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Barthes Bin

A toy that ignites a lasting curious instinct early on by challenging, rather than codifying, societal norms.

Photo of Will Berman
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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

We were first inspired to design a product geared towards early child development after reading D.W. Winnicott's "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena". Winnicott proposes that at around 4-12 months children develop a pattern in which "there may emerge some thing or some phenomenon, perhaps a bundle of wool or the corner of a blanket or eiderdown, or a word or tune, or a mannerism - that become vitally important to the infant for use at the time of going to sleep, and is a defense against anxiety, especially anxiety of depressive type...[and] patterns set in infancy may persist into childhood". As designers this immediately jumped out at us as a potentially interesting design challenge. How might we design something that intentionally functions this way, targeted towards a different "transitional period" in early development? For example, if a teddy bear/blanket helps smooth the transition of separating from your mother, our product could intentionally smooth a different transition. Though we eventually decided to pivot from designing a transitional object, we carried this idea that "patterns set in infancy may persist into childhood" into our next stage of ideation. How might we design something that could inspire certain character traits in children they would carry with them as they get older? We decided we wanted our toy to inspire a lifelong sense of wonder and curiosity by engaging the five senses in new and unexpected ways using natural materials.

Name or Organization

Will Berman


Los Angeles, CA

What is your stage of development?

  • New Innovator, with less than one year of experience in ECD


  • Team

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Describe your submission in one clear sentence

A toy that ignites a lasting curious instinct early on by challenging, rather than codifying, societal norms.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

This toy challenges many of the industry standards we unquestioningly give our children. Toys today (if not already limited to a screen) are, predominantly, composed of man made materials, flashy colors, and tell stories that mimic human constructs completely removed from the natural world. But the importance of play in early child development is that it allows children to discover the world around them for the first time. The Barthes Bin transports children to natural environments around the world - the desert, ocean, jungle, etc. - by capturing the sensory experiences of those places.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Product: A new or enhanced physical product that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

"To be genuinely confused about something for even a few seconds is good because it opens us up to the idea that that which we know right now is not complete. Just to know that for ten minutes a day is unbelievable" - George Saunders, The Atlantic.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Toys today, for the most part, simply reaffirm for children the world that already exists. Even toys geared towards building and creation, such as LEGO, as you get older steer children towards recreating our current reality: fire stations, spaceships, farms, etc. We believe that by designing the toys we give our kids more intentionally; we can encourage the next generations to build a better society for the future.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

We originally came to the previous idea after reading a short essay by Roland Barthes, "Toys". In it he argues that “[The fact that] toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all, by constituting for him, even before he can think about it, the alibi of a Nature which has at all times created soldiers, postmen and Vespas. Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc.” Barthes Bins contain naturally occurring materials that children can experiment and play with. The main material in the bins that hold all the substances together is ion exchange resin. Ion exchange resin is safe and traditionally used to filter water, but it also has an interesting texture/consistency composed of thousands of small little balls of resin. Light disperses through ion exchange resin in a particularly beautiful way that would be engaging for children and would change depending on type of lighting they held it up against and what components they decided to mix into they're creation. The tactility and sound of natural materials is of particular interest as well - the sounds they make, the textures they have, the temperatures they conduct...Play is crucial in early child development because it's how you begin to define/make sense of the world around. There's something to be said for encouraging this discovery experience to consist of natural component rather than synthetic or even a screen. There's a certain emotional pull that can only be elicited from natural components. Each Barthes Bin captures a certain natural environment so, for example, the "jungle" bin will contain pieces of moss, vine, bark, resin... natural scents like cedar, cypress, etc. Rather than appealing to the rational parts of the brain, Barthes Bins appeal directly to the five senses and generate excitement around the wonder of the natural world rather than a screen.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

The Barthes Ball aims to be accessible to practically all children regardless of socioeconomic class because it targets a root human inclination and emotion: curiosity. We hope that encouraging in children a sense of wonder towards the world around them early on will encourage them to become lifelong explorers, and creators.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

This was touched on briefly above, but as our economy continues to shift focus and artificial intelligence inevitably takes over many of the labor intensive jobs previously occupied by people, creativity is the most valuable asset. The Barthes Ball will strengthen children's capacity for creative thought by inspiring life long intellectual curiosity.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

The Barthes Bin will impact low-income children by opening their minds to the possibilities of the world outside their immediate reality. The toy has an aspirational quality to it that shows children there's so much more to explore, experience, and know in the world than what they currently do. Although a three-year-old won't necessarily process this consciously, it's arguably more effective that the toy unconsciously creates this wonder from an early age.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (1500 characters)

Below are examples of wooden toys I saw at the Design Museum in Copenhagen, similar to the ones I described earlier. Although these are old toys, they still capture the ideas and the design process that goes into making much of the current toys children play with: "let's give our kids dumbed down version of man made constructions"...As we've touched on, the Barthes Bin disrupts this by allowing children to experiment with unfamiliar materials in new ways.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Although we are still in the new stage innovator category, we think the Barthes Bin has a sizable market that is only growing given the recent trend towards analog products and the health/wellness industry. Inundated with screens and digital content, people are turning back to analog experiences because they facilitate human interaction and relationships - moleskin notebooks, vinyl records, film photography, etc. Children's toys is a particularly interesting area to build on this that I think many parents would be interested in, especially if it means getting their child off a screen.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

Truthfully, we've spent most of our time in the ideation and research stage but we think that the concept is extremely feasible because all the materials are fairly simple and readily accessible. The largest challenge we face in reaching our market we believe will be branding. If we communicate the value we've articulated above clearly and effectively to parents, and package it in an approachable way, we are confident Barthes Bin is extremely feasible. we are both confident we have the skills to accomplish.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (1500 characters)

One of the largest barriers we see for distribution is obviously the competition posed by power players in the industry: Mattel, Hasbro, etc. But we believe our greatest weakness can be leveraged as our greatest strength. Because our product has such a different approach it will certainly be hard to break into the market, but as we mentioned if we communicate the theory behind what we've design effectively we think people will resonate with it. We will start by selling direct to consumer on ecommerce so we can control the buying experience explain the story behind Barthes Bins.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (1500 characters)

While developing this product we spoke with six people we thought could offer interesting perspectives and give us insight into how to design this product: an elementary school teacher, a 9 year old boy, a doctor/mother of 2, 2 fathers, and a nurse/mother of 2. They all gave us valuable feedback about what they are interested in seeing for a toy geared towards early child development which led us to this concept of inspiring curiosity early on.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

We are both students in the Iovine-Young Academy at The University of Southern California. The major was created by Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre with the intention of teaching students to think seamlessly across art, technology, business, and design. Both of us have different interests (Will in product design, Jackson in game design) but we're particularly interested in how design can apply to early childhood development. Design is often misunderstood as "making things look good" but we believe design is simply a process of problem solving that can be applied to practically any discipline. Early childhood provides an interesting design challenge: how we can create products for children that positively influence their future.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (500 characters)

We plan to collaborate with Kathy Hirsch Pasek, a specialist on early childhood development. We've already corresponded over email and plan to skype to discuss development of the Barthes Bin.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We're extremely interested in working with scientists to give us feedback and help us prototype and iterate on our idea. While we've thought the idea through as designers we lack the scientific grounding to know what would best create the effect we're going for.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Merel de Boer

Hi! What an interesting idea: I love how you think outside of the societal norms for toys and spike curiosity. As a mom of a 2 year old this is something I really value as I would love for her to keep her curiosity and not be 'numb down' by societal rules of 'how things are supposed to be/go'. Looking forward to hear how your idea develops!

Photo of Will Berman

Thank you for your feedback, Merel! Reassuring to hear other parents that share similar concerns about the toys they give their kids.