Designer Interview: Speaking with Shawn of Shawnimals

December 6, 2011

Designer Interview: Speaking with Shawn of Shawnimals

Shawn "Shawnimal" Smith, the visionary behind Shawnimals, began to develop his distinctive style of art as a kid obsessed with cartoons, comics, video games, and drawing pictures. Not satisfied with simply drawing his favorite cartoon and comic book characters, he felt compelled to create his own, inspired by all that he loved.

Shawnimals products run the gamut including plush toys, collectible vinyl, apparel, lifestyle accessories, mobile games, video games, comics and much more.

Design, shawnimals, interview

Smith's interest in toys and video game culture eventually landed him a job at popular US gaming magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly as a game reviewer and gadget editor but, naturally, his love for art and design led him back to school where he earned his BFA in Painting.

Smith also maintains an active studio practice creating drawings, paintings, sculpture and collage that have been featured in galleries and exhibitions all over the world. Drawing influence from a variety of pop-cultural movements like cartoons and video games, the artwork of Shawn Smith can be described as endearing, and humorous while maintaining a simple quality that makes it universally relatable. He agreed to speak with me and share some insight into his life as a toy designer and artist and how he came into his current success.

Design, shawnimals, interview

Where did you grow up?

Joliet, IL about an hour southwest of Chicago.

What did your parents do for a living?

My mom worked in the insurance industry doing data entry and some kind of customer service. My dad had several different jobs, some in local government and insurance.

That's pretty far removed from the creative world, what was the first sign, or when did you decide you were going to be in the creative field?

True. Although, I remember my dad showing me drawings he did when he was younger, which were really fantastic. He was also a singer prior to his career, and played with big bands. So I think the creative spirit came from him. I have four brothers and one sister, and several of my brothers drew comics for fun, and are creative thinkers in general (although not professionally).

Almost every designer I have interviewed had a brother into comics... any comics stand out in your mind?

I was just thinking about comics recently. There are the usual suspects which I loved like Punisher, Wolverine and McFarlane's Spiderman. But more than those, there are a couple gems that were pretty influential to me. A small series called The Last American and another short-lived series called Trencher.

Of course, can't forget Maxx, the Tick and early TMNT..

I remember Trencher. From Image, right? A short-lived book, but I remember feeling sorry for the guy who had to color those books with all the line weight and so much detail.

Yeah, an Image off-shoot or some affiliation. Those details are exactly what got me excited about that book visually.

It's funny how often Todd McFarlane's name comes up as well, as well as TMNT.

Yeah, McFarlane's style is so crazy and overblown now, but then it made a huge impact. And those early TMNT books are just straight up cool.

What about Geoff Darrow are you a fan of his? He is known for his detail. I always thought of Keith Griffen as a stylized version of Darrow?

Ah, yeah. Now that you show me, I have seen his work before and enjoyed it. Didn't realize who it was though, so can't say I'm a straight up fan.

So what was your first step into the visual communication field?

Grade school art projects. I drew this cave with an opening and tracks going into it (no doubt inspired by Temple of Doom) and then did a mine cart with a dude inside on a separate sheet. Cut that out with a long piece of paper attached to it, then made a slit in the cave entrance. Put the "handle" of that cart through it, and could make the cart go into the cave on the tracks! Teacher loved it, made it a project, loved that feeling.

Design, shawnimals, interview

So did you go to college for design?

No, I went to junior college for two years, landed a job as a reviewer at Electronic Gaming Monthly, and took some time off. I went back to college in 2001, where I received my BFA in painting in 2003.

Interesting, after seeing the game industry and how regimented the creative industry is, why painting, why not design?

I do love design, but I also love getting my hands dirty. Fine art — especially at that time in my life — just made sense. I didn't want to go get another job, I wanted to go to school. Design just didn't feel like the right move. It felt like getting another job. I wanted freedom.

So what stood out about the painting degree? Any philosophies stand out? anyone really make a difference in your education?

I had been painting for a number of years prior to making the leap, so it seemed like a natural progression. Once I went back to school, the real reasons revealed themselves: Direct manipulation of color and texture, and developing / understanding my conceptual basis (what was driving my body of work?).

Jim Mai at Illinois State University made the biggest difference, not to mention Shona MacDonald, and Steve Sherrell at Joliet Junior College before that.

What did they drive home for you?

Coupling formal considerations with a strong conceptual basis. Ask a lot of questions to truly, fully understand your work, and then, somehow, back out of all that and let the work stand on its own. I suppose it's about confidence through the trial of making and understanding.

So you get a degree in painting. Then what, what's next, still reviewing video games at this point?

Not so much, except for a bit of freelance. During my time at ISU, I started making these things which would eventually become Shawnimals. It didn't hurt that I was in the middle of Illinois in a college town where the cost of living was insanely low.

So lets talk about shawnimals. When did that idea really manifest itself?

It's been gradual with plateaus, so let's start toward the beginning. First there was making stuff that people seemed to like, so I made a website to show them off. Then there was our first press with Daily Candy in Dec. of 2002 which exposed it to a wider audience (400+ emails overnight). Then there was moving to Chicago and realizing there was this designer toy thing happening. Then stores, then press, then focusing on it as a business and going full time. After that, Nintendo DS, factory-made product, iPhone game, and so on and so on... That, of course, is the condensed version.

Wow, that makes it sound like it happened very fast. Did you have a "normal" job during that evolution?

No, not really. Freelance illustration, little web site jobs, a bit of writing for the game industry but not really much at all. And then Shawnimals. In 2005 my wife Jen and I just looked at each other and asked, "What the hell are we doing?" We had received press in Entertainment Weekly, Spin, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and others that year, and we realized we needed to focus on it or we'd always be spinning our wheels.

So, how does Ninjatown fit in to the picture?

As we were creating characters and populating the lands in our world, we realized that those lands were more or less brands. Ninjatown had been the first of these lands we focused on with regard to development, and we quickly realized it could be a brand on its own. We think of it now as a gateway to the rest of the Shawnimals world, which is perfect because they're also the protectors of all of Shawnimaland.

People can come to Ninjatown and say, "Hey! Cool! Ninjas!" and only play the iPhone game. Others know the DS and get into the characters and the story. Others are hardcore fans that know EVERYTHING about Ninjatown, and we love it. All of these types are awesome though, because it illustrates the appeal of Ninjatown.

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Whats the concept of Shawnimaland? Where does it come from creatively?

Shawnimaland was born out of necessity and a general desire to make maps. I did this as a kid for army guys and robot wars or whatever. The necessity part was an attempt to make sense of the characters we were creating. We made a lot of blobs and Splugs. Oh, those should go into a bog-like place. Blob Bog was born. We made a lot of ninjas, so we should make a place for them. Ninjatown. And so on down the line. We then came up with a map that mimicked the U.S. generally, and Shawnimaland was born.

It gives perspective. These characters are designs, but they're also characters and they live somewhere. Or perhaps rather than perspective, Shawnimaland provides context.

Give me a sense of your creative process? You mentioned you did some editorial work, and website design in the beginning. Do you have a standard process, something that leads the idea to the completion of the project?

The concept phase is nebulous at times. Probably better that that part isn't formulaic. Concepts can come from anything really. But after something is hit on, then it enters our usual process. An initial sketch that feels sticky is discussed internally. If people are feeling it, we refine and talk colors, story / context, what kind of product(s), etc. We do two basic versions of the character with regard to illustrations: A static "front" view and a more dynamic action view. Take Ninja of the Month for instance. We can then use those illustrations in a variety of ways. Of course, we create other assets as needed, but these things help establish solid guidelines for a particular character. Then we move onto the product side, which has its own steps depending on the intended result.

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What is the best thing about the designer toy industry? And whats the worst?

Best is freedom to put the emphasis on what you want to do creatively, rather than on the bottom line. The worst is it's small, and if you want to build a company that can sustain itself, it can be extremely tricky. However, it can't really be both, can it? We realized it's not all or nothing, its more nuanced than that, and, in fact, we live in a time when we can be big and small, as long as we're clear with our fans about what's what.

Design, shawnimals, interview

Any advice to anyone thinking about getting into the designer toy business?

Make something you're truly passionate about, tell people about it and try to sell it to those people. Whether it's plush, resin-cast toys, or something else entirely, it's so much easier than it used to be to do this stuff. Doesn't mean you'll succeed, of course, but you might as well if you can afford to give it a shot. If after that point you feel like it has traction, then do the due diligence and figure out how best to start a business for real. As in within the legal boundaries of our world. 37signals has a great book called REWORK, and, besides reading that, talk to people who are smarter than you about business and ask a lot of questions. And then most of all, be OK with not succeeding. There are so many things you could do, just try a lot of them.

What role did the web play in shawnimals success?

We were in the middle of Illinois. Normal, Illinois to be exact. I made a basic web site, used Paypal "buy now" buttons and s***** code. But the info and items were there 24-7. Word spread, and orders came in. I used to ship stuff with free boxes and tape from USPS. Now you can streamline most or all of that. Big Cartel, Shopify, Etsy, Big Commerce, etc. and integrated shipping solutions like Endicia. Integrated accounting solutions like Less Accounting. Integrated fulfillment solutions like ShipWire. Integrated e-newsletter solutions like MailChimp. Easy payment processing with Square or Braintree. Any sized company, for relatively little money. It's kind of insane really. And that's just the e-commerce side. You have Facebook, Twitter, YouTube / vimeo, and tons more for marketing and PR. Doesn't mean you can just s*** something out and think it'll work, but some major hurdles have been totally equalized.

What about social media, how has that helped your business, do you even need a marketing budget with the Internet the way it is?

Not yet. We do want to try our hand at a larger campaign at some point, but for our size, the money spent can be recouped that easily. So if we have 3,000 pieces of inventory, do we spend $5,000 to do a realitively big push? Doesn't compute. We're just not there yet. Social media levels the playing field. And besides, we're dealing with an enthusiast audience. They know the marketing tricks. They want to talk to us about what we make, and we're flattered so we talk back.

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Do you have a favorite character you have designed, much like Mickey Mouse is the flagship of the Disney characters, who's your Mickey Mouse?

Wee Ninja for sure. It couldn't be simpler and still read as a ninja, yet it's provided us so much of a creative outlet. Not to mention the DS game and such.

Getting a nintendo game seems like a HUGE accomplishment, how did that go down?

I am friends with pals in the industry, including some that were starting a production company. Pickle King Productions knew Jeremy Pope from Cashmere, and then SouthPeak Games was looking for new IP. Connections were made, ideas were pitched, and a game deal came from it. We then hooked up with Venan, and the rest is history. We then went on to do the iPhone game with Venan as well.

Fantastic, it's a really colorful, well thought out world, when it comes to branding do you do all that yourself, or did you bring in a design firm or creative agency for help?

Thank you. We do all of the creative in house. We have the good fortune of having a great team, with a lot of unencumbered thinkers. Not to mention my insane brain. It's a great combination of our respective talents.

That's great. What's the future for Shawnimals? Anything you can tell us?

Video games (whether console or mobile) make a lot of sense, since it's such a powerful medium for story-telling and character interaction. We are also doing more with apps in general, specifically a killer Ninjatown avatar creator. Beyond the interactive side, animation is a no-brainer. How and with whom we do that specifically? That is not yet written.

Oh, and lots of toys and other character-branded goods.

Design, shawnimals, interview

Can you leave us with your favorite quote about the creative world?

Let's go with "Less is More."

Thanks Shawn!

Design, shawnimals, interview

Shawnimals is a character design studio that believes in the power of unbridled, astonishing, ridiculous joy. Each Shawnimal comes with its own story that starts in the Shawnimaland universe, but is then given over to you to continue each unique creature's adventure in your own universe. Their huggable friends appear as designer toys, lifestyle accessories, apparel, comic books, video games, and as anything that fosters companionship, and they believe that "the best artistic experiences are participatory and affordable, and that – with an open heart – friendship can happen between you and just about anything. Even facial hair. "

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Designer Interview: Eric Torres (Part II)

Cory Skaaren

Cory Skaaren

Creative Director. Problem Solver. Thinker. Principal at Skaaren Design. Follow me at @skaarendesign.

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