The Designer Who Brought Plush Animals to Life

Marissa Louie and her plush animal creations

Marissa Louie, a 27-year-old male, has become emotionally attached to the Animoodles, a collection of magnetically detachable plush animal limbs and heads that can be switched to create animal hybrids. She founded the Designer’s Guild, a Facebook group with close to 15,000 members, where designers can communicate, share ideas, work together, and constructively criticize each other’s work. Marissa, former Apple Art Director and Yahoo Principal Designer, launched Portola Plush and developed its first item, the Animoodles. She has a plethora of design knowledge and has worked in interface and product design at Ness, Apple, and Yahoo, as well as helping launch tech businesses. Her diversified skill set from various positions, including design, marketing, public relations, and sales, was helpful in deciding to develop Animoodles.

It is unusual to come across someone whose passion for something is overflowing. A 27-year-old male (who will turn 28 in January) wouldn’t be expected to be enthralled with plush toys, but after only a short talk with Marissa Louie, I’ve become emotionally attached to the Animoodles, a collection of magnetically detachable limbs and heads that can be switched to create animal hybrids.

Through the Facebook group she founded called Designer’s Guild, where designers can communicate, share ideas, work together, and constructively criticize one another’s work, I got to know Marissa. With up to 100 new members joining every week, the club has close to 15,000 members and includes industry greats like Don Norman and Chris Do. Marissa herself possesses a plethora of design knowledge. Former Apple Art Director and Yahoo Principal Designer Marissa launched Portola Plush and developed its first item, the Animoodles. To read our discussion with Sarah and learn more about Animoodles, her background, the importance of narrative in design, the joy of launching your own creations, entrepreneurial advise for designers, and the urgent need for more women to hold executive and design positions, scroll down.

Marissa, hi! Let’s start our returnofdesign interview by getting to know you a little better! Tell us a little more about yourself, your goals, and where you’re from!

 In San Francisco, California, I shared a birth with a gray plush toy named Wuggie. I collected hundreds of plush animals as a youngster, studying every detail of each one. Along with my family, I too made up everyday stories about stuffed animals. Stuffed animals served as my first introduction to design and narrative. Over time, I developed into an art director, interaction designer, and product designer.

Describe how your career has developed!

 Since I didn’t go to design school, I learned how to design on my own. Among other digital companies and enterprises, I started my career in interface and product design at Ness, Apple, and Yahoo. I also helped launch a couple tech businesses. I’ve gained a diversified skill set from these many positions, including design, marketing, public relations, and sales. This was helpful in deciding to develop Animoodles.

How did you prepare for a profession in design? Was there a persistent desire to work in the creative field?

I’ve always paid attention to details and aesthetics. I was always fascinated to painting and arts and crafts as a youngster. Later, I developed an interest in photography and fashion design. Though I’ve always had a creative urge, it wasn’t until I finished college that I understood I would seriously pursue it.

How was it like to work for Yahoo before moving on to Apple? Was there a specific moment that sparked the development of the plush animals, Animoodles?

While working at Yahoo, I acquired the ability to design for a billion people for and Yahoo Search. I learned how to create simple, beautiful answers to issues while working as an art director at Apple. Although working in corporate was pleasant, I questioned whether I could make a bigger difference if I did anything else instead of just digital design. I came to the realization that my early love was plush animals as I was clutching the gray teddy bear I was born with. What if I used the design thinking I acquired while developing applications and websites to create plush animals, I wondered.

 Did you experience a paradigm shift with this change? How have your training in design and work experience equipped you for this role?

 Undoubtedly, a paradigm shift was place. I had a lot to learn in order to make Animoodles, but my experience in design gave me the knowledge I needed. I approach the creation of stuffed animals from the standpoint of design basics. The first necessity is to create stuffed creatures that people want, therefore I drew and tested out over 50 different designs. I learned sewing with professionals rather than designing pixels. I then used my existing expertise performing user testing for websites and mobile applications to playtest plush animal prototypes with kids. I spent three months creating the Animoodles brand and produced a 300-page brand book when I thought I was getting close to a product that people would like.

I also knew that creating Animoodles would require expertise in character design and art, so I enrolled in numerous courses in these fields to better interact with my potential team. I kept learning from the former Disney and Pixar artists I started working with.

Where did the idea for Animoodles and its removable limbs come from? How did the idea develop from its genesis to its final plush animal shape?

I started off by considering what types of unusual or interesting stuffed animals might be made. I sketched various ideas and noticed that many of them included hybrid animals. I envisioned the plush animals’ limbs separating and dancing around with one another while eating supper with my spouse.

I spotted the beginnings of a good idea there right away. I then thought of several materials and techniques for removing the appendages, including Velcro, but nothing seemed as simple as magnets.

I made crude prototypes of plush animals with magnetic limbs, and I had kids test them. The answer was not as enthusiastic at first as I had hoped. In order to make the character concepts come to life, I worked with Dan Holland on character design and a plastic animal prototyper.

I tested prototypes with magnet joints and Velcro joints on more than 50 kids from all around the country. The magnet-jointed plush creatures with wonderful character designs were clearly the winners. Because of the children’s input, I altered the magnet-jointed plush animals to create Animoodles.

The Animoodles, in my opinion, are a superb illustration of storytelling through design (particularly when you consider how story-focused your target demographic is). How important do you think it is to make an audience feel something?

We design the personality and look of every character in an Animoodle. We take into account the character’s place in the Animoodles world. We enquire about the character’s background, goals, and reasons for acting the way they did, as well as their flaws. Because it’s vital to emotionally connect with clients, we follow a strict narrative creation and character design process.

It’s critical for designers to know what their target consumers want. People want their stuffed animals to be cute, so we studied what makes characters charming, such as attractive yet distinctive features and characteristics. To make our characters more relatable to readers, we offer them human traits. To make people emotionally immersed in the tales and universes we create, we want them to fall in love with our characters. I am certain that Animoodles would not be as appealing if we hadn’t given story first priority.

Describe the development of the plush Animoodles creatures. What constraints, worries, and challenges did the creation of the prototype and subsequent mass production face?

The key distinction between Animoodles and other plush animals is their magnetic joints. We had to get the magnetic connections just right. The magnets have to be strong enough, safely enclosed inside each plush component, and long-lasting.

We made sure the magnet housing was not only reliable and safe, but also easy to manufacture. Every part of Animoodles must be scaled down in terms of both production methods and materials in order to produce everything that was shown in our prototypes.

Marissa Louie plush animal creations

Making items for mass production necessitates making compromises since the specific materials utilized in our prototypes might not be accessible in big quantities. I work closely with the production team to select the final colors and materials to make sure that our consumers receive well-designed items that are true to our original concept for each character.

I anticipate that there were many potential for professional growth during the entire process. Is there anything about design school that you wish you had known? Any skills outside of design have you developed?

I wish I had learnt how to create items with a sizable profit margin in design school, as well as how to analyze market and design trends to find ideas for fresh products. Production and time management are the most significant non-design skills I’ve picked up while working on Animoodles. Being a CEO who is highly hands-on, it’s crucial for me to have understanding in every crucial area needed to launch Animoodles and guarantee its success.

 Designers are often not trained to be business owners. We make a lot of creative decisions in our job, yet we hardly ever see designers become business owners. What advice would you provide to designers who want to start their own businesses?

 You must approach entrepreneurship seriously if you want to be successful. It calls for a totally different set of abilities than design. I suggest acquiring a broad variety of abilities, such as management, marketing and public relations, sales, finance, and production, for physical product designers who are interested in starting their own businesses. Although it took me many years to become proficient in these talents, my early decision to broaden my skill set beyond design has given me the ability to effectively oversee all element of my business.

Many student or personal design projects never get past the idea stage. What pointers would you provide designers to help them realize their ideas?

It may be incredibly difficult for someone without prior experience to produce tangible items.

Your intended end users may help you test your prototypes, and you can then improve your product based on their suggestions.

For your product, establish specialized production and sales relationships. These relationships might take years to develop, so make sure to start before you need them.

Ask distributors and merchants what they would charge customers and what they would pay for your goods. Before starting manufacturing, be sure you can create the product at the specified wholesale price.

I recall that you once made a really astute statement about how every CEO of the top 20 toy businesses was a man. I think there is a serious dearth of female designers in our field as well. What have you discovered? Which view do you hold?

 The fact that ALL of the CEOs of the top toy companies are men is unacceptable. Males still occupy the highest posts, despite the best efforts of well-meaning persons who elevate women to senior roles. It sends the wrong message to their businesses and the whole toy industry. This has to be disturbed, and soon. Role models at the top are needed for young women to aspire to. Furthermore, it defies logic that the CEOs of the top toy businesses are all men given that moms and women make up the majority of toy purchasers. I anticipate that the toy industry’s influences of the future will be varied.

A brand-new line of animal plush toys called Animoodles, now in its second generation, has just been introduced. What new elements have you included to the first season? What changed between last time and this time?

 The Animoodles plot continues from the first collection, and it picks up with the characters in Animoodles Collection 1: Wild Jungle arriving in Storytale Forest. Each Animoodle there has a special storytelling ability, such as singing, acting, directing, crafting, painting, and story writing. Six entirely new, compatible Animoodles characters are included in The Animoodles Collection 2: Storybook Forest. We developed this line in response to customer requests. And they specifically asked for the characters to be included! These new figures are not only cute, but their fur is softer than before. The magnet joints have also been improved, resulting in an increase in magnetic strength. Last but not least, Animoodles Collection 2: Storybook Forest is presently up for financing on Kickstarter, with orders arriving in the US before Christmas. We produced and released Animoodles Collection 2 in around six months.

For further information

You can check my site or contact me on LinkedIn

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