Toys:  In this project, I prototyped farting balloons, foam grenades, LED darts, and laminar flow water guns.  One of the concepts involved using a Hopper Popper (or hemi-spherical bi-stable spring) to launch foam balls. This eventually led to a utility patent and became the mechanism used inside the Nerf Atom Blaster which was on the market for 6 years.



In 2005, while working on this Hasbro project, Professor Wallace, Bill Fienup (a fellow grad student), and I also started a new course at MIT called “Toy Product Design.” This class is an introduction to design process where students worked on small cross-functional teams to design and develop new toy concepts.  The class was taught as a community of practice where industry professionals and former students were actual on the teams working with the students each week. Every year we had a different industry sponsor, and the students were performing somewhat like a consultancy, developing new ideas for a real industry challenge.


In 2010, after receiving my PhD, I started as a professor of product design and founding director of the product design program at the University of Minnesota. I brought the Toy Product Design class with me and created a second community of practice there. Although the Toy Product Design class is still going strong at MIT (18 years later!), the version of this class at UMN transformed into Product Innovation Lab (and we work with all types of industries… but still keep it playful). Over the years we have worked with Landscape Structures designing playground equipment, PLAN Toys in Thailand developing toys out of rubber wood, Target developing playful family products for different holidays, toy concepts related to Lucky Charms with General Mills and many more.


Now, as a Department Head in the College of Design, I am teaching and designing less than I would like to be, but I do serve as an expert witness for toy-related patent infringement cases. I find this world of patent litigation to be incredibly fascinating--It is like a strategy game involving the interpretation of the poetry of invention.



I am also thrilled to have just published my first book, Sparking Creativity: How Play and Humor Fuel Innovation and Design.



Sparking Creativity provides empirically supported methods for embracing the often-trivialized domains of play and humor to increase our creativity. It shows that topical examples, such as Seinfeld's humor, the Apples to Apples board game, and the Adventure Time cartoon series, are more closely related to innovation than you might first think.


This book is a summary of the past 15+ years of my academic work on creativity, design, humor, and play. I have read many books on creativity, and I have found most popular titles to be lacking the empirical support, and most academic titles to be lacking creativity and engagement. This book is written in a humorous, playful, and accessible style with 100+ color illustrations and dozens of popular culture references. It is aimed toward creative-minded entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, industry leaders, parents, educators, and students.


Registration is open for my next event - click HERE! 

toy design humor creativity

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