Having the opportunity to walk into a room entirely dedicated to Transformers is my 7 year old self’s dream. As I was ushered into the room, I looked down the long conference table and my eyes couldn’t help but focus on the array of really amazingly supercool toys sitting on the shelf behind the table. As my internal monologue ran, “be cool be cool be cool,” my external self managed to emit noises that sounded more or less like adult-sized words. Sitting down, the design team looked at my purple and black striped Joker-inspired blazer and plopped a Transformer right next to my iPad to keep me company while I asked all my questions.
As I relaxed into the interview, my natural curiosity took over. The elephant in the room for me in terms of design was the Titans Return Fortress Maximus (see GeekDad Anthony’s review here). In a nutshell, this is a three mode conversion figure that also connects with other figures. The difficulty of the design process, according to the team, lies in the expectations that the toy will be the same as the character. This meant that there were challenges to having the head be able to be removed and to create a sense of stacking dolls for the robot. John Warden, the Design Manager, noted, “As we work through the design challenges, we wanted to pay respect to the original chapters. When you design, there are engineering challenges. For example, the hips have to bear a lot of weight. You have to make sure that the different parts would work. When you design toys, the customer only gets the end results, but we have a meeting every week to discuss these kinds of issues.”
Throughout the interview, the team’s dedication to the characters and the stories was inspiring. To this team, products are more than the end result, they are a labor of love and a passion. Mr. Warden continued by telling me that his plan for the designs “depends on the toy line and where they start. My work on Generations might not be the same as for Titans Return. Although Generations and Titans Return are playing with characters from the late ’80s, these characters are really resonating with new and old fans, so we’re trying to keep in that universe. We want to look at the range of fans and at characters’ universal appeals. We have to choose characters based on not just popularity but also purpose into the line.” It’s this commitment to both the toys as an item as well as the stories within the Transformers universe that was ultimately inspiring.
The desire to tell stories that inspire imaginative play warmed my parenting heart. Most toys with deep backgrounds tend to lead children down a path of play that confines their imaginations. However, the Transformers team was clear their goal lies in allowing kids to expand their own creativity through play. Ben Montano noted, “we have a lot of great writers on our team. These guys spend a lot of time working with my team and working on the stories–even if Sean [Carmine Isabella, Designer for Robots in Disguise] isn’t writing the story, he’s working with the team that’s working on the story. It’s not just a verbal thing, it has to be sold in words to get people connected to an idea.” This sense that the play is extended through and initiated by the stories intrigued me. Mr. Montano continued, “For us, there’s a story in every character and for every toy we design, whether it’s two lines coming together or something else. Sometimes it’s just putting the names together to make a new character, but more and more the fans want to know things.” Most toys, as the team noted, are based in the idea of selling an item. Transformers’ brand sells creativity and play that connects across various media lines.
Most enjoyable when spending time with the team is the sense of comradery through creativity. Mr. Warden noted, “the nature of the creative process is great. No one really owns any idea; we’re on a great team. When you’re on a great team so many people bring great ideas to the table, and everyone is able to add to it. When you look at the spine that goes through, it’s a winding road not a straight line. Sometimes ideas come in a great flash and sometimes those ideas come to fruition and some don’t.” These ideas are related to all aspects of the process since play pattern is integral to the consumer’s approach to the figures and age. However, other design elements are equally important.
Whether it’s the play pattern, the names, or the colors, the integration of these multiple factors matters. Sean Carmine Isabella shared, “we want it to good look, but the biggest challenge is to not put a barrier in the play patterns. Play pattern starts with the core audience, so we talk to the age range. We look at what TV shows they’re watching, what cartoons they’re watching. We want to see what’s speaking to kids today.” Ben Montano follows up by noting that the different age ranges “definitely complicates things. The duality [of both toy and consumer are] what makes us unique.” Mr. Carmine Isabella shared that the integrative approach matters because “it’s a back and forth process. We’ll think about the colors and if it doesn’t make sense with the story backroad then it’s not going to work. The kids need to be able to connect to it.”
At the end of the day, however, the Transformers story is all about love and passion. Talking to these four gentlemen, their love of their jobs and their commitment to the characters shines. Louis De Armas, who works on marketing for Generations, brought it all back around at the end of the interview, “The passion is important when we come to these conventions. It’s fulfilling. We’re trying to scratch the itch for the characters that they love and then bring in more people because they love it.” Perhaps, however, Mr. Carmine Isabella summed it up best, “It’s kind of silly to think but it all starts with love, and we really love Transformers. Everyone on the team gets really excited about it.”
And you know what? That excitement is palpable and contagious because after a half hour with these guys, I was even more in love with Transformers and even more excited about them.