Note: I don’t want to have to watermark everything, I think it looks ugly. But if you’re going to repost any of these images or share them, please just give a link back to this page so people can see their original context. Thanks.
I think if you read a few of these articles you start to get a picture of the guy I used to be, specifically a toy designer. I haven’t been one now for nine years at this writing, but the industry still holds a great pull for me. Nothing else I’ve done has been as satisfying as thinking of something that doesn’t exist, and months later walking into any store in any town and holding that object in your hands (even if it didn’t always come out just quite like you thought it would). Don’t get me wrong, I love my current job and have had the opportunity to design many print ads and online videos. But working on a toy line is just a different animal. My one big regret is that I never went to work for any of the big companies like Kenner or Toy Biz or Hasbro, working on a signature line like X-Men or GI Joe.
One area I’ve dabbled in with a bit of freelance work, though, is package design. This is something I only really started doing at the end of my tenure in the toy industry, but the years that followed gave me a much larger education in design theory and composition in general. So now when I do find the time, it’s fun to create packaging and toys for products that never existed, especially trying to match a vintage aesthetic for well-known package designs. Creating custom toys has been around in the mainstream for about 25 years more or less. There are a lot fewer people worrying about custom packaging, probably because it is a different skill (and it is a skill that takes a lot of practice to be good)! There is A LOT of terrible toy packaging out there in the real world these days. Like advertising, the old ways of doing things before the ease of computers meant that you put in a lot of time thinking and reworking designs before they were final. And it showed! In recent times, you are seeing a bit of a reflection back to the nostalgia of the classic toy packaging, with Hasbro reviving it for both Star Wars and GI Joe toys line and Marvel even hiring artist John Tyler Christopher to recreate toys that never existed in that old style look (and he did a phenomenal job, by the way).
Now, some of these are meticulous recreations that took me many days to develop and some of them are basically digital doodles that just took a couple of hours. All of them are meant to be fun. The ease of use computers bring lets me crank these out at a furious pace, a luxury I wouldn’t have if it were still my full time job. I’ll lead off with one of my favorite mock-ups, the one that I spent the most time on by far: the Kenner Super Powers Fortress of Solitude playset.
I made this in 2013 as a wedding present for my good friend Daniel Pickett, uber collector and my partner on the Action Figure Insider website, to match his Tower of Darkness proof sheet. One of the most famous unproduced toys, the actual Tower of Darkness playset went into production just when the Super Powers toy line was cancelled. It was far enough along for packaging to get all the way to the printing proofs being pulled to check for any final flaws, and a few of those proof sheets made their way into the collecting community over the last decade. Daniel was able to snag not only the proof but also some blueprints for the playset and have the whole thing framed up nicely, so I though the perfect wedding gift would be an exact companion piece for a playset that never even was concepted. In a perfect world, I would have learned some 3D software and modeled the Fortress playset for the inset pictures. Instead, I ended up buying a lot of old Star Wars Hoth playsets on eBay and photographing them from every angle, then I chopped it all up in photoshop until I got the result I was looking for. Not perfect, but passable. Last step was to draw the front illustration in a style mimicking that of the original toy packaging, which was an exercise in frustration for a middling artist such as myself. All in all, though, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Daniel’s bride, Abby, sent me detailed pictures and measurements of his existing proof that I matched and then a colleague at work was nice enough to pull an actual proof from one of our printers, albeit not exactly a vintage Kodak one.
This was more or less following up one of my first package homages, the fabled unproduced 4th Wave of Super Powers figures created for the article that I wrote with James Sawyer in 2004 that first revealed their existence to the world. The great Matt Cauley, Daniel Pickett, and I made a bunch of custom figures to illustrate the article and then I created the packaging for all of them. Lots more frustrating fun trying to draw well enough to compete the illusion, but it worked OK. To this day I see these popping up all over the web. Heck, Mattel even lifted the art I did for the Gold Superman for their homage figure!
I followed these up with more packaging concepts, this time a look at what it might have been like if the Super Powers Collection had followed the Star Wars look instead, using photography of the existing (at the time) movie actors associated with each character. I also threw in some cosplayers for later series; I wrote more about these designs here.
Over the years I made a few full boxed toy mock-ups, too. When Super 7 and Funko released the Kenner Alien line that never originally saw the light of day, I though it would be fun to use an old Kenner Star Wars playset and redress it, as Kenner enjoyed doing for many toy lines. It’s so cost effective to reuse stuff like this that who knows, maybe one day we’ll see this type of thing actually be produced.
Now, obviously I’m copying a good bit of the original design from the Star Wars packaging. But even so, Kenner actually produced two Alien toys before dropping the line over parent complaints: a board game and the infamous 12: Alien figure (click on the image at right for a bigger view of this box). You can see from these packages that a design aesthetic has been established; using monotone set photos and liberal use of the light blue, plus rounded corners on all boxes. Not terribly far off from Star Wars, but enough that it should be it’s own thing. If you look at the packaging that was created for this new line, you can see they ignore a few of these design cues. For fun, I even looked at the two figure card designs they did and made one that would have been more in line with the vintage Kenner stuff. Granted, 99% of the audience for this line has no memory of the original packaging and what Super 7 did is more than fine for the line (I mean, they could have just created their own thing entirely).
That brings up a good point, though: for a lot of the new “retro” lines that are meant to be homages to the toys of the 1970s and 1980s it feels like they are using Star Wars packaging as the one and only template. I’m not going to point any figures and really there isn’t anything at all wrong with that! Star Wars designs were amazingly great, which is why they’ve stood the test of time. It did make me wonder what I would have done, if I was in the position to create new art that is meant to feel old? Luckily, my buddy Jason Lenzi, co-owner of Bif Bang Pow!, is in the retro figure game. And his current lines like Twilight Zone have not only been knocking them out of the park, but also aren’t trying to copy any old designs with the packaging. When Bif Bang Pow! announced they were going to be making figures based on the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, I practically begged Jason to let me play around in that world. And he graciously agreed to humor me! 😉 Now, I knew whatever I came up with wouldn’t be the final design as they have their own very capable design team, but it was fun to play around in my spare time with a lot of design ideas meant to at least open up a few ways to approach the actual packaging. The only direction was to try and work in the iconic poster by Richard Amsel, in case they didn’t use actor likenesses for the printed materials.
The first thing I did was to research actual vintage toy line designs, something I never gave much thought to before past the ones I had tried to reproduce. And I found that the designs were far from being uniform and in fact varied quite a bit in the way they treated each license. What was really surprising to me was that I had expected most of the figures to be packaged on the left hand side of the card, but in fact MORE lines put the figure on the right side. The overall takeaway was that each line tried to distinguish itself from what had come before, probably to stand out more on shelves. This strategy feels very different than the toy lines of today!
Keeping that in mind, I pretty much just went nuts with lots of variations, trying to find an iconic look that felt more old than new. I tried to pick up a lot of cues from the poster and soundtrack as those were some of the only official 1980 merchandise for the movie. Sure, I could go on and on about why I made some of these choices, how I thought using gold accents would be unlike any of the older lines, etc. But instead I’ll just show all the designs below. Final caveat: these are just explorations so there are a lot of rough edges to them (including using different existing figures to mock-up the new ones; the actual toys had not been sculpted when I was playing around). Had I taken any of them to final design I would have gone through a few rounds of refinement with the chosen concept.
I have to give a shout-out again to Jason Lenzi for letting me play around. While I ended up too busy at my day job to do much more than what you see here, it was immense fun to dip my feet back into the pool. And the actual final packaging that Bif Bang Pow! is producing turned out great! I’m just happy a few of my touches made it into the mix. I even get a shout-out on the back of the card!
And on that closing note, I’m off to create more stuff!