Get social with Characters Engage

where the character driven industries meet

CE:  Could you tell us a little bit about how you started out. What did you study and what were your plans? 

JM:  I went to the University of Wisconsin Stout and graduated in 1994. With my degree in industrial design under my belt I was interested in designing anything you could throw at me. I was and still am interested in it all. After graduation I interviewed with consultancies, furniture companies, Puma and Toro. I ended up taking a job at Tivoli Too located in St. Paul, MN to work on licensed products. On a daily basis I got to work with all my buddies from Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, Hanna Barbara, Turner and one of my favorites... "Space Ghost"!

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The interview for Tivoli Too was pretty interesting. After I made it past my initial interview I was called in to do a test sculpt to show my 3D skills. The test was to sculpt a "Daffy Duck" head with reference from a style guide. I thought that was a fun way to test my skills and with my sculpting background from UW-Stout I was ready to hit it up. After a week I heard back and I got the job! This key position at Tivoli Too started me out into the toy design world.

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After about 3.5 years of working there I really wanted to do electronic learning based toys with a category leader. I thought Fisher-Price would be a great fit. At this point in time, in 1998, they were not hiring but I decided to shoot out a mailer portfolio anyway. About 2 weeks later I got a call and within 3 more weeks I had relocated to Buffalo, NY and was working with them! Don’t give up on a place just because they are not hiring. If you put your best foot forward and showcase your skills you never know what can happen. Put the work in to stand out from the crowd! Tailor your portfolio and even do some work as if for a new product from that company to show them that you can already do the job.

I spent about 4 years at Fisher-Price and then moved on to other exciting opportunities. But to this day one of my favorite places to have worked at over the past 17 years is Fisher-Price.

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CE:  Much of your professional career has been spent in the toy design arena. Is this what you set out to do, or how did you end up focusing on toy design?

JM:  To be honest I kind of fell into toy design. My job at Tivoli Too started this but I did not realize that it would be my focus for the years to come. I am really just a kid trapped in this 42 year old body. I watch "Yo Gabba Gabba" with my kids, play with toys, and walk the toy isles at Target and TRU on a weekly basis to keep up with the trends, price points and innovations.

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CE:  During your time at Tivoli Too, Fisher-Price, VTech and Leapfrog Toys you have worked on many iconic character based toy properties. Would you consider toy design for character-based toys to be a marriage between industrial design and character design?

JM:  There sure is a direct relationship between the two. First of all you have to have a toy concept that can stand up on its own before you apply any character assets. Secondly the concept should be in alignment with what the property is.

In the toy design field a lot of what we do as industrial designers is not really seen or recognized by most people. At Leapfrog, we have many stringent tests and qualifications that we run our toys past to get them into the marketplace. We deal with safety standards that surpass what we are legally bound to. We also design our toys to be more robust than those of other toy companies, in order to make them last. Another guard rail is the cost of developing these toys. As labor rates and material costs, like plastic, skyrocket, we have to be smart about how we design our products. Generally speaking, toys have changed their DNA considerably over the past 3 years.

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CE:  For the last five years you have worked as a preschool design manager for Leapfrog Toys, directing both their Emeryville and Hong Kong toy design teams. Could you tell us a little bit about what your job entails.

JM:  Working with designers here in Emeryville and in Hong Kong takes a lot of effective and consistent communication. We keep in touch in a variety of ways to make sure we are all feeling the “Leapfrog Pulse”. The direction on any toy can change any day and swift action is often needed to support and align with that new direction.

They say, a picture speaks a thousand words and I would say “3D speaks a million!”. We work pretty quickly here at Leapfrog. When I am working with some new ideas and I have some form factors in mind we run to the 3D and rapid prototyping to get them in kid's hands, engineer's hands and packaging engineer's hands to play with it, simulate performance and general share-out. Not many industrial designers work in Pro-E. I picked it up hesitantly about 7 years ago, but I am so glad I did. It really helps us communicate directly with Mechanical Engineering with our files. These types of improved communications are pricless. Speak the language and close the gaps.

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CE:  Apart from your work as a toy/industrial designer you concentrate on concept art, creating fantastic, stylish artwork. Where does your interest in concept art come from?

JM:  When I was younger I did not realize how much I like to create and draw. I have been drawing up toys and other products and packaging for about 15 years and always thought of drawing as something that had a direct connection with work. So when I went home the drawing stopped.

About 3 years ago in late 2009, with much inspiration from artists like Glenn Barr, Ashley Wood, Scott Robertson, Salvador Dali, Syd Mead and others, I put my spin on it and started my new adventure. I started drawing at night when my kids were asleep and dedicated my weekend mornings and late nights to getting in as many hours of practise as I could. I tried many different techniques during this time and pushed the limits in all areas. My sculpting and 3D background really helped with my sketching. It is all related. At UW-Stout our curriculum focused heavily on studio classes, as well as manufacturing and engineering. Good sketching skills take lots of time and practice. This is something that I see lacking in many portfolios that have come my way lately.


CE:  What are you working on at the moment?

JM:  Currently I am working on the 2013 product line for Leapfrog and I am starting on the 2014 line. Outside of work I am about to kick off a gallery show at two coffee shops at UC Berkeley. I am launching a new sketch series of roller skating women called “Woodpark Blvd”. There will be 6 limited edition prints that will be showcased and printed on wood, which will be a cool new process for me. I love producing my work in new mediums and showcasing new technologies whenever possible.

I also just launched a Kickstarter project to fund the publishing of my concept art book entitled “Don’t wake up… you are about to start dreaming / The Concept Art of Joe MacCarthy”. I am trying to raise money to publish this endeavor so I can put out 1,000 books and offer them to students at a really affordable price. I would also like to donate at least 30% of the books to low income schools in the Bay Area that might be a good fit for prospective art students. Here is the link for the project:

Please also check out Joe's website and his Coroflot portfolio for more samples of his great work:

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