Epiphanies Art director Vanessa Dewey on moments of realization

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How do creatives know what they're good at? When do they find out? And when they know, what happens next? In this series, Epiphanies, we explore those questions...

Sometimes the perfect career is not something you ever imagined you’d be doing. Vanessa Dewey explored several paths before landing many children’s dream job, as art director at toy giant Mattel, where she is in charge of packaging. Who wouldn’t want to design the look and feel of amazing toys like Hot Wheels, BOOMco, Barbie and more? And although her previous ventures seem to be completely unrelated, there is one common thread – connecting creative people and cultures with one another.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a kid, like five or six I actually wanted to go into archeology. I was submerged in lots of history; my family’s history is really deeply rooted in America. I have ancestors from the pilgrims and the Mayflower and my grandfather’s cousin was the founder of the Dewey Decimal System.

So I was surrounded by a lot of history and I was fascinated with learning about these different cultures. I found those older times fascinated me – the interactions between people and how they connected with their culture.

Illustration by Jordy van den Nieuwendijk
Illustration by Jordy van den Nieuwendijk

So what happened then? Now you are in a totally different field!

Yes, I actually ended up in a different field before this even. I was two semesters away from graduating with a double major in International Relations and French. Again, it was the cultural aspect of it. I wanted to go in the foreign service and I lived in South Africa for a bit. There was just something about languages and cultures and how people interacted.

But I became disenchanted with it after one summer program studying at a language institute where most of my friends were artists. It just became too financially-based for me, the direction my degree was going in. There was something with the art, with being creative.

There was that connection I was looking for – connecting with people, connecting with culture through design. It really fascinated me. It allows me to use both the left and the right side of my brain, so that’s why I ended up going to design.

Do you remember the moment you had that realization?

It was my last semester at my college and I decided to take a course from the design program. Something just clicked like, “this makes sense,” even though it was a basic color course. There was something there that combined with everything else which had been swirling in my head.

After I got back from studying abroad in Africa, I ended up going to art school. Purchase College is part of the New York system, and has an amazing creative programme, from music to graphic design. I got my BFA in graphic design there in about two and a half years. Let’s just say my summers were spent studying…

Right now you work for Mattel – what’s people’s response when they hear about your job?

I think right away there’s that connection that occurs, because Mattel has been around for 70 years, so it has had an integral part in our parents’ lives, our siblings’ lives and so on. There’s something that connects right away. More often than not, when I meet people at a conference or something, people will say, “Oh my favorite toy was this” or, “I grew up with all these Barbies.”

There’s that nostalgic moment that goes back to our childhood, when we didn’t have all the chaos of adult life.

You work on the packaging and branding right? Can you tell me how you got into that?

I’ve done different types of graphic design, and while I was in art school I wasn’t focused per se on packaging. But one of my uncles worked in the advertising industry and he always told me to get packaging on my portfolio so it was always in the back of my mind.

Fast forward six years, I had the opportunity to meet with Mattel and I’ve been here for eight years now. It just happened, I guess. I didn’t pursue it.

I work in a division called ToyBox which has a lot of brands. There is flexibility because it’s like a smaller company within a large company. We are able to do a lot of quick projects, from concept to finish within six months. So I have had the pleasure of working on multiple things.

What kind of research do you do before you start on a new toy?

Besides alignment on strategy with our marketing counterparts, we also look outside to see what is going on, to check out other interesting brand packaging. For example we could look at what electronics do, and maybe we could apply that to our own toy packaging. I use Pinterest quite a bit, for mood boards and to see what’s out there. And then also, especially with games, we play it multiple times so you get used to the play pattern.