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As VP of product design, ASU alum helps keep the magic alive at Disney

Industrial design grad leads teams that create toys from Disney movies, TV shows; she shared career tips at a recent campus event

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

Tracy Thurman, who graduated with a degree in industrial design from ASU in 1993, is the 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 a daughter who are students here.

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

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

“I did many presentations in this area right 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.”

Her time at ASU

Thurman was briefly an architecture major before an adviser guided her toward industrial design.

“I’ve always been very creative, I love thinking outside the box and I was always very artistic,” she said.

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

She said some of the best advice she received was to begin working in her field as soon as possible. So the summer after her first year, she got an internship at an industrial design firm that made computer housings.

“I had to pick shades of gray,” she said. “I would spend a month during the summer working on vent design.

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

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

“I actually got my portfolio together and dressed up and went to the office and knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m really interested in working for you. If you give me a project, I’ll 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 they had a job waiting for me and I worked for them for three years.”

Looney Tunes and Harry Potter

The toy-inventing company pitched its ideas to the large companies, and Thurman realized she wanted to work at Mattel, the largest toymaker. She was rejected four times before finally getting hired at an entry-level design job. She eventually worked her way up to management.

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

“I came up with 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 it was starting its Los Angeles office.

“There was no staff, no processes for dolls and girl-targeted toys. They never designed any of these products before, and we needed to find factories,” she said.

“They said, ‘You have need to create new brands and get them to market to make money and get this Los Angeles office going in the next two years.”

She started 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 was traveling to China an awful lot and we were building the plane while flying it,” she said.

Designing for Disney

Then, she got a call recruiting her to 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 also was inspired by Walt Disney.

“Not only was he an amazing artist and filmmaker, but he was one of the first people to figure out how to take those beloved characters in films and create merchandise and experiences that people can relive over and over and bring into their everyday lives,” she said.

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

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

From show to shelf

Thurman described the product design process and how teams collaborate closely, especially on the TV shows, where the toy designers are sometimes involved in creating the look of the TV characters. That’s what happened with “Mickey and the Roadster Racers.”

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

The team did a lot of research.

“We wanted to understand how kids play with cars, what’s fun about them,” she said.

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

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

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

“No” is not allowed.

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

“But that hinders creative thinking,” she said.

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

“We were brainstorming ‘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 weigh in. Size, features, colors and price point are determined.

“We start to understand what can and can’t be done. This is when we say ‘no.’ "

Then prototypes are developed.

“They send samples to us, and we’ll play with them to make sure they’re functioning the right way,” she said.

Finally, the toy is produced. In the case of "Mickey and the Roadster Racers," it’s a little sedan that transforms into a racing car with a posable Mickey Mouse driver, targeted to preschoolers.

Pandemic challenges

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

“People wanted happiness, and our product sales are through the roof,” she said.

But the process changed as the teams worked from home.

“Brainstorming was very different. We did Zoom and breakout rooms, but there is nothing like being together. There’s an energy there,” she said.

On the other hand, Thurman liked that everyone’s face on Zoom is equal.

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

“That was one thing I find great about Zoom.”

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

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

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

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

Sustainability

Thurman said that designing for sustainability is very important.

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

“The hardest thing with plastic is that science hasn’t caught up yet. We have sugar-cane-based plastic but nothing that’s been able to be the same as what a traditional toy is made out of.”

Recently, Disney released a doll in a closed box without a plastic window.

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

Ask for advice

Thurman offered several career tips to the ASU students:

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

Top image: Tracy Thurman, vice president of product design for Disney parks, experiences and products, speaks to an industrial design class on the bridge between Design North and South on the Tempe campus on Nov. 8. Thurman graduated from ASU with a bachelor's degree in industrial design in 1993. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

marybeth.faller@asu.edu