Toy-Line: How did you get started in the toy industry?
Danny Burau: I basically got into the industry by coincidence. I had studied advertising and art direction at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I spent three years out of school working at an agency in town, developing skills and learning a little about the agency scene. While there, I started dating my future wife, who went on to graduate school at Brown. We moved to Providence and I started working freelance gigs until I blindly applied for a temp position doing “packaging design.” I applied, did an initial interview, and then discovered that it was a job at Hasbro on the packaging team that handled Playskool. Obviously I jumped at that. I actually hadn’t even realized that Hasbro was in RI until that interview.
TL: What’s involved in “packaging design”? Do you get to design the package on your own or does the company approve things first before you get involved?
DB: The whole process of packaging design really starts with a brief from the marketing team or whoever the driving force behind the project might be. There are a variety of issues that come into play. On something like Playskool, it really is an internal project, so we have less accountability to any outside decision makers. The marketing team will determine who the target consumer might be (basically always mom) and then we work from there within the guidelines they set forth. Color scheme may be discussed, or particular style of design. From there, the packaging designer will take over, laying out graphics, using content from the copywriter, and working alongside a packaging engineer. We generally worked very closely with the packaging engineer, proposing structure ideas, working on product layout in the package, and eventually, the engineer provides a final dieline, which we as designers would work with. Of course, all through the process, the marketing team and other invested parties would share their input and give approvals.
On the Marvel product team, we had a great deal of input from the Licensor (Marvel). That’s the standard for any product line from a licensor who will be looking to get product in stores to support their overall brand. For example, my first projects on the Marvel team were for Captain America: The First Avenger. I came in part way into the project, and the design team had already worked to establish a line look for the figures using supplied Marvel assets, such as actor imagery generated by Marvel artists, and any key assets such as logos or other specifics. I was part of the whole process on The Avengers product line. We went down to Marvel headquarters in NYC and got to read the script in an early format. While locked in a corner conference room, all recording devices (phones) held from us to protect this highly sensitive information, we sat and read for a couple of hours. And I must say, it was a page turner, as we all found out.
Anyhow, we took that info back to work and started focusing on what we saw as major elements from the movie. We started receiving assets from Marvel in the form of artwork hinting at Stark tower, character imagery, and a few other key graphics. From there, we really got to work through various designs. I did stacks of layouts for basic 3.75″ figures, and working with other designers, we we arrived at a line look that the team liked and that Marvel was comfortable with. The real structure design began then, developing the larger boxes, key elements that tied the line together, and laying out as much uniformity as we could across all Avengers products. Once those things were all established, it was really my responsibility to be sure that every item in the line worked together to form a cohesive statement at retail. We worked with outside illustrators, our photographers, and models to tie stuff all together.
But definitely some of the most fun stuff was the Marvel Universe and Marvel Legends line. We had a lot of freedom there and got to come up with crazy structures for SDCC and worked directly with Marvel comic illustrators to create character poses for the standard Marvel figures.
TL: From start to finish, how long did it take to design the package?
DB: Tough question to answer exactly. For an established line look, just adding a product, the time is relatively short to send files to the printer. For example, if you are adding a new wave of figures to Marvel Universe, you’re looking at a few weeks. And a large portion of that is working on the illustrations with the artist.
If it’s a brand new line look, at a corporate location, three months for a basic blister card from initial concepts to printable artwork with product photos and all.
For Kasual Friday, the actual package design was a line look that would make several licensors happy, one that we liked, and one that could have legs for a long time. From the initial pitched concepts, working with a freelance engineer for the blister and inserts, submitting to licensors, I bet we spent six months on the cards.
So, there’s really a variety.
TL: What was a day in the life like to work on a package design?
DB: Most days would just be coming in and getting to work on whatever existing project I was working on. Trying to finesse a design element from the meetings the day before. Frequently, the day would end with a conversation with marketing about something on the package, we would discuss the direction, and then jump on that the next day. A lot of sketching out designs, maybe again talking to the marketing team, or at least the other designers on my team, then start putting the designs together on the computer.
Several times a week, we would get a call from the model shop that some new prototype toy or figure had been hand-painted and was ready for photography. So we would go collect a tray with all the pieces of a figure (head, torso, arms, legs) and then go build them up using sticky wax to pose them. Looking at the back of toy packages, you will almost never see an actual figure. You are looking at a figure that has been grown on a 3d printer, painted by hand, then assembled just long enough for the photographers to get a bunch of photos taken to the designer’s liking. The photographer would composite a bunch of images together to give us an optimal image, and we would continue on our way processing the photo and dropping it onto the package.
On occasion, we would need to photograph models for our packaging. So, a couple of times per launch (be it Playskool or a Marvel movie property) we would get a bunch of head shots from a casting agent, pick 4-5 kids we wanted to come in, and we would go to a photo studio off-site to do a shoot. The kids would sit at a table and play with the toys. These were honestly some of my favorite days. By the end of it, you may have 500 photos of basically the same shot to go through. There were times when you still didn’t nail it, so we would “Frankenstein” together a shot of a kid’s hands and torso, with a different kid’s head from one shot, eyes from another, and mouth from another shot. When all was said and done, we would have spent hours and hours getting one photo on the back of a package.
So, a day was largely things behind the design. Coordinating the project, sketching, talking to engineers, casting agents, photographers, photo processing, Little Debbie Zebra cakes mid-afternoon, then finally getting to sit down and getting to assemble the design into something you could print out and try to get approved, justifying all of the little decisions that went into a simple package.
TL: How long did you work for Hasbro, Playskool & Marvel?
DB: I spent one year working on the Playskool team and then applied to transfer over to the Marvel packaging team. I worked on that team for one year. I left Hasbro as my wife was finishing grad school and we were moving back to Colorado.
TL: What were your favorite package designs you worked on? Your least?
DB: Honestly, I have loved working on all of the Kasual Friday packaging. But it’s very much mine, so it’s a bit like saying your favorite people are your family.
On the side of being an employee for someone else, the favorites I have worked on have to be the Comic Con exclusives for the Marvel brands. Probably the Thor hammer for the re-introduction of Legends was a highlight. I worked with a lot of cool people on that one, too.
Although, I did love the whole new Marvel Legends line look we developed. That was a lot of fun.
I definitely had my difficulties working on a few of the Playskool packaging projects. There was a short-lived line of dinosaur toys for Playskool that was just a pain. It actually was my first project at Hasbro and it drug on and on, just taking all of the fun out of the design process.
TL: I’m glad you mentioned Kasual Friday, because that was going to be my next question. Can you tell us a bit about that? How it got formed, what the goals are?
DB: Kasual Friday is a business started by a couple of us former Hasbro guys. I was approached after I had left by the lead marketing guy for Marvel toys about my willingness to jump in on a potential apparel and toy business. He had left Hasbro as well, and he had this great idea. Really, the goal was to serve as an outlet for the dedicated fans of under-represented properties to get some gear.
The name actually arose out of a particular shirt one team had made for a Comic Con. It was a black, button down, short-sleeved shirt with some related graphics on it. Fans wanted the shirt, offering big bucks to buy it off of some of the Hasbro employees. We thought about why that shirt was so desired. You could wear that shirt to the office on a casual Friday without drawing too much attention. You could represent, let your fan out, and still be within requirements. Basically, we wanted to let other fan boys be fan boys. And there were a lot of licensors out there that were willing, and even excited, to let us put their properties out there.
Obviously, all of us at Hasbro had a passion for toys, and loved the pop-culture aspect of working on Marvel properties. So, the idea of doing our own thing was always boiling in the back of our heads. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Fill in the blank. We wanted to do things and try things that obviously weren’t viable when you’re dealing with so much money and responsibility. So, Kasual Friday was born. Looking to search out those beloved properties of the under-served fans and put stuff out there.
TL: So, how many of you are involved in Kasual Friday?
DB: We’ve got a pretty extensive team of people from marketing, sculpting, painting, graphics, etc, some on consulting basis, and then a core group dedicated to KF.
TL: How long has Kasual Friday been around?
DB: We really got moving in early 2012 trying to make it to the convention in Philly. We came out of the gate with a few exclusives and we partnered up with another vendor there to get some shirts on the market and start building our name. It’s been a solid, continuous growth since then to build capital and produce more.
TL: The Kasual Friday toys have a great style. Do you decide on the style of them then get the company’s approval of who owns the rights to the characters?
DB: Yeah. We like that exaggerated style, but not too bubbly and cartoonish. Seeing as no one else is owning that expression right now, it worked for us.
We worked with some toy designers and sculptors from our years past to come up with the concept drawings, which then get approved by the licensors who hold the rights to the characters.
The real process is getting the license first (paying for the right to use their brand), then starting concepts. They approve drawings, then digital sculpts, then paint scheme, and eventually final approval before we go to production.
TL: Who sculpts the toys? Where are they made? Has the rising cost of tooling in China affected your company?
DB: We have a variety of sculptors that we have worked with over the years that we work with.
The production figures are coming from China.
As we haven’t been producing figures for too terribly long, we haven’t experienced much change or impact from changing prices.
TL: Does KF promote its’ products only on its’ website or have you been to Toy Fair?
DB: We have been to a variety of events, including Comic Cons and Toy Fair, as well as sales through distributors and retailers.
TL: Will the toys and clothes be sold only on the official KF website or in stores too?
DB: Most everything is already available on other resources such as Big Bad Toy Store and Entertainment Earth, as well as through Diamond.
TL: Are there any movie properties Kasual Friday would like to get involved with? Any new properties you can tell us about?
DB: On a personal level, there are a lot of 80s movie properties that I think would be fun to play with, but there isn’t anything we’re pursuing right now. We’re really focusing on doing solid work and filling out the offerings for the licensors we are currently working with.
TL: Danny, thank you for sharing your knowledge of the toy industry with us. Toy-Lines wished you the best of luck with Kasual Friday. It’s a great site and products and we hope it does well.
If you’d like to check out Kasual Friday’s site and products, please click the link: http://www.kasualfriday.com/
The Toy-Lines Crew