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Updated: February 29, 2012 8:02AM

Two Columbia College students are realizing their creative dreams: They will be featured as designers on the box of a game they created for “Marbles: The Brain Store,” a Chicago-based retailer that has thrived despite the slow economy by selling products intended to keep people’s skills and minds sharp.

Chrissy Quinlan, a 23-year-old junior and Oak Forest native, and Brad Hoffman, a 20-year-old junior from Arlington Heights, won Marble’s first contest for college students, besting seven other two-member teams in their product design class for the top prize. The class, taught by Professor Carl Boyd, spent an entire 15-week semester on the project.

“The games had to be fun, original and mentally stimulating, since Marbles doesn’t carry Monopoly or Scrabble,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman and Quinlan visited Marbles stores, tested dozens of sizes and shapes of dominos, tried prototypes of various materials and listened to the advice of Scott Brown, Marbles Chief Merchant and co-founder with CEO Lindsay Gaskins. Brown designs packages for certain products.

Marbles executives were so impressed with the contest’s results, they plan to eventually produce the ideas of as many as three other teams’ work for sale in their stores.

Quinlan and Hoffman’s game, Colorfall, challenges players to follow diagrams with paint-by-numbers-like directions to set up tiles in certain positions. The tiles — 250 comprising 25 each in 10 different colors — create five designs ranging from a sailboat to the Eiffel Tower to the Picasso statue at the Daley Center.

“We’d like to see people create their own designs, too,” Quinlan said. “We really wanted to emulate a Lego or Crayola so that it’s ‘open play.’”

Colorfall, touted as exercising one’s creative muscles, visual perception and small motor coordination, is expected to start development in March and appear in retail stores by early fall. The price is expected to be about $40.

Marbles, which has exclusive rights to the winning designs, spent $2,000 to cover materials for the 16 Columbia College students who competed, with winners splitting $500 prizes for their retail-worthy ideas. The students majoring in product design are pursuing Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degrees.

Brown said Marbles sought college students’ ideas “because we are always looking for innovation.”

“We like taking traditional games and putting a twist on them,” he said. “We look for games like chess that take seconds to learn and years to master. And we like to see games that offer multiple levels of learning.”

Innovation is becoming more important as Marbles increases the number of products made exclusively for its stores. The company, which employs 25 at its Bucktown headquarters and another 75 at six Chicago-area stores, produced 25 games of its own in 2011, five times the number of 2010. Most are produced in China, but certain jigsaw puzzles are made by Jessup Paper Box LLC out of Brookston, Ind.

Marbles has grown to 18 stores and an e-commerce operation from its start nearly four years ago, and is on pace to open another 10 to 15 this year.

The stores, averaging about 1,000 square feet and employing five to 15 people each, are located in high-traffic areas and at luxury-retail malls.

Brown credits the company’s success to selecting 250 products to sell at retail, compared with 3,000 in most toy-and-game stores, and marketing them as long-lasting and of high quality. Employees are trained to demonstrate every item.

“Shoppers know that the product they choose is the right one for them before they walk out of the store,” Brown said.

Retail analyst Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, LLC, of New Canaan, Conn., said Marbles can take advantage of a steady demand for traditional board games, especially since some major toy makers have failed to innovate those games.

“It opens up the field for companies who are updating the traditional games and bringing innovation into the picture,” Johnson said.

But Johnson said Marbles must show it can overcome obstacles such as competition from online gaming and big-box retail stores that sell toys.

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