One of the pieces in Toca Boca’s lively new line of kids’ clothes—debuting in 1,700 Target stores nationwide later this month—is a coral-colored T-shirt of a mean-mugging sloth donning a baseball cap, with the word “Fast” printed underneath. It’s a piece that the company has found tested well across ages and genders, from younger girls to those harder-to-engage 9- and 10-year-old boys. As Mathilda Engman, Toca Boca’s design director, puts it, “It’s a silly humor and quirkiness that resonates with both girls and boys, and doesn’t fall into gender stereotypes.”
Since 2010, Toca Boca has been perfecting that bright aesthetic and sense of unexpected humor through its popular digital toys. The Stockholm- and San Francisco-based company is best known for games, like Toca Boca Hair Salon and Toca Robot Lab, that eschew the gender norms that are often built into children’s toys with otherworldly characters and wild, colorful settings. With a new gender-neutral product line for Target, Toca Boca is bringing its particular brand of inclusivity and playfulness into the physical world.
The new back-to-school line includes clothing, accessories, backpacks, and some bedding (for example, a very ’80s-chic cloud pillow with a lightning rod headband). When it hits stores July 17, the Toca Boca line joins the ranks of a growing cadre of children’s clothing brands that shed gendered cliches with designs meant for all kids.
Bringing A Fantasy World To A Big-Box Store
Besides the oxymoronic sloth, the other characters you will find on Toca Boca items are a plump pineapple in sunglasses, a leggy hamburger, and—a perennial favorite among the Toca Boca consumer base—a purple pile of poop. These are characters ripped straight from the apps of Toca Life, a subsect of Toca’s digital games that emphasize role playing and are set in common locales such as farms or city streets. Those were the games that the design team felt would provide the characters, colors, and experiences that would work best in the real world. “Our vision for the clothing line was to do what we’re good at at Toca Boca, which is play, and translate that into everyday experiences for kids,” says Engman.
With that vision in mind, the Toca Boca team set out to find manufacturers to produce the products and a retailer to carry them. In the latter they found Target, who Engman and Toca Boca COO Caroline Ingeborn say shared a similar thinking about the values inherent in their company. When the products launch in store, they will be located between the girls’ and the boys’ sections.
This is the first time that Toca Boca has designed a physical product, and Engman notes that it’s a slower process, with considerations that sometimes differ from the work of designing digital games that has taken up much of her career. Some of the characters that are most popular among users in the games, for example, were not the same ones that kids were most drawn to on shirts or backpacks.
The team did use the same guiding framework that they use for their apps, though, to make sure they are hitting all of the typical Toca Boca marks: diversity, gender inclusivity, humor, playfulness. In a broad sense, the Toca team says, designing for inclusivity means creating enough options so that anyone can find something that they like. “We worked with all the values and principles of how we design things in the digital world and translated that to the physical world,” says Engman.
Toca Boca is one of several kids’ app makers to make designing their digital tools specifically for all genders an official company ethos (others include Tinybop and Sumdog). Digital products exist outside of the pink and blue toys aisles, and the internet and proliferation of kids gaming apps have made room for toys for a variety of kids’ interests without being beholden to marketing that relies on gender stereotypes. It’s also a time of broader cultural acceptance of gender fluidity: gender-neutral bathrooms continue to be a hot-button issue, high-fashion labels have gone gender neutral, and public figures like Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox have increased awareness in trans rights. While big-box stores haven’t always been quick to embrace all-gendered products, popular progressive companies are making that shift more common. Target, for its part, got rid of its pink and blue toy aisles in 2015, and its acquisition of a gender-neutral clothing line is in line with its progressive company policies (recall the controversy last year when Target stated its policy to allow transgender people to the bathroom of their choice).
Besides already having experience in the world of gender-neutral kids’ products, Toca Boca has another important advantage: extensive data and user feedback. When I spoke to Engman last year for an article on gender fluid design, she noted that while the company does not collect data on its users on principle, it does test apps through case studies, both by bringing kids into their offices and bringing their games into schools. Observational testing lets the designers see what elements of the game work best and the systems that are most intuitive, but it also gives them an idea of what characters users most like and identify with, as well as the most appealing colors, what kids think is funny, and what scenarios skew too heavily toward a certain gender or seem to exclude some players.
Toca Boca uses this data to build out its apps so that they will engage children of all genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds—and when it came to developing their physical line, they already had that information at their disposal. Testing guided them to bright accents against gray or neutral backgrounds in both the Toca universe in a game and on a T-shirt. The designers knew from watching kids play their games that their users valued elements of surprise, which they translated to clothing by hiding characters in patterns and making them pop out of pockets. Combining that testing with more anecdotal testing for the clothing line—showing kids sketches and concepts and asking for feedback—gave them a good idea of what would be inviting for girls and boys in all different age groups. Those aren’t always the same thing, but as with all of Toca’s products, the goal is to provide enough options that there is something for everyone.
They also, of course, knew what quirky humor was universal—and that the sloth would kill. “It has a surprise element,” says Engman. “It’s a bit weird, and a combination of something you wouldn’t expect with something that is everyday and ordinary. That’s the type of humor that we see that is really appreciated in our apps.”
The collection ranges in price from $6.99 (for a character headband) to $32.99 (for a twin comforter), and can be bought in Target stores or online at Target.com starting July 17.