The Toy Box - The Changing Semiotics of Toy Packaging

Vicki Thomas

Research output: Contribution to Book/ReportChapterpeer-review


The visual language of commercially produced toys has changed throughout the twentieth century. The toys, their packaging and promotion reflect changing and conflicting attitudes to childhood, play, education, technology and design. The commercial toy production saw major changes one could say a belated industrial revolution from craft production to mass produced plastics. Communication also changed from the printed materials to film, television and multimedia. Distribution has changed too from the specialist toyshop to the supermarket and Internet. Children can be tempted by the displays in the shop window, the pictures in the mail order catalogue or the polished television advert. They rarely have more than pocket money. So, parents and grandparents need to be convinced by the visual language in the packaging and promotional material. The new commercially produced toys need to be seen as fun, valuable and worthwhile. The packaging often communicated more than one message. This paper uses as its source material a current study of the British toy manufacturing industry in the East Midlands. The study is based on collections, archives and oral history of designers and these working into toy trade. The methodological approach is historical. This will be augmented by other examples drawn from elsewhere which explain what was happening in the local context. What and how toys were communicating through their design, packs and presentation. Theoretically it is still a work in progress and part of a larger study that looks at culture of toys (Sutton-Smith, 1986, play (Huizinga, 1998, Moyles, 2010), toy design (Kinchin, 2012,) marketing (Kline, 1993) and creativity (Hegarty, 2014). The focus of this work is not just on children but how toy packaging communicates to others. It will draw on design arguments such as outlined in James Piiditch (1961) in The Silent Salesman, Ken Garland on his own graphic work (2012) and Dan Fleming (1996) the narrative of licensed toys. Although the focus will be on the old industrial communication it will explore the roots of current issues such as the ‘sexulisation’ of some girl’s dolls and boxed licensed toys created for adult collectors. Play and toys are now a key part of integrated marketing campaigns that are used globally. We all play and are seduced by their narratives.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSemiotics and Visual Communication II
Subtitle of host publicationCulture of Seduction
EditorsEuripides Zantides
Place of PublicationNewcastle upon Tyne
PublisherCambridge Scholars Publishing
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9781527500020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017


  • Toys
  • packaging
  • semiotics
  • design


Dive into the research topics of 'The Toy Box - The Changing Semiotics of Toy Packaging'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this