Tiger Monkey Design’s Tucker Johnson on why being a fan can be dangerous for designers
Tucker, it’s great to connect. To kick us off, how did you find your way into toy design?
I loved toys as a kid and I grew up in the prime era of G.I. Joe, ThunderCats, He-Man… When I hit college-age, I joined the Industrial Design programme at the Cleveland Institute of Art and I did that because my father was an industrial designer. He worked for Alcoa – he helped design the Pringles can.
Wow! That’s not a bad claim to fame!
It’s funny, the logo even looks a bit like him! He had a moustache like that. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be a portrait of him, but he worked on the can. His job there was to prove to the world that aluminium was a good material to work with.
I actually have toy credentials in my family too, as my godmother worked on Strawberry Shortcake. She was at TCFC – Those Creatures From Cleveland. She did Madballs and My Pet Monster – so that’s my toy pedigree!
Did you go straight into toys from college?
No, I was hired into the automotive industry. I went to General Motors and worked in their advanced concepts group which, at the time, was called APEx. I eventually quit that job, took time off but I had some friends who had gone into toys… Ben Hitmar who was at Hasbro at the time and I also knew someone at Fisher-Price. Those connections led me to start freelancing for Fisher-Price and Hasbro. That’s how I got my start in toys.
I was freelance and then I had my first child, so that’s when I took a job and worked at Hasbro. I was in their Boys team for three or four years, working on brands like Xevoz. Do you recall that brand?
It rings a bell!
Hasbro had a relationship with STIKFAS – the little snap-together ball and socket toy – but they felt it was too small for kids, so they sized it up to a six-inch figure. We created this whole action figure platform and that was Xevoz. It was awesome; a really great gig. Ben Hitmar was the lead on that project and our manager was Wayne Losey. It was like this three-man jazz band jam! I think the line was really ahead of its time.
We’ll put the TV ad in there to jog folks’ memories! Did it do well?
It did okay, but then Star Wars needed more footage and so it went away! Then a while later, they laid me off. Everyone who went at that point was quite sad to be let go, but I was kind of happy to get back to freelancing at that point.
You lit up speaking about Xevoz! Would you call yourself a big toy fan?
You know what, I wouldn’t! Or not a deep fan at least… I’ve seen fandom get in the way of a lot of good product, especially during my time in-house.
In what way?
Well, the danger is that you love a brand so much that you try and make the product your experience of the brand – but that’s not our job… Our job is to make the best play experience. And times have changed. There’s so much in the market today… If I were to design something with the aim of recreating the experience I had as a kid, it wouldn’t work. It was a much simpler play experience back then. Toys didn’t have as many features because we didn’t know features was a possibility.
My G.I. Joe figures were posable. I could bend their knees and cross their arms. Then they added the twist at the elbow. That was enough! If I designed something like that today, I’m not sure it would have the same impact. And all that said, it’s good to be a fan. And I love fans; they keep the industry going. But as a designer, you have to have some distance.
Makes total sense. Now, your design studio is called Tiger Monkey Design. For anyone that hasn’t worked with you, what areas do you focus on?
I’ve been doing toy design for 20 years and I’ve done just about everything. I often get the ‘We don’t know how to make this happen’ briefs, but I’ve done plush, girls toys, boys toys, construction, Hot Wheels sets… I shudder to think how many Batmobiles I’ve done! I’ve done lots of work with Imaginext and am doing lots of PAW Patrol at the moment…
I’m a bit of a generalist, but the best compliment I ever got was from Aaron Archer, who was Creative Lead for Transformers at Hasbro at the time. He said I was a “one shot, one kill” designer.
Have you ever dabbled in the invention space?
I’ve dabbled a little bit, but not with any kind of verve. My contract stuff takes up most of my time and creativity. All respect to the inventor community though, because those guys swing 100 times for one hit. And I’ve worked on lots of inventor items through my design work – I’ve made lots of people their percentages!
Looping back to your core design work, can you talk us through your process? What usually kicks things off for you?
The tagline for my studio is ‘Purposeful and Playful’. I always try to make sure something is manufacturable. I’ve had enough experience on the inside, and outside, of things being sold on smoke and mirrors. Look at some inventor sizzle videos! Part of my job is to sell the promise, but it’s important to me that I also sell the reality.
As creatives, we go to our partners in sales, engineering and marketing – their job isn’t to visualise things; their job is to react to what their seeing. If we’re not presenting them with something that’s achievable in the real world, you’re just creating lag in the system. There’s already a lot of noise in the toy development system and it’s easy to get into trouble by promising something that’s impossible to deliver on.
Great insights Tucker. Alongside a healthy dose of realism, what are some other cornerstones of your approach?
I try to zag and look at things we haven’t done before. And I keep the kid in mind at all times; you’ve got to focus on the fun. That’s the triangle I’m trying to balance: How can this be fun? How can this be surprising? How can this be real?
Before we wrap up, how do you assess the current state of creativity in the industry?
It’s always a continuum. You get into trouble if you fall into the trap of saying: ‘Things aren’t as good as the old days.’ All ideas are old ideas – even the ‘fresh and new’ ones I worked on early on in my career. It’s a cycle – we’re always in both a good and bad place!
And what fuels your creativity?
I’m a sponge. I’m always pulling in information and my brain is now a rolodex of stuff. I read comic books, watch movies – and I also used to work to movies. It would be my soundtrack and also helped me pace myself. The movie would end so I’d know two hours had passed and that I should get up and move my body!
Tucker, this has been great. How can folks reach out if they wanted to connect? And what sort of companies do you like to work with?
Best way to catch me is through email@example.com. In terms of companies, I work with all shapes and sizes. With the big companies, I get into grooves with groups… I’ve been doing a lot with PAW Patrol. But I love working with smaller companies too. I like to work with any company that really wants to make something exciting happen.
Fantastic! Thanks again!
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