February 8, 2015

Q&A With Lanard Toys Designer Jonathan Blackburn

One day last year, while searching for more info on a few Lanard blasters, I came across the website of none other than their Senior Visual Development Designer, Jonathan Blackburn. Mr. Blackburn was kind enough to answer some questions via email last month, and I'm just now getting around to posting the conversation.

A big thanks to Jonathan! Read more after the jump.

My questions will be in black. Mr. Blackburn's answers and comments will be in blue.

1) How did you end up working on toy packaging/design? That seems like a very limited field to find a job in!

- This is actually a really interesting one. I had always freelancing from time to time as a (self-taught Photoshop Pro) over the last 15+ years in the fields of web development & design, but I had been actively working @ Good Sam / Affinity Group (for the Outdoor Recreation Industry) 9 years prior to my current position as Senior Visual Dev Designer at Lanard. The previous job I was "Multi-media web specialist" (whatever that means!- pretty wide-open title) Basically doing thousands of banner ads/mini-one page websites & print advertising for the largest RV outdoor recreation campground directories in the US.

I've always been an artist and had actively started competing (last 3 years) in local/national art design & competitions. So needless to say I didn't quit my dayjob, but I still had tons of creativity from the get-go. I actually got a random email one day that the "Design Director" @ Lanard Toys had seen my personal website & portfolio work just coming across it on the internet and though I would be perfect for a job opening. Wow. Chance in a lifetime right? Better believe I took it. Now I wasn't the only candidate, but I played my cards right and landed the job with flying colors.... personality / mindset / creativity and my body of artwork.

2) How long does it take to get the final design? Any research prior to starting the artwork, number of versions made, test studies on potential designs, etc. Just pick one of the product lines for an example. I count actually playing with the toy as research, by the way!

- As any creative team does in the industry, we go through (not always in this order) story boarding / color reference & theory / critique sessions from first-run ideas graphically and see what really pops. Stages are kind of like this: Brainstorm / Ideation / Initial Development / Further Refinement / Critiques / Final Designs

With any new development we research other products (sometimes a bit of brilliant engineering/testing) to see what we can do that is better, more feasable to our company needs and our audience as well. Playing with the toys is a MUST!! - PS: we do have a fire-pole to slide down from the second story at work!
But remember, even though on the surface it may come with the cool factor, this is still hard work, but can be very rewarding and fun all together.

3) Do competing brands (Nerf, etc.) influence the art direction of upcoming products, even if only in a general way? I know Lanard began making the "TOTAL CRUSH" blaster series shortly after the success of Nerf Rebelle, and many other brands have begun releasing blasters for girls, even if the only change is a pink motif or re-coloring.

- Everything (outside competitors) influences art direction if you let it. The key is to be different as much as possible but still retaining visibility & useability etc..
As for "Total Crush" there was a consensus that we SHOULD be doing dart gun related toys tailored to a girl market ASAP. As girls are super prominent in the market today (Disney's Brave for example) and it's a great way to tap a new market as well and NOT leave girls out that want to have fun as well!

4) Any information on upcoming blasters or lines? This question is the most likely to be unanswered, but I figured I'd see if you could throw out some kind of teaser.

- We have a few things in the works I can't detail or talk about, but we try to work way ahead of seasons.. that's all I can say for the time being. We are re-envisioning some of our older lines as well and putting finishing touches on new looks and functionality.

5) What is the most unusual or memorable part of your job, that people wouldn't expect to be in the job description?

- Little to my expectation in job description.. we are serious Jacks here. The job entails much more than just "I'm awesome at Photoshop!". From designer to marketing to physical 3D composition & refinement. We are always striving to be ahead of the trends.. because in essence trends are trends.. they don't last long. Setting new goals (at least myself) everyday is something that drives me. Focus and fun, managing time yet still being creative. That's why I love weekends off. To recharge my batteries. The team I work with is awesome as well. One cool family.

6) Care to pick a favorite project among your recent package design efforts? And explain why.

- My favorite project that I have recently worked on hasn't hit the market yet. But the Hong Kong toy fair is happening and we are receiving great early responses!

7) As an American, I naturally tend to think of things from that perspective. However, Lanard makes products for many international markets - for example, the Total Xstream Air ClearX Series was largely sold outside the United States (to the best of my knowledge). In what markets are most of the toys you've worked on being sold, and how does that affect marketing and art direction?

- I can say that I'm always striving to push more local market. Some buyers like to see a particular type of "thing" - and we make it for them. We also do private label things from time-to-time for Disney & other large parks. As for international, that just happens to be the way most toy companies operate in this day and age. Costing/where things are manufactured...etc... Sometimes it just happens to be an international product that a specific buyer want's to make exclusive or a market for a certain item opens up in that particular area of the world. Visibility is key.

A big thanks for all the answers, Jonathan! Please see his website to see more of his work!

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