Mattel’s Ted Wu talks cars, Creations and creative cultures
Ted, it’s great to connect! To kick us off, how did you find your way into toy design? Was it always part of the plan?
Thanks! Appreciate you having me and great to be speaking with you! And I wish I could say it was all part of a master plan, but my route to where I am today wasn’t the most linear path. Since as early as I can remember, I always loved to draw. Specifically, my childhood dream job was to become a cartoonist. There’s something I enjoy about making people laugh through a drawing or doodle.
When I went to college, I still had a passion for art, but I also had interest in other “practical” disciplines, so I ended up majoring in both Business Economics and Visual Arts. I attended Brown University and was able to take my art classes at Rhode Island School of Design, which was right across the street. At RISD, I learned the difference between being an artist and being a designer. While art is more internally focused in my opinion, design requires you to prioritise your viewer or user. It’s about problem-solving.
When I got a chance to work at Mattel, I really felt like it was a good fit. Similar to how I felt about cartoons, the world of toys is about bringing joy, amusement and fun into the world. At the same time, there’s a challenge in designing toys. Every toy is a problem-solving challenge each with their unique complexities and nuances.
Absolutely. And can you talk us through your current role at Mattel?
Today I’m privileged to be the Global Head of Design for Mattel Vehicles – which includes Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Disney Pixar Cars – as well as Mattel Creations, which features all of Mattel’s brands. So the range of brands and products I work on is quite diverse, which makes it challenging… But that’s also what keeps it fun!
2023 marked your 20th anniversary with Mattel. What is it about the company that’s kept you there for such an impressive length of time?
I would have never thought I’d be at the same company for 20 years, but if you know Mattel, it’s not hard to understand. Mattel is filled with the most talented people in the business, which makes for an environment that’s both inspiring and exhilarating. More importantly, there’s a strong sense of community and culture. People in the company are all working toward the same goal and want to see others succeed.
The other reason is that it’s a place that encourages learning new disciplines. During my time at Mattel, I felt like I’ve had multiple mini-careers working in different groups: content creation, marketing, packaging, product design… These jumps to different disciplines keep the job fresh.
On that, does your marketing experience shape your work today as VP of Design for Vehicles and Mattel Creations?
My time in marketing has been invaluable to see things from a more holistic point of view. There’s always going to be a natural, healthy tension between marketing and design, so the trick is to try and thread the needle. As with any business endeavour, you must work within a set of rules for your product to be commercially viable. Having a strong business sense helps me understand which rules to prioritise and which rules can be broken.
Hot Wheels has a remarkable legacy. How do you approach keeping the brand on top of its game design-wise?
A key part of our success is building the right design team. I’m honoured to have a design team that’s the best in the business. Our die-cast design team is a group of automotive designers, graphic designers and sculptors who are true car enthusiasts and have their fingers on the pulse of car culture. We also have designers who are pop culture experts, hype beasts and toy collectors who bring another unique perspective. This wide range of expertise has allowed us to create some of the hottest new die-cast lines, launch new, unexpected toy lines – like Hot Wheels Skate and Hot Wheels Racerverse – and continue to design big holiday top toy staples like the Hot Wheels Ultimate Garage.
How important a role does the external inventor community play in the success of Hot Wheels?
I view the inventor community as an extension of our team. We have two inventor items that I’m particularly proud of this past holiday season. One is the Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Transforming Rhinomite R/C which is from Pace. It’s an item that not only drives as an R/C vehicle, but also turns into a launcher for your 1:64 scale Hot Wheels Monster Trucks. The second is the Hot Wheels Ultimate T-Rex Transporter from Fuse. It’s a giant die-cast car hauler that transforms into a T-Rex that eats and poops cars! Both of these items represent the magic that can happen when the inventor community and the brand work together as one team.
Is there a recent launch that highlights the fact there’s always fresh avenues to explore within Hot Wheels?
Our most recent new product launch has been Hot Wheels Racerverse. The idea behind this new line is: what if your favorite pop culture character had their very own Hot Wheels bespoke vehicle and could race each other? Who wins in a race between Darth Vader and Thanos? We’ve had a ton of fun finding the right style for the characters and designing custom vehicles for each of them. Hot Wheels has always reflected pop culture, and we’re excited to introduce this new world for kids and collectors alike.
Sounds great! Now, there’s also plenty of exciting things happening on your Mattel Creations platform. I got very close to investing in a Kenough hoodie!
Ha! You’re not alone in wanting a Kenough hoodie! That’s been a super hot item for us.
What sort of creative doors does this platform open for your brands?
Mattel Creations allows us to connect with adult collectors. It’s also where we can explore unique and unexpected collaborations. Whether it’s working with iconic fashion brand Off-White to create special edition Monster High dolls or working with artist Daniel Arsham on a Hot Wheels collection, Mattel Creations showcases that fact that we’re a creations company.
As a company filled with talented designers who are artists, artisans and creators, Mattel Creations showcases what happens when you bring together the creative power of Mattel with the most creative brands – and people – in the world.
Ted, this has been fun! One last question: How do you fuel your creativity?
Inspiration can truly come from anywhere. I think it helps to stay curious and open to learning new things. And staying up to date on pop culture and trends is important. If you can identify the macro trends that are swirling around in the zeitgeist and combine them with your brand or product, that’s usually a great place to start.
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