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2020 PVD Design Catalyst: Anther Kiley of Cardkits Toys

July 17, 2020 /// Featuring: Anther Kiley of Cardkits Toys


Photo by Anther Kiley.

Photo by Anther Kiley.

1. Tell us about Cardkits!

Cardkits are a line of beautiful, sustainable paper toys that combine hands-on making with creative world-building. Each kit comes as a set of beautifully printed paper parts that assemble into 
one element of a miniature cityscape. The kits are carefully designed, ethically produced, and engage children in creative, screen-free play.

2. Why did you start your business?

Cardkits are directly inspired by paper toy creations I made for myself as a kid. I grew up in an artistic family, with a strict quota on commercial toys, and started making things out of 
paper when I was around 9. I eventually constructed an entire, elaborate miniature world with cities, railways, a political structure, and even a currency! I learned a tremendous amount—about design, and about all of the interconnected systems that make the world work—from making and playing in this world; Cardkits is an effort to inspire other kids to learn in a similar way.

During my MFA degree in graphic design at RISD, I explored some related interests—utopian spaces, play, and abstraction—that helped me frame my childhood experiences. I’ve continued to develop these interests through my practice as a graphic designer and design educator (also at RISD). Cardkits really brings all of these things together; there’s a lot of me in it!

Photo by Rue Sakayama Photography.

Photo by Rue Sakayama Photography.

3. How has the Catalyst program impacted your business?

When I entered the Catalyst program, I’d just finished a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first production run of Cardkits, and I needed to figure out how to manufacture and market the kits. The program helped me with 
all of this.

The funds from the grant allowed me to invest in some expensive production equipment—
like an industrial digital cutting plotter—that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I now do some parts of Cardkits production ‘in house,’ which allows me to avoid the huge tooling costs and 
economies-of-scale of traditional production methods. I can develop a wider range of products more quickly this way, and adjust the line-up in response to demand.

I also used funds and assistance from the Catalyst program to build out my website, It went from a simple online store to a full website that really tells the story of the toys.

Maybe most importantly, I developed a great relationship with my program mentor, Susan Mocarski of Cleverhood. Susan has been hugely helpful in guiding and encouraging me as I figure out how to grow my business.

4. What aspects of the program did you find most valuable?

The funding from the grant was really enabling. It allowed me to make some up-front investments in production equipment that unlocked a whole new business model for me. The workshops were also really helpful in giving me some basic business and marketing skills.

Probably the most valuable aspect of the program is the community it creates. It was really nice to be part of a cohort of smart, creative, like-minded people, similarly bewildered by some of the practical challenges of small business ownership. My cohort was a great resource 
and support network, and I came to deeply trust their opinions and advice. My connections with them, and with my mentor Susan, will continue to support Cardkits in the future.

5. What parts of your business do you find most rewarding?

I’m a graphic designer and educator, and Cardkits brings together both of these aspects of my practice. Developing and marketing the kits involves pretty much every area of design—production, packaging, branding, web—and also a lot of work refining the experience children have with the toys, and shaping them to function in healthy and stimulating ways. I really enjoy every part of this process! 

The highest highs for me come from interactions with kids: It’s incredibly rewarding to see children engage with the toys and give them life through play.

Photo by Derek Delahunt.

Photo by Derek Delahunt.

6. What do you still dream to achieve?

The Cardkits vision has always been to create a complete, living world: one that can be entered into and shaped by kit-building kids. The kits are designed to go together and interact with one another in ways that inspire play and story-telling; there are colorful fish figures that fit inside vehicles and houses, furniture that goes inside buildings, trains that move along tracks…. There’s a sense that the kits are a part of a bigger world and I’m really excited to develop that aspect of the project.

Building the ‘Cardkits world’ will involve developing more kits! It will also involve making the world real through photos, videos, and maybe future physical installations. Most importantly, it will involve facilitating collective world-building and story-telling by Cardkits builders 
through platforms like forums and workshops. I’ll really consider the project successful when the Cardkits world takes on a life of its own, beyond what I imagine for it.

7. Why do you have your business in Providence? What draws you to the City?

I went to grad school at RISD, taught full time in California for a few years, and then moved back to Providence two years ago, specifically to launch Cardkits, because I knew Providence would be the perfect place for it. I wanted to root my business in a community that supports and values design, so that I could build my entire operation—production, retail, programming—on a local scale. And so far, I’ve been able to do that.

I think Providence is pretty unique in having a design scene that feels really connected and influential even though it’s a small city – this is thanks to the presence of RISD, organizations like DESIGNxRI, and commitment from local leadership. At the same time, Providence has the warmth and accessibility of a small city. It’s easy to learn about the design and production landscape, make connections, and generally make things happen. It’s the perfect place to launch a project like Cardkits.

Photo by Anther Kiley.

Photo by Anther Kiley.

Catherine Chung