Toy story: Office playthings come of age

Story highlights

  • Executive desk toys have been around since the 1960s.
  • There is still an exhaustive market for gadgets that relieve stress and office boredom.
  • Research suggests having personal desktop items increases workplace wellbeing.

When executive desk toys first began to appear, they tended to be ornamental gadgets made from such endlessly fascinating materials as sand and magnets. The Newton's Cradle or "Executive Ball Clicker," which demonstrates physics principles of momentum and energy, has been sold since the 1960s.

Other popular early desk toys were similarly stimulating, though they seemed less like a science lesson and more like art therapy.

The pinscreen, patented in 1987 by artist Ward Fleming (and featured prominently in a video for 1980s New Romantic singer Midge Ure), is an "artistic animation image producer" that allows users to form an image by pushing something -- their face, for instance -- against a screen of pins.

The desktop zen garden offered its owner another means of relaxation via a classy objet d'art.

Although these executive desk toys might seem like a thing of the past -- as much a relic as brick cellphones and fax machines -- our love for office playthings has not abated.

Amazon sells nearly 200 different types of desk toys. ThinkGeek stocks 100 items, including bacon scented hand sanitizer and a pen that delivers an electric shock, while Office Playground carries 268 varieties of stress ball alone.

In particular, the growth of Comic-Con culture and the rise of cosplay have made action figures popular in modern offices.

Sean Fallon is editor of Nerd Approved, a toys and collectibles review site that has featured "Game of Thrones" bookends shaped like dire wolves and a USB hub that looks like Darth Vader's helmet.

"Desktop warfare has been a popular trend in recent years," said Fallon. "Desktop trebuchets, electronic missile launchers, rubber band guns...There are also plenty of products out there based around franchises like 'Star Wars', 'Star Trek', 'Firefly', 'Dr. Who' and the like."

Just don't call them "toys". It seems some desktop action figures are too precious to play with.

David E. Tolchinsky, a film professor at Northwestern University, says he experiences a "strange identification" with his collection of Spock figurines. They function as an ice-breaker with the students and colleagues who visit his office, often leading to conversations about film genre or screenwriting.

"I find out that a lot of students are really into wrestling, " he said. "I tell them, if you want to learn how to write screenplays, watch wrestling matches. Wrestling has it all: colorful characters, drama, violence, twists, dark moment, and the come from behind surprise ending. Look at what the crowd reacts to and when: it's all there, everything you need to know how to write."

Although Tolchinsky owns seven Spock dolls -- "one Spock isn't that cool... a lot of Spocks is like an interesting disease," he says -- he has further items on his Amazon wish list, including a ring for his wrestling figures, and believes there's a robust business reason for them. "How can you make or teach about film and art," he argues, "and not have your office also be artful?"

There are other reasons behind the popularity of bobble-head dolls and magnetic sculptures. Research suggests people derive job satisfaction from being able to personalize their working environment. According to a study by commercial realtors Goodman UK, 55% believe having personal items on their desk contributes to their workplace wellbeing.

In a 1971 episode of British science show "Tomorrow's World", a reporter plays with various desk toys, in imitation of a lonely executive whose workload has been reduced to the point of boredom because of computers.

If modern computers don't lighten our workload to the same extent, they may yet offer a solution to the restless worker in need of stress relief.

According to a report by web security company Barracuda Networks, 69% of companies allow employees to use Facebook, and 75% allow Twitter.

Facebook may well be the new desk toy: you don't need to squeeze a ball, you just need to "like" a friend's status.

      Global Office

    • If you find yourself giving off a sunnier disposition when your boss is smiling, it might be because your brain is wired to do so.
    • Employees want to work for the good guys and if companies want to attract and keep top talent, corporate social responsibility matters.
    • The Hive, a co-working space in Hong Kong, opened in May.

      Co-working spaces are on the rise in Asia where rents, and a desire to collaborate, are high.
    • From 'gameification' to virtual reality Google glasses, check out the top 10 tech coming to an office near you soon.
    • In 2009, Lu Qi, an author of martial arts novels, published his first book on a slightly different type of combat sport: office politics in China.
    • From dogs and plants to turning off your devices, we highlight eight ways to make office life better.
    • It could be out with old meeting rooms and in with new social spaces, as Generation Y is set to transform the way we work in the next ten years.
    • You're in your 'swim lane' and the 'tiger team' is on the way. Are you stumped or ready for business?