by Inigo del Castillo in New Design on Thursday 6 March 2014

If you really want to be hands-on in the upbringing of your child, why not design his/her toys yourself? Which is what computer programmer and geeky dad, Jonathan M. Gruberman, did for his son. He created a set of alphabet blocks, ingrained with pop culture references the kid can grow up with. In this exclusive interview, we asked him more about his cool parenting style and got a behind-the-scenes look (read?) of how the alphabet blocks came to be. [Read our original post about these blocks here]

Why alphabet blocks? Why not a geeky colouring book or a pop culture story book?
The biggest reason is that geeky alphabet blocks didn’t already exist. It’s easy to find geeky colouring books or story books, but there wasn’t anything like the blocks. Plus, blocks are a great toy! Unlike many toys, kids can enjoy playing with them for years and years, first by just stacking them when they’re very young, then learning to build more complex structures, and later learning to spell, read words, and use the pictures to make up stories.

Not too many parents teach gender balance at an early age. At what point did you realize that there were too many male characters compared to females on your blocks?
I think teaching gender balance is very important right from the start, but I also think that having gender balanced blocks is actually more about not teaching gender imbalance; I want to make sure that my children know that interesting characters come in all different shapes and sizes, and that means including more than just a token representation of female characters.

That said, it doesn’t mean it was easy or came automatically, because pop culture has so many more male characters than female. So, I made my initial list, thinking I was doing pretty well keeping the gender balanced, and then I counted and I was way off! So, I went back and swapped out a lot of characters. In hindsight there are all sorts of characters that I didn’t think of at the time; for example, when Jeri Ryan tweeted about the blocks, and I kicked myself for not including Seven of Nine on the block for number 7!

What inputs did your wife give, aside from the cats?
My wife is not nearly as big a geek as I am, so she wanted a few more traditional children’s characters on there. She suggested some characters from TV shows we enjoyed as kids, like Casey and Finnegan, which are puppets from a Canadian TV show we watched as kids, Fraggles, and Kermit the FrogApple Jack was her favourite My Little Pony as a kid. I’m not a Harry Potter fan, but she is, so that’s why Hermione is on there. I think Eeyore and Totoro might’ve been her suggestions, too.

Has anyone tried to order a set of the alphabet blocks you made for their kids?
Yes, many people; just look at the comments on my post! Unfortunately, there’s just no way I’d ever be able to get the rights to use all those characters, so I can’t sell them. My suggestion to people who want a set is to find a local hackerspace that has a laser and make their own!

You mentioned you’re working on a new project. Is it a new toy for your kid?
I’m always working on new projects, usually more than one! I definitely find that many of my ideas are now inspired by my son; he even likes playing with some of the projects I did before he was born (he loves the Tinct and the Pianocade; ironically the Portal Turret Plushieis too delicate for him to play with).

Right now I’m working on two new synthesizer designs (one that’s almost finished and one that I’m just starting), a piece of electronic jewellery for my wife, and, yes, another toy for my son. This one is electronic: he loves lights and knobs and buttons, so this lets him turn a dial to change the colour of a light, and when he presses the button it says the name of the colour out loud. I always have more project ideas waiting in the wings, but those are the ones that are actually on my workbench right now, and not just in my head!