Vanessa Dewey on Designing Toy Packaging for Mattel

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Vanessa Dewey has accomplished one thing that ev


ery inner child dreams about. She works for a toy company. And not only does she work for the toy giant, Mattel, she also designs their packaging. You can practically hear the squeals of delight from her inner child, or at least as I imagine. Confession: my inner child would be bouncing off the walls in excitement if I had Dewey’s career.

We interviewed her about her career path to becoming a package designer for Mattel. Not only does she reveal her steps to landing this position, but she also gives insightful advice to those looking to follow in her footsteps.

Read on to see her journey, her unquenchable pursuit of knowledge, and to gain useful nuggets of advice to try in your own design career.

Vanessa Dewey: The Playful Package Designer

How did you land a job as a package designer for the toy company, Mattel?

Somehow this landed in my lap actually through a placement agency, about eight years [ago].

From the time I built my portfolio in college, I had totally forgotten about what I put in my creds and what I have written in my mission statement. I think I was two years into Mattel when my mother found all my stuff and she came across it. I had written that I had wanted to go into package design and communication design. Totally forgot about it. And it wasn’t until that happened that I came full circle. I did branch out to 3D design, more of a 3D structural design and then ended up in packaging ultimately.

I was always intrigued by packaging. I think it’s definitely a challenge for a designer because anyone can do a nice layout, but that might not translate over to packaging because there are different aesthetics and different parameters for how things are laid out. It’s interesting. Especially branching out to a toy. It’s a different level of packaging than the basic package because it’s a challenge. It’s constantly keeping me on my toes. You have to think not just of the kids, but you have to think of the parent. There’re so many things involved in designing toy packaging. I love it. It’s basically how I ended up at Mattel.

When you stated that toy packaging is a different level of packaging, is it those generational considerations or is it more than that?

I think you hit it. Say we are dealing with the basic package. You are gearing towards the general consumer, more or less. But when we gear toward toy packaging, we’re not just gearing for an adult. Besides dealing with the parent you are also dealing with the kids. So you have to think of those two type of psyches and what appeals to them. So there’s that level of thought that goes into it. And also on top of that, there’s a lot of cultural elements too that we have to plan for because a package for a certain toy will be sold here domestically, but it will be sold also internationally and sometimes things have to be slightly altered or geared slightly based on where it’s being sold. Besides the basic consumer, there are other levels too. There’s more to it than just a basic package design.

What’s your work life at Mattel like?

I’m currently on five different brands within two different divisions. It varies from week to week. In the beginning of the week, we’ll probably have a team meeting to regroup and go over different points and different skews for property development and product design. From there, depending on the approval meetings, for packaging, I’ll run things by marketing. It’s not one concise this is what happens every day or every Tuesday. It varies because of unpredictability. The constant in unpredictability.

I just moved cubes. Unfortunately, before I moved I’ve been paring down on my toy packaging. But the one thing that I have maintained is that I have my Mad Men collector dolls in the package, haven’t been unwrapped, and a few other things that I did when I first started. But normally, my cube would be bursting with products’ packaging. It’s like me as a little kid when I was five years old would just be over the moon.

BoomCo Packaging

BoomCo Packaging

What has been your favorite brand that you’ve worked with at Mattel so far?

There are so many interesting brands. The one that I really connected with is BOOMCo. BOOMCo. is Mattel’s property for the blaster aisle. We’re all familiar with Nerf. It’s been around for 30 years and it’s owned a good chunk of the market share – it has over 50% of the market share. You can go into Toys R Us and their in-aisle casing could be up to 12 feet, depending. So we created this amazing product called BOOMCo. With some amazing technology like Smart Stick where you shoot the dart and it will stick to the walls. The design of the initial packaging was beautiful. It was nice and very beautiful. However, I think they had to rebrand it just because of testing. It was so much for fun for me. The brand itself draws its essence from more alternative sports. Not militaristic stuff. More alternative sports being snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, BMX biking. Think X Games. Within three months I was able to work with a team and connect the brand with the brand voice, develop branding execution, bring in a test, have a successful test, and create a brand in such a short period of time. And one thing I think besides having a brand essence that I really connected with, as a creative I always want to be able to use my gut instinct and not go by numbers or be very regimented. But with this one, I was able to go with my gut instinct and to be able to trust it. It was so much fun. I think that was an ideal situation. I wish I could have more of them. It happens, but not all the time.

In the world of packaging design, and for those aspiring designers who would like to break into the field, what advice would you have for them?

If you want to break into the packaging, and you don’t have the experience, create your own project. Create a hypothetical project even. One thing that could help you too in breaking into packaging is competitive shopping. See what else is out there trend-wise too to educate yourself. So if you do apply to a job for packaging, you can address it, depending on what the interview is like. Educating yourself on the packaging industry is just as key as having packaging in your portfolio. Just go out there. Even though I work in toys, I will go and look at the electronic aisles. Or, every time I travel I’m always in the pharmacy and I look at the packaging there too. I think just educating yourself about packaging and knowing about it is key.

And also too, since packaging is such a niche, if there’s somebody you want to reach out to, connect with them on LinkedIn and email them and ask them. Get their input too. Trying to get in from every different angle is very beneficial.

How do you initially approach a project?

It depends on the project and if it’s a bullet train type of project. I think in any capacity of a project, definitely make sure you have the strategy down. I make sure everything
is aligned with marketing. Go out and do mood boards. Go out beyond the four walls of the office and see. Just build up a whole perspective of the direction you want to go. And then from there, I work closely with a copywriter and I work closely with my structural engineer to develop copy, to create a story through package, through the structure. So that’s how I kick it off normally. I believe in research. If I have time, I will research it. But I will do as much as I can because sometimes if you have three weeks to design something, it’s three weeks to bring into testing. It can burst. In a situation like that, we will bring in other people to brainstorm. It’s always research and strategy.

Can give us a little preview of your talk at how design live?

Overall, the title is “Unboxing the Toy Box.” Every time I meet someone and we talk about where I work, they are always like “I remember my first Barbie.” “I remember my hot wheels.” I want within my talk to give you a perspective of what Mattel is and our creative processes and how it applies to a case study that I’ve been working on. I would definitely not do a presentation without introducing who Mattel is and what Mattel is. I think as I’m highlighting what I mentioned before, talking about toy packaging too, that I always feel that if you can do toy packaging you can do most any packaging based on the different demographics you have to work towards. Probably would also give examples of what’s good toy packaging, what’s bad packaging. So that’s basically what I’ll be highlighting. There might be some little giveaways too.

Has there been particular design risks that you have taken?

For me, I like taking risks so I don’t imagine it as a risk and being nervous about it. I think a lot of times it just goes with my gut. So I just don’t think about it. I will push the pendulum as many times.

Several years ago, we were trying to rebrand a whole brand voice. We wanted to gear more towards the parents and have a different perspective. Since we were gearing towards parents, it needed to speak to parents in a different way and to also draw back to the brand’s voice. I decided to do something different in types of photography. You’ll see in other brands, like Nike, you’ll have really great photography and more of that poetic, inspirational moments. For toys, when it comes to photography, it’s pretty standard in a studio. Or you’ll just have an action figure posed against the background. It doesn’t create that imagination that you would hopefully inspire kids to play with the toys. I actually went off-site for this brand, Toy Story, and had environmental shots of kids. And even created a moment where the kids were captured playing with the different action figures rather than having the action figures in a static pose. They were playing with Buzz Lightyear and having him fly around some little playset. Just capturing that moment in time. And sometimes the photos I really liked were more capturing that engagement value of the kid with the toy. The beauty shot maybe wasn’t the king, it was more that kid. For me, I think that was definitely a challenge. But suggesting let’s do this photo instead of a traditional one definitely was a risk. Fortunately, in that role having a good marketing counterparts were key. Once that was understood and you had a good rapport, that was very beneficial.

What are you looking forward to the most at HOW Design Live?

There are too many things! I think first and foremost, just getting back and connecting with people, connecting with more designers out there, and meeting more people. But also, reconnecting with people that might be on the east coast or that I haven’t even met in person. For more specific talks, there’s too many. I was trying to create an outline of who I want to go see. I’m looking forward to seeing Doug Powell speak. I’m very intrigued as to what’s going down in IBM design and how they are doing. Coming from Mattel, that’s inspiration and interesting to see what another large corporation is doing and how they are reworking their process. So that’s fascinating. Some of the panels I’m actually looking forward to is Debbie Millman’s on Sunday. I love panels. I love getting a diverse perspective. Looking forward to seeing Elle Luna too. I find her very inspirational. I know she spoke at Adobe Max, which I missed, so I’m looking forward to that. And for specific talks, it’s very hard. There’s just a lot there. I know in the past I’ve seen various speakers from Malcolm Gladwell to Johnny Cupcakes.

Find out more about Vanessa Dewey and her take on package design at HOW Design Live in Atlanta on May 22. She will be presenting “Unboxing the Toy Box.” Learn more about her talk and register for the five-day career-changing event here.