Toys & Substractive Design

We have a little kid, coming up on 3 years. Which means we have a lot of toys. Often, toys arrive with lots of little details attached. Then the play begins.

Over the course of a few weeks, more and more of these little extra bits break or are lost.

Say a toy car has rear view mirrors and windows and an antenna and a spare tire. After 4 weeks, there’s a good chance that the antenna is gone, the windows are gone, the spare tire is gone. The rear view mirrors — mysteriously still attached.

Once the decorative cruft has been shorn off by the energy and love of the kid, the real toy emerges. The platonic ideal of that toy, the distilled version. The Minimum Viable Product version.

It’s substractive design through use, through a kind of pen testing.

So I’m wondering, what’s there to learn for other contexts?

In product design, can you imagine the product after it’s been roughly handled for some time? What’ll be left of it? Does it still work well, or even better?

In digital services, what if instead of adding features over time, we started out with a full set and then reduced them one by one?

In smart cities, can we simulate which features/elements would break over time (through pilot projects and user research) and then just build the hardened remains?