Action figure designer

Action figure designer

Matthew Mariani

Kevin George works so that others might play. He designs action figures, those posable toys representing the villains and superheros from movies, television, and comic books.

Such play-minded designing requires an imagination. George began exercising his with help from one of the world’s first action figures, G.I. Joe. This toy soldier used to sit on the edge of George’s bed at night. “He would guard me while I slept,” George says, remembering himself at age 6. He also recalls his G.I. buddy parachuting out of a tree on some secret mission or scuba diving in his mother’s wash basin.

Years later, George began a more serious career as an industrial designer. At first, he designed the look of toasters, microwave ovens, and computer keyboards for mass production. Before long, however, his flair for fantasy demanded an outlet. “Consumer products tend to be sort of dry,” he says. “I wanted to have fun with my job.”

In pursuit of fun, he worked briefly at an amusement park design company. Then, it 1989, he signed on as a toy designer at Kenner. Two years later, Kenner became part of the Hasbro Toy Group, the creator of G.I. Joe.

Most of George’s ideas for action figures come from movies like Ghostbusters, Terminator, Jurassic Park, or Batman. As a designer, he describes his goal as “replicating the fantasy you’re wrapped up in while you’re sitting in the theater.” He adds that he must also design a figure children like playing with whether they’ve seen the movie or not.

“A big part of the job really is just communicating the ideas,” says George. He draws sketches to convey his toy concepts to fellow designers. Next, they form a prototype. Designers salvage pieces of old action figures to make a model for a new one. They may sculpt some parts from wood or wax. George does not sculpt as do some designers, but he has sculptors and other craft workers to help with artistic detail. “I think people have the misconception that designers are artists,” he says, “and that’s not necessarily true.”

The designers brainstorm with each other, sometimes to invent added features for action figures. The concept for Batman’s “Body Adaptive Techsuit,” for example, resulted from a session George and two colleagues had outside around a picnic table. Together, they imagined a suit sprouting assistive devices — such as scuba apparatus, a sonar scope, or night vision goggles — as needed.

George and his coworkers decorate their prototype in detail and then use it to explain their concept to management. If the idea wins approval, a new version of Batman — or some other character — is born.

“Once you come up with an idea,” says George, “you’re going to include as many people as are needed to develop that idea.” These people include engineers and marketing experts as well as other designers. Among other things, the engineers on the team advise George on whether his designs are practical. Marketers consider what will sell best in the intended market. Once an idea is set, engineers and marketing experts assume a bigger role in developing the figure, but George makes sure they stay true to his original concept. He does computer-aided control drawings to define more precisely how the finished product must look.

Designers not only control the look of an action figure, they also influence the source of the action. “The director of the third Batman movie,” explains George, “looked at our product concept work before he started filming and incorporated some of our ideas into the movie.” Toys increasingly affect movies like this because designers begin their work earlier than ever before.

Only a few stars like George ply the toy designing trade. He estimated the number of American toy designers at about 500. Most who rise into these ranks have a bachelor’s degree in industrial design, and the aspiring toy designer should select a college with a first-rate program in this specialty, according to George. He chose the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1987. He stresses the importance of developing a portfolio of work that will impress toy companies. George began his design work while still a student through cooperative education. (See the article on cooperative education elsewhere in this issue.)

Less traveled routes into toy design stem from the comic book industry or from fine arts backgrounds. These routes may not teach needed knowledge of engineering, marketing, and business, so those arriving by such paths must catch up on the job.

George says toy designers receive more respect today than they did in the past. But what about money? George earned much less designing Batman action figures than George Clooney earned playing Batman in the movie, but it’s still a living. Toy designers likely earn about as much as industrial designers in general. A 1994 study by the Industrial Designers Society of America shows an average annual base salary of $25,837 for entry level designers. For senior designers averaging 8 years of experience, base salary averaged $42,834 per year.

For George, the major payoff is still the fun, and maybe it’s exactly this fun that fools people he meets. Almost everyone thinks that he must display in dramatic poses the many action figures he has designed. Instead, there’s not one in sight, either at work or at home “I try to keep one of everything I do,” he says. “They’re all up in my attic, and hopefully, I’ll bring them down when I have kids of my own.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group