As VP of Product Design, ASU alum helps keep the magic alive at Disney

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November 12, 2021

An industrial design graduate leads teams that create toys from Disney movies and TV shows; she shared career advice at a recent campus event

A plush Simba doll or an Elsa doll are the toys that keep Disney magic alive long after the movie ends or the day at the park is over. An Arizona State University alumnus is one of the most prominent people involved in creating toys at Disney.

Tracy Thurman, who graduated in Industrial Design from ASU in 1993, is Vice President of Product Design for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. Thurman’s father also went to ASU, and she now has a son and daughter who are students here.

“ASU was my starting point,” Thurman said. “It’s a place where I learned a lot and grew up here.

On November 8, Thurman spoke to industrial design students at the Tempe campus about her career path and how she helps create merchandise at Disney.

“I have made many presentations in this area here,” she said, referring to the bridge between the Design North and Design South buildings.

“This space has a lot of emotion and memory for me.”

His time at ASU

Thurman was briefly majoring in architecture before an advisor guided her into industrial design.

“I have always been very creative, I like to think outside the box and I have always been very artistic,” she said.

“But more than anything, I was very inclined to mechanics. I took things apart and put them back together.

She said one of the best advice she received was to start working in her field as soon as possible. So, the summer after her first year, she got an internship in an industrial design company that made computer cases.

“I had to choose shades of gray,” she said. “I spent a month during the summer working on the design of the vents.

“After a few summers of doing this, I realized I had to find a more fun product to work on.”

So she looked for a company that invented toys near her family’s home in California and begged them to do an internship. They said no.

“I actually gathered my portfolio and got dressed and went to the office, knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m really interested in working for you. If you give me a project I will do it for free and if you like me we can talk about a job. ‘

“Not only did I get the internship, but when I graduated I had a job waiting for me and I worked for them for three years.”

Looney Tunes and Harry Potter

The toy invention company pitched its ideas to big business, and Thurman realized she wanted to work at Mattel, the largest toy maker. She was turned down four times before eventually being hired into an entry-level design position. She eventually rose through the ranks to management.

She has worked on Looney Tunes mechanical plush toys, Polly Pocket dolls, and products for the “Ice Age” and “Harry Potter” movies.

“I invented the Polyjuice Potion Maker,” she said. “You could drink (the potions). “

After a few years, she was recruited by the Canadian company Spin Master as she started her office in Los Angeles.

“There was no staff, no process for dolls and toys for girls. They had never designed any of these products before and we had to find factories, ”she said.

They said, ‘You have to create new brands and bring them to market to make money and launch this Los Angeles office in the next couple of years. “

She began traveling to factories in China and building prototypes while launching the Liv fashion doll line and Zoobles collectible toys.

“I learned so much there, but I traveled a lot in China and we were building the plane while flying it,” she said.

Design for Disney

Then she got a call recruiting her for Disney.

“I love their brands, I love their stories, I love the characters and it was an opportunity to do something different,” she said.

She was also inspired by Walt Disney.

“Not only was he an amazing artist and filmmaker, but he was one of the first people to understand how to take these beloved characters in movies and create merchandise and experiences that people can relive over and over again. and integrate into their everyday life. ”she said.

“We are the physical manifestation of magic,” she said of the toys and games created by her teams.

Besides Disney content, the company also owns the Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm properties, and recently added 20th Century Studios and National Geographic.

From exhibition to shelf

Thurman described the product design process and how teams work together closely, especially on TV shows, where toy designers are sometimes involved in creating the appearance of TV characters. This is what happened with “Mickey and the Roadster Racers”.

“They said, ‘Let’s think about what the vehicles should be, because we want to make sure that we can make goods to support the show,” she said.

The team did a lot of research.

“We wanted to understand how kids play with cars, which is fun about them,” she said.

“We did a lot of product research to understand functionality and looked at trending reports to understand who we were targeting. “

Thurman said brainstorming is her favorite part of the process, and when it comes to brainstorming, she emphasizes quantity over quality.

“We’re going to set a period of time, like 30 minutes, and try to get as many ideas as possible – headlines only,” she said.

“No” is not allowed.

“There are a million reasons to kill an idea: you can’t afford it. It won’t be certain. The technology is not there.

“But it gets in the way of creative thinking,” she said.

She asks everyone to put their phones away, stay engaged, and be visual – sketching out ideas.

“We were brainstorming on ‘Frozen’ and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Olaf threw up snow? And we made Olaf snow cone makers.

After brainstorming, the concepts are defined and the safety, engineering and product integrity teams intervene. Size, features, colors and price are determined.

“We are starting to understand what can and cannot be done. This is when we say “no”. “

Then prototypes are developed.

“They send us samples and we’ll play with them to make sure they’re working properly,” she said.

Finally, the toy is produced. In the case of “Mickey and the Roadster Racers”, it’s a small sedan that transforms into a racing car with a mobile Mickey Mouse driver, aimed at preschoolers.

Pandemic challenges

As people stayed at home during the pandemic, the demand for toys increased.

“People wanted happiness, and our product sales are skyrocketing,” she said.

But the process changed as teams worked from home.

“The brainstorming was very different. We’ve done Zoom and breakout rooms, but there’s nothing quite like being together. There is an energy there, ”she said.

On the other hand, Thurman liked everyone’s face on Zoom to be even.

“A lot of the time in big meetings, we had senior executives up front, but the designer who actually designs the product was in the back,” she said.

“This is one thing that I think is great about Zoom.”

Another thing that has changed are the samples. Instead of shipping prototypes from factories, manufacturers invested in cameras and designers looked at high-quality photographs.

“We had to approve a lot of products that we’ve never seen,” she said.

For example, they created a line of “Alice in Wonderland” home decor items such as plates, mugs and tea sets.

“We were on a conference call and we would be like, ‘Can you put your hand on this pillow so we can see how soft it is? “”

Durability

Thurman said design for durability is very important.

“We’re removing a lot of plastic from packaging and looking at soy-based inks,” she said.

“The hardest thing about plastic is that the science hasn’t caught up yet. We have plastic made from sugar cane, but nothing could have been the same as what a traditional toy is made of.

Recently, Disney released a doll in a closed box with no plastic window.

“Most people care, so they’re willing to give up on seeing it in the package.”

Ask for advice

Thurman offered several career tips to ASU students:

  • Find lots of mentors: “This has been so important to me. It doesn’t have to be a formal mentor. Most people are ready to give advice.
  • Don’t be afraid to avoid: “I started out in industrial design working in consulting and quickly realized that some of the more traditional industrial designs were not what I wanted to do. “
  • Think about the big picture, then take a small step, “I talk to a lot of high schools and they say, ‘I’m going to be the CEO of Disney someday.’ It’s awesome. But know that it’s important to think about the steps it will take to get there. You can hear in my career that I had to take small steps to get to a bigger place. I have learned so much. I haven’t closed a lot of doors.
  • Fill out a large toolbox: “It’s so important that you start your own business, create your own products or work for a bigger company, that you work with people from all disciplines: marketing, engineering, product integrity, graphic design, packaging design. And you have to speak all these languages ​​and work together. That doesn’t mean you all have to think the same. It is important to build a team with many different perspectives. Use all of these tools.

Top Image: Tracy Thurman, Vice President of Product Design for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, addresses an industrial design class on the Bridge between Design North and South on the Tempe Campus on 8 November. Thurman graduated from ASU with a BA in Industrial Design in 1993. Photo by Charlie Leight / ASU News

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