by Mary Lenehan | 03 Jun 2021

The Bloom Report

What exactly do you do in the industry?

Short story: I design and develop products and packaging - concept to shelf; mostly children’s products and adult collectibles. General title: “Jack-of-All-Trades-Master-of-Some”

Reality: My role and title shifts depending on the group or client I am working with, but falls roughly into a couple of categories: execution and management.

On the execution end of things I research, render, design and plan for manufacturing. Though I often work in concert with others, I can single-handedly create concept designs, graphics, packaging and specifications for manufacturing lots of different items. I have specialized in cute, soft and organic forms for a long time, but there isn't much I can’t draw, especially for toy/kid markets. So, unless there's a need for 3D engineering or detailed sculpting up front, I function as a kind of one-stop-shop for PD services.

The management end of my work - which I also love - comes into play when I’m shepherding individual or revolving lines of products, or a complex project like a new brand or refresh, especially in a narrow time frame - then it’s imperative to know how, when and with whom to collaborate. I’ve been really lucky to be able to work with an amazing array of talented specialists and colleagues in lots of roles when schedule or concept requires a team to succeed.


What is your claim to fame in the industry?

According to my family, my biggest impact was suggesting that the wooden Thomas the Tank Engine characters should have their names put on them! ; D As the mother of 2 small boys who were huge fans, I could never keep ALL those guys straight! I knew lots of other moms that were glad for that ‘innovation’ too! LOL

Other than that - I had a hand in SpikeBall and Giga Pets, which most will recognize. 

Also led on some familiar Lamaze items (Octotunes, Stacking Present, their very first gym & books) and Infantino items (Princess & Turtle Ball Pit gym graphics, water whale pad, gym toy forms, soft blocks & more), Totally Spies and Earth 2 Jane dolls, STEM at Play brand for hand2mind, Tumble Wheels for Fisher Price (old school) and lots of Monster and Critter blaster, water and sand toys currently found in Target and Walmart.

Fun fact: I recently refreshed the Mr. Mouth game box art - which was really fun and an honor to play a part in the life of that classic.


Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?

My mother was an art teacher, and my first love was for art, and the art of children’s books particularly, which is a thing I never outgrew. So, I focused on fine art and graphic design in school and went looking for ways to make that a part of my life in whatever way I could. That’s the ‘why’. The ‘how’ is a bit more random.

I was introduced to the concept of toy design the day I lost my first full time design job - as the company I worked for was taken over and closing. It was mid-day, so instead of going home, I drove into the city to the Art Institute’s job board. There, I found a post for “Illustrator/sculptor” with a group called ‘Marvin Glass Design’. Even though I didn’t sculpt, I DID know how to ‘solve problems in a unique way’, so I applied and made one of the most important connections of my life.



What are you working on now?

Recent projects have been in collectibles, water toy concepts, ride-on vehicles, inventor concepts, and commissioned illustration and graphic design. I’ve also been in and out of online lessons in Procreate, Sketch Up & Forger. I'm currently on the lookout for the next great opportunity to stretch all my skill sets further in an A-Team environment of toy people.


What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?

I love that board games, puzzles and enriched experiences in toys have gained traction. Obviously, the pandemic has had a big influence on this for both adults and children, but I see it as a distinct plus-up for kids in particular.

Screen time for them has been increasing for decades in an incremental way - flying largely under the radar of the culture at large. 

I've always found the increasing popularity of technologies that separate children from personal & physical interaction to be troubling from a developmental perspective. And by the time the pandemic blew up, the consequences of this become obvious on lots of levels - and more acutely than when I was raising my boys. The stay-at-home dynamic raised immediate concerns in an unequivocal way to parents at large. I see that as a red flag moment that is rightly being leveraged. And that’s encouraging.

There are a lot more child-friendly materials and safeguards emerging online now than there were for me and my kids. And they seem to be moving within better reach of parents, too. For example, I recently joined an online Meet-Up event that focused on the structuring child safety in commercial online spaces. What was fascinating to me was that it was a mixed group of general public and industry insiders.

That’s a dynamic that wouldn’t have been conceivable just a few years ago. Even aside from the proliferation of new safety tech, the ability to connect and dialogue on such a discrete topic with relative ease is amazing. Being able to hop-in from home and gain so much pertinent insight was exciting. Communication is key, and it feels like there's more of it now than ever. 

That's important, because it's going to take considerable focus on the part of everyone participating in services and goods for children to keep kid’s mental and physical health front and center. I crave being part of groups that are all-in on this level, and am encouraged to see the groundswell of active interest in it.

I’m also looking forward now to increased opportunities to contribute more of what I’ve learned from working in education channel - to increase the efficacy of developmental toys.


What advice can you give to inventors who are presenting new toy or game ideas to you?

When I give advice, it tends to be on how to calibrate a concept for pitch, as I am not usually the one taking new concepts in.

Broadly speaking, my advice is to tell a simple, emotive story. Emotion is key to communication, and can be transmitted faster, and more decisively than any description. Of course, I find art can carry a lot of that load, which is why I love working in design space so much.

Conceptually, I say go for the sweetest spot in the idea and blow it up big and amazing and fun. Ask yourself, how would a child react to the idea? Confirm your answer, and then work on evoking and amplifying that. Start with emotion and drama, segue into logic and context, then loop back into the emotive again to close.

That’s a gross simplification, of course. Easier said than done ; )


What advice would you give a young adult graduating from high school or college today?

From HIgh School: Diversify in college. Too much focus on The One Thing you love can leave you with too few legs under your career table. Creatives need to gather business chops. Business majors need to understand Creative.

From College: Get some training in stand up and Improv. It’s super fun and breeds listening skills and confidence. Plus, it’s applicable in every aspect of life. Every. One.


Do you have a typical work day and how does it play out for you?

Being away from the office environment, things have gotten a lot less typical. 

I have a big dog so if it’s not awful out, we go for 2 walks a day. It’s not work, but it bookmarks the day. There, the ‘typical’ routine kind of stops.

That said, I do make sure to check & clean email & spam boxes a couple times a day no matter what. It’s appalling how easily a message can get buried especially when it’s routed into Spam! Ugh.


What’s your workspace setup like?

I’m really happy to be able to look out my window at the backyard these days, but not very pleased with the lack of qualified IT support in WFH office! (“Who hired that moron, anyway?” LOL)

I don’t work much ‘on board’ illustrating with pencils and markers anymore, which is kind of sad, but saves tons of time and space. 

Being mac-based, I have a big screen desktop for graphic work set up on my drafting table, but can grab my tablet and sit elsewhere too. It’s great to be able to pick up stakes and hit the road with work, even. That’s been incredibly important in the last year. I miss working with others in an office, but a few carefully curated friends and alternative locations helps a lot.


What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I think most toy people will say the moment you get to see a child delighted with something you’ve made is the best payoff ever. If you’re in the industry long enough to see an old concept revived, last for decades or waxed nostalgically about by kids grown-up; that’s pretty amazing too. It’s heart-warming and validating. And an important reminder of why it’s so important to always channel a broad love and pointed intelligence into everything we do.

To me there’s another side of that coin, tho, because design is a dialectic process - and that’s working with great toy industry colleagues. There’s an Esprit de Corps among all Grade A toy professionals that can’t be beat – and when I’m with other toy designers ‘swimming in the deep end of the playpen’, I am as happy as I can ever be - and more at home than anywhere on earth.

It’s a genuine privilege to work in a discipline that provides such an intense combination of challenge and joy. And the only way I know that one can grow, learn and achieve while avoiding the grossest pitfalls of aging in the long run.


What is the worst job you’ve ever had and what did you learn from it?

I think the worst ‘job’ I had was being stuck in the role of perennial babysitter between middle school and high school! The work was easy & could be fun (I got to play with the kids toys ; D), but the hours were random and the pay was literally non-existent at times! I couldn’t wait to get into a ‘real’ job (in retail) back then. Which, after actually working in retail, is kind of hilarious to look back on. 

Even so, as a kid watching over other kids, I learned how to take charge, herd small animals (LOL) and problem solve on practical and functional levels. I wanted to make more money faster, and the need for service in those days was huge - so to maximize my time and capture more Mom customers, I made up a ‘day camp’ business & ‘enrolled’ kids for mornings/afternoons on contract with them. That worked out, was fun and felt empowering at the time. A perfect storm of opportunity, really. Tho I STILL couldn't wait to go work in the mall. Ha.


What and/or who inspires you?

1 Elegant solutions. They don't have to be pretty, but if they solve in a uniquely appropriate way, they’re beautiful. 

2 Toys: the recent expansion in dog toy design has been fun to watch. There’s more design fun, and feature going into them then there used to be. Are a lot of them retreaded preschool toys without the safety? Sure, but they’re great trend indicators now, too. And their audience is extremely passionate. I like trolling that category regularly to be sure I’m not missing anything fun.

3 People! The many creative people I know in business, family and social circles - are a constant source of inspiration through their work, humor and intelligent dialogue. 

Also Fred Rogers. I will never not mention Fred Rogers.


What excites you?

Activity and ideas. The two combined are the best. 


How do you define creativity? 

Look out. When asked to define terms, my inner English teacher comes out and takes over ; D

To me, “creativity is the capacity for meaningful free association. Combined with a proper dose of informed logic it has the capacity to elevate ideation to the sublime.” In any discipline.

More to the toy point - “The creative adult is the child who survived” That’s is a motto I look at across from my desk every day because it’s such a pertinent and important message. I think everyone should be more aware of their very young self. All the time. Guard and preserve that uncarved block of a child to protect him/her from growing up and giving up.

Aging is inevitable, but if you can truly tap into your child-like perspective at will, you can remain young forever.


How do you define innovation?

English teacher Pt2:

Innovation is novelty viewed in relation to a specific point. It can be ‘soft’ or ‘hard’, simple or complex; and lies on a spectrum between the merely curious and the groundbreaking.”

How one achieves innovation is harder to describe than to define, tho, isn’t it?

To me, improvisation (aka ‘play’) is a key catalyst for innovation. And improv isn’t just random experimentation - in the Second City school of thought, it’s listening for and going with something not of one’s own making - on an unknowable or counterintuitive path - and making something of that

This makes sense to me because it takes time, study, a quick wit and a fair amount of guts to pull this off on stage - or in any context.


How do you recharge or take a break?

I try to escape to a place where I am unfamiliar, not in charge or far away from home/office - it’s refreshing to have to improvise; to discover new things, people and have experiences that generate stories : ). 

Used to be mostly via travel. Glad I got a good trip in right before the pandemic hit (NYE in Vienna! Swoon!). Hope to be going places again soon...


What words describe how you think or how your brain works?


My brain is a 50/50 split. Literally. As in every type of test I can take - it comes up split between left/right brain, neither dominant. This explains a lot, actually. I spend a lot of time connecting dots between disparate points, so there are both intuitive and logical operations at work all the time.

Testing aside, I think the visual/creative may have a slight edge as it’s recreational for me. Numbers are the last thing I get creative with. Ha!


What was your favorite toy or game as a child? 

I loved pretty much all toys, miniatures, building supplies and action games, too. 

I was a horse nut, so Breyer horses were probably most beloved, tho I had only a few. #oldestofsix


Looking back, I now think the best of the best had to have been THIS guy: Toy Bop ride on lobster.

He's my Rosebud.


Where did you grow up and how did that influence who you are today? 

Grew up where I was born, on the South side of Chicago. The oldest of 6 in an Irish Catholic family heavily populated with teachers and clergy. Dad was an only child of parents who immigrated from the west of Ireland. He worked in sales and marketing for the steel industry (via railroads), and my mother was a teacher of English and art.


What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

Early on, I made the mistake of believing I could manage any challenge by sheer force of intelligence and will. LIke everything is a puzzle to be solved. And because this worked for years, it bred confidence, and accomplishment, which was great. Basically, “fake-it-till-you-make-it” got me into the toy business in the first place and provided scaffolding for a long time.

But not ALL challenges are surmountable, or in the way one imagines. And an overdose of chutzpah inevitably breeds mistakes. Worse, the longer one goes along a successful path without failure, the greater is the shock (shock! I say!) when it inevitably occurs. 

I dont recall any specific incidents, but I did learn that nose-to-grindstone and following prescribed ‘rules’ for certain things doesn't work because… Context is Everything. 

This means - problems, solves, and even mistakes - it’s never all about me OR completely under my personal control. That’s both liberating AND a positive challenge - as it necessitates opening up one’s scope of vision, listening to others and engaging with as much input as possible. Win-win-win. 

Even for a closeted introvert like me.


What was your life like growing up? 

Stable, stimulating and supported. Very, very lucky. 


What do you read every day, and why?

Something from the New York TImes and my email. The rest is random.


Who is the person you most admire?

There’s lots of people on this list, but top of the top will probably always be Fred Rogers.


What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?

I am loving Procreate on my ipad. Having tried various versions of tablet drawing over the years, I find it’s a platform that can approach some of the intuitive flow of illustrating in an analog sense, which is essential for me.


How do you jumpstart your creativity when you find yourself stalled on a project? 

I tend to research for context and then let go for a bit, as time permits. The best formula I know of for that ‘Ah Ha!’ moment is: work-work-work-work- rest – repeat.


When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it? 

Around others, I laugh a LOT. Home alone with the dog, not so much. In part because I need feedback - but also I don't want to freak the poor thing out. LOL

The last great set of laughs was with my best friend at a local resale shop recently. The free-association at those places is amazing and best enjoyed with a like-minded accomplice. Bonus points: we devolve into self-amusing, hilarious idiots together. #priceless


What are your favorite childhood memories?

Making things out of found materials and objects. 

Playing with dinosaurs in a dirt and puddle landscape in the gangway between houses. Exploring the ‘wilderness’ around our summer home in Michigan. Running like a racehorse till I dropped. 

Anthropomorphizing. Every. Thing.


Are you named after anyone? 

My Mother. Confusing fact: my broadly used nickname is ‘Dee’ (from middle name Dolores : P ) among family and neighborhood friends. Because middle names take over in homes when there’s two of a kind.


Do you have any kiddos?

My 2 sons are young adults. I’m still adjusting to the fact that my 2/3rds of my heart has to operate outside of my body and now at significant distances. It’s awkward.


Do you have any pets?

I always have pets. Currently, there are 2 small fish, an aquatic frog and a nice big senior diabetic rescue malamute named Belle. She eats cloth towels, napkins, socks and unmentionables for fun. And naps. A lot.


Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I was raised Catholic, so strictly speaking, ALL my pleasures are guilty ; D

But no, I gave up guilt for the pandemic. Previously I might have been ashamed of power watching tv shows and movie series. Not now. Though I do look forward to being ashamed of it again when there are wider options for recreation.


Who are your favorite musicians, singers or musical groups?

It’s literally impossible for me to sit still when WXRT features 1972 or 74 on Saturday morning flashback. I like most everything else too, but that stuff slays me.


What’s your favorite cereal? 

Life with fresh peaches in summer. And Malt o Meal with brown sugar, cream and craisins in winter.


What’s the first thing you usually notice about people?

Their relative stress level. Seriously. It’s a superpower. Kind of.


What is the last time you did something for the first time?

Before the pandemic I tried wakeboarding across a couple of summers. Finally got up and stayed up for a few seconds a handful of times. No idea what's next. I need suggestions : )


What are your favorite books?

I must be an escapist, because LotR and Dune top my list for fiction.  

Other favorites are non-fiction. A few border on or cross into academic, so I won't mention them...

Authors I recommend: Sarah Vowell (Unfamiliar Fishes, Assasination Vacation, The Wordy Shipmates), David Sedaris (The Santaland Diaries), David Rakhoff (Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable), Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) and Ron Jonson (Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test), Jenny Lawson (Lets Pretend this Never Happened) and Haven Kimmel (A Girl Called Zippy). All worth sharing.


What are your favorite magazines?

No favorite due to too many interests, I guess…  

I DID love Make and Games magazines while they were in print, tho.


What are your favorite websites?

I love my Pinterest account because it's a great space for keeping things in development and to share.

It’s my new picture file.


What’s your favorite TV show?

Old School Sesame Street and Pee Wee’s Playhouse


Who are your favorite actors, performers or entertainers?

Shameless plug: My cousin Sally Murphy is a Steppenwolf Player and my all time favorite actress : ) 


What is your favorite night out?

A fine meal (French, Ethiopian or sushi) in a comfortable setting with friends. 

And/or going to see some great live music in a smallish venue or outdoors. 

Can’t wait till that’s do-able again!


Favorite movie of all time?

I’m going to go with ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. It has everything a boomer girl designer could want.

Time Bandits is a close second tho.


Do you have any special talents? I draw cute and can extrapolate like a fortune teller

What’s your beverage of choice? Guinness. It’s good for you


Tell us about your hobbies?

I always have a large breed senior rescue dog and a garden at home. I haunt resale shops, salvage depots and the occasional flea market. I love museums, adventure-travel, hiking, horseback riding and seeing what other people are doing with their free time. 

I also make things. Kind of randomly. Current project is a series of coasters cut out of a beautifully illustrated Godzilla graphic novel. I’m in love with this project, and plan to offer them up in sets of 4. 

Either for sale or as a ‘thank you’ for leads on new clients or a great ft role*. 


Summer of Winter? Seasons. All of them.

What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve? Oh dear. I can only think of existential ones atm. Pass.

Do you prefer scary movies or happy endings? Happy Endings! 

Hugs or Kisses? Who’s asking?


What’s the furthest you’ve ever been from home? China

What are your favorite sports and sports teams? I am sports-stupid and utterly unqualified to answer this one.

Who are your favorite athletes? See above

What music are you listening to now? The voices in my head. No, the ringing in my ears. No, nevermind. 

What’s in your fridge? Too many condiments and sauces.


Everything would have been different if… I was normal.

I’m lucky that…. I am sentient

What do you want to be when you grow up? Childlike

What’s next? Fun : ) Always. *And the search for the next great opportunity ; )

Mary Couzin Design Development Lenehan education lobster invention illustration love

Tait & Lily, Inventors of Betcha Can't!