I designed the first gender-neutral doll line, which keeps labels out and invites everyone in

I designed the first gender-neutral doll line, which keeps labels out and invites everyone in

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Etienne Germain

Be You Network launched the role model campaign "Gender Shapers 2020,” a worldwide series of gender+ entrepreneurs' portraits. They will share their stories, their business journeys, and advice on how to bring an idea into reality, from launch to impact.

This week, we had a talk with Linda Jiang, Senior Designer at Mattel. They designed Creatable World, the first gender-neutral doll line. She told us about her journey designing this stunning innovative doll line and talks about the importance of research and design prototypes.

My name is Linda Jiang and I am a toy designer living in Los Angeles, California. I design fashion dolls at Mattel, and I am the lead designer of Creatable World, a gender-inclusive doll line.

Growing up as a first generation Asian American, my first language was Mandarin. I learned to speak English when I started attending elementary school, and it was difficult connecting to other kids in my grade due to language and cultural barriers. My parents didn’t raise my sisters and me to conform to gender stereotypes and beauty standards - this is something we didn’t realize until we were adults and I deeply appreciate my parents for that.

Since expressing myself through words wasn't something I was comfortable doing, I loved dressing up to express myself. Even as a kid, I would always put on something that made me feel good about myself or matched my mood. Whether it was wearing dresses, a matching sweat suit, or jeans with patches - I wouldn’t leave the house unless I was wearing something that expressed myself. It’s something I still do, to this day! Expressing myself through fashion was my first gateway into wanting to pursue a creative path in life.

I’ve always loved design. Through toys, I can design something with purpose and meaning.

Other than my mom, I was not surrounded by many artists during my upbringing. A majority of my peers and their parents were involved with science, engineering, mathematics, or physics. My dad is an engineer, so this is where I get my practical & analytical side from. My mom is very creative and very clever, she always had ingenious solutions to enhancing a product to better suit her needs. She forever inspires me and encourages me to think critically and creatively.

During my last year of high school, I embraced that a creative career was my calling, so I seriously and actively pursued a way to go to art & design school. I am forever grateful to Lee Akamichi, my studio art teacher who helped me put together my portfolio so I could apply to an art & design school. Through creating art for my portfolio, I realized I enjoyed creating things with purpose.

They eventually supported me going to art school when they saw how passionate and serious I was about becoming a designer.

My path into art school was not easy. Like many Asian Americans, pursuing a career in the creative field is uncommon. My parents sacrificed nearly everything they had to immigrate to America for the future of their children, and becoming a designer wasn’t what they had envisioned for me. I constantly fought with my parents, pleading to let me go to art school. They eventually supported me going to art school when they saw how passionate and serious I was about becoming a designer.

When I was seventeen, I moved to Los Angeles to attend Otis College of Art and Design. At first, I was nervous I wouldn’t know which major to choose. But once I visited Otis’ Toy Design department, I realized Toy Design would allow me to develop skills in fashion design, product design, and graphic design. Toy Design was everything I was interested in, and I felt that designing toys is where I could make the most impact with my work. In 2013, I graduated with a BFA in Toy Design.

Across all cultures, to play is fundamental to a child’s growth and development.

Across all cultures, to play is fundamental to a child’s growth and development. We make emotional connections to our favorite toys from our childhood. Through play, we learn to make decisions, to be social, and exercise creativity. We act out stories and imagine the world from different perspectives. We practice communication, problem solving, and empathy. Toys allow kids to build emotional skills, and toys shape their ability to interpret the increasingly diverse world around them. It’s important for me, as a doll designer, to provide options in the mainstream market for children to easily identify with, in terms of race or gender.

Prior to designing Creatable World, I’ve designed for toy lines such as Disney Princess, Disney Junior, LittleMommy, Polly Pocket, Kuu Kuu Harajuku and WWE Superstars. These projects taught me to design with the consumers in mind, and that most toys are created to align with gender stereotypes. Gender is a social construct: in our society, doll play has been defined as “for girls” and action figures “for boys” - but we know kids are willing to cross gender boundaries that are placed on toys.

Toys are a reflection of our culture and our everyday life.

Mattel is at the forefront of evolution. In the past five years, Mattel has committed to a journey of racial, gender, and non-ableist inclusion. There are Mattel dolls with different body types, heights, skin tones, and dolls with wheelchairs and prosthetics.

With the conception of Creatable World, we looked at white space in the toy market and compared it with a consumer base that hadn’t been served through the toys we make. Through our research, we confirmed that kids don’t want their toys to be dictated by gender norms. We met with our consumers and listened to what kids and adults all over the country had to say about toys. The Creatable World doll was initially tested with 250 families across 7 states, including 15 children who identify as trans, gender-nonbinary and/or gender fluid. The doll tested positively with kids who, for the first time, saw themselves: a doll that could transform and be reimagined into multiple images, a doll with no labels that invites all kids to play.

Representation is critical not just in fashion dolls, but in all walks of life. Representation tells someone they are seen.

Creatable World is a customizable doll line that serves as a blank canvas for kids to create their own characters with endless combinations, all in one box. Every piece in a Creatable World deluxe kit allows a child open play, and could represent anyone. One child’s doll could look completely different than somebody else’s, while still representing themselves or someone the child could have in their everyday life.

If I could sum up the vision of Creatable World in one statement, it would be these words from Chella Man: “If I exist in this world, then I deserve to be represented.”

Representation is critical not just in fashion dolls, but in all walks of life. Representation tells someone they are seen. When kids are at an age where they are just starting to learn who they are, it’s essential they know their identity matters.

The journey in the research, design, development, and launch of Creatable World took about two years.

When designing Creatable World, I designed with inclusion and diversity in mind at every step of the process. Every decision was made with care, thoughtfulness, and empathy. We’re surrounded by beauty every day and it comes in many different faces and forms. I want Creatable World to celebrate that beauty.

I spent every waking minute thinking about, researching, and designing for Creatable World. If I was out running errands, I would be people-watching. I’d observe what they wore to find a commonality in how people, regardless of gender, style themselves. I meticulously researched clothing, hair styles, and hair textures. I educated myself, and listened to activists and leading voices in the trans community regarding their lived experience.

My biggest hurdle working on Creatable World was trying to open existing perceptions of feminine and masculine styles.

My biggest hurdle working on Creatable World was trying to open existing perceptions of feminine and masculine styles. Deep-ingrained societal gender signifiers such as color and hairstyle were particularly challenging. For too long a time, the color pink has been associated with girls, and blue for boys. Society has dictated that long hair signifies “feminine.” Even clothing isn’t sold by categories such as “pants” or “shirts,” but by gender. As a society, we are still at the early stages of breaking gender social constructs.

The design to development stage was fairly short, so I had to work quickly. We built prototypes to showcase the product concept, and took it across the country to testing groups.

I worked closely with Mattel’s incredibly talented atelier of sculptors, sewers, and model makers to bring my vision for Creatable World to life. A lot of time, effort, and creativity went into creating the fashions, hair styles, face design, and sculpt for our Creatable World dolls. When it comes to fashion dolls, as with most things, the devil is in the details.

The sculpt is the foundation of a doll. It is what the face designers, hair designers, and sewers use as a foundation on which to create. The doll’s proportions and size should make it easy for kids to hold and to dress. I worked closely with my sculptor, Kittaya Wongchinda, to study the human body. We looked at many different faces to create a harmonious blend of features.

I spent hundreds of hours in fittings, dressing the doll in different outfit combinations. I needed to ensure all the pieces could be worn together while maintaining proper clothing fit, all while keeping the gender-neutral look. The details in the clothing make the clothes look more authentic, and therefore, more relatable to kids. The aim was to design something any one of us could own. Many consumers may not be able to articulate why the details are important, or even notice these details, but subtlety matters. It’s my job to make sure the unsayable does not go unseen. Good design is intuitive and invisible. As Sinead Burke said: “Design is an enormous privilege, but it is a bigger responsibility.”

Being able to see the impact Creatable World has brought, the smile it brings to people, and how much kids love playing with their dolls, has been so rewarding and humbling. It warms my heart to read reviews from parents expressing how much their child loves their Creatable World doll, and to see the excitement from people that have a doll that represents them in terms of gender identity, looks, and style. It makes me so happy to see the positive impact of inclusivity and diversity in dolls thatI designed with so much love. It truly makes all the stressful, sleepless nights worth it!

Stay true to yourself and your vision, and always speak your truth!

This was advice two of my mentors gave meat the beginning of my career, which was the complete opposite of the “advice” I had been previously given by other industry professionals. These two women also gave me the space and encouragement to design projects true to my vision, and I am so grateful for them.

Activism and design are two things I am passionate about, and Creatable World is at the intersection of both. I love researching the subject of my projects - there’s always something valuable to learn. My newly acquired knowledge gives me the understanding to both speak up and to innovate.

Remember to surround yourself with diversity: people from different backgrounds, different races, different beliefs, and different orientations. Make your world big.

Being creative requires a focus on your end goal, which in my case, would be the outcome of a project. In a world where ideas are a hot commodity, what is equally (if not more) important is the execution of that idea. If your idea is amazing but the execution is poor, then its intended audience will reject your idea. Staying true to yourself also means being open to adapting and evolving your vision to make the best and biggest impact.

Remember to surround yourself with diversity: people from different backgrounds, different races, different beliefs, and different orientations. Make your world big. Make decisions with mindfulness and empathy. These aren’t just rules in order to design with diversity, but to make a difference in this world as a person.

Linda Jiang:

●      LinkedIn

●      Instagram

Creatable World:

●      Website

●      Instagram

●      YouTube

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