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Designers Walk Down Memory Lane and Share their Favorite Mattel Toy

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 10/09/2017 | 20 Minute Read


By: Vanessa Dewey

Despite our age, our socioeconomic background, or where we live, we all have a common golden thread that ties us together: toys. Regardless if we had one or dozens—it doesn’t matter, we all played with toys as kids. For many of us, toys have helped lay the foundation of nostalgic memories that bring us back to a time when things were simpler and filled with fantastical moments of imagination.

I distinctly remember my first Barbie—it was from Barbie and the Rockers (yes, I’m that old). She was so aspirational for me—she had amazing fashions—a white “leather” skirt and gorgeous curly blonde hair (boy, did I want her 80s perm!). And now years later, I’m working at Mattel. Being surrounded by toys from my childhood is amazing. But, what I LOVE about this job more than anything is going back to the golden thread of connection. When I meet people, and tell them where I work, usually, the first thing they do is tell me about their favorite childhood toy. And, immediately we forge a connection.

So, today, I decided to turn the tables on various designers and artists (and even an innovation catalyst) and have them address these nostalgic childhood memories around this question:

“What was your favorite Mattel toy?”


What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

I had two favorite Mattel toys growing up: Barbie’s and Liddle Kiddles. My Barbie’s were all from the “Mod” phase and included Malibu Barbie, PJ and Stacey. Stacey was the talking British Barbie. She said all sorts of wonderful things, but one statement perplexed me. It was her question, “Would you like to go to the cinema?” You see, I didn’t know what she meant! As a seven-year-old native New Yorker, I had never heard the word cinema before! I felt silly asking anyone what she was talking about, and had no idea how to find out. It was years later before I realized that Stacey was asking if anyone wanted to go to the movies.

I also had a penchant for the Liddle Kiddles that came in scented plastic perfume shaped-bottles. They were called Kologne Kiddles and my favorite was Violet Kiddle, who smelled like real violets.

When I was in my early thirties, I decided to remake my childhood toy collection. Because this was before eBay was born, I scoured the vintage doll dealers in the Chelsea Flea Markets. My first find was Violet Kiddle. She was in pristine condition, and when I snapped open her bottle, the familiar scent sent me into a Proustian time warp.

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging? Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

Tragically, Kiddles were taken off of the market in 1970. The packaging for Barbie today is very different than it was when I was growing up. Frankly, I didn’t spend much time thinking about Barbie’s packaging when I was a kid. I remember being too excited about what was actually in the package than the package itself and though it pains me to say it, I would guess that I ripped the packaging off as fast as I could. I imagine I was anxious to get to the precious doll inside, and to start imagining the perfect life I so desperately wanted her to have.

CHRISTINE TAYLOR, Licensing Creative Account Manager at Hallmark Cards, Inc. // AIGA National Board

What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

I had two, actually, first of all I was a tomboy, so I played more with Matchbox and Hot Wheels than Barbie. But I did have one Barbie: kissing Barbie that I got in like 1980. She was acceptable to me because there was something about her outfit that I could make her passable as Kira from Xanadu, played by Olivia Newton John. Essentially, I made her re-enact the movie. I also had her go on dates with my 12” Stormtrooper and she would practice kissing him on his shiny white armor. As ridiculous as it sounds, I now run around kissing Stormtrooper’s shiny white armor, so there’s that.

My affinity for Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars was coupled by my obsession with drawing scenes and making up stories all the time. We had this huge concrete driveway and I would find chalk rocks in the creek to cover the entire drive with my very own chalk city. I would collect all the cars that I thought were the coolest—you know the ones you will never be able to afford as an adult—and hot rodded them around the city’s day and nightlife I had invented that morning. Luckily I lived in Texas so the chalk city didn't wash away too quickly, but I was always eager to change it up when it did.

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging? Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

As a child, it was all about the toy. The branding and packaging was obviously an easy identifier on the toy shelf, particularly at point of sell in the checkout line—where they used to put some of the die-cast cars—so I could beg mom to get me the latest and greatest concept car while we waited—those smart marketers. In actuality, my mother was the one that saved the toy packaging. She was the clairvoyant one, thinking these toys would hold some sort of value one day. Me, I would just rip open the packaging and immediately start play time. Now, I collect toys (past and present) and they don’t leave the box. And my mom? Well, she just says, "I told you so.” The funny thing is as I think back on those toys I played with, I remember the stories I created, but can’t recall exactly what the toy looks like, but the branding and the packaging of those toys? Well, that’s forever blazoned in my mind—the color of the boxes, the logo and where it was placed. The thing I took for granted most, is now the easiest thing to remember. I’d say that is powerful.

SALLY DOMINGUEZ, Innovation Catalyst

What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

I grew up in small mining towns in rural Australia and my mom wanted me to be “just like a boy” to counter the rampant misogyny. FYI ”disguising a girl as a boy” doesn’t actually work.  My all-time coveted toy was Barbie but my mom banned her because she was blonde, adult, pretty and perfect and basically all the girly things I wanted and mom hated.  So instead I got Tonka Trucks and legos and a Sasha baby doll. I would choose my playmates based on whether they had enough Barbies for me to play, too. And the Barbie Camper was my life goal. My sister is 14 years younger than me and as soon as she was about 6 I bought her the Camper, the Barbie pool and as many Barbies as I could afford. Payback mom!

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging?  Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

As a kid presents were rare and the packaging was as important as the contents in terms of stuff to play with and treasure. As a designer I absolutely love good packaging and I always notice the design. Whether it’s the jewel-like quality box with magnetic closing of, say, Beats and Apple, or something folded and Japanese that is inexpensive and elegant, or a completely biodegradable packaging, I love the way packaging communicates. Packaging is changing now that people buy online—the feel of packaging doesn’t really coax you into buying anymore because you are depending on photos and videos to convey what touch used to do. I guess that makes branding even more important because if you are loyal to a brand you will trust that an online purchase reflects the quality and value you are used to. Unknown brands now need to find really clever ways to convey their substance online. I am fascinated at the way Kim Kardashian has really pioneered herself as brand into so many markets. It’s in many ways a new world. I still have the same obsession with packaging that I had as a child.

YO SANTOSA, Founder and Creative Director, Ferroconcrete

What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

UNO. It was something I can play with my sister, brother, dad and mom. As much as I loved my Barbies, I can’t get my Dad to play.

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging? Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

Bravo! Precise, simple, clean graphics. It’s hard to do. Using the UNO card image on the cover is smart. *Clap Clap* The UNO card is so well designed, it’s iconic. Using the red and black colors, again, very iconic. Simplicity is best. I can spot an UNO box from a good distance. Also like “A Family Card Game”—so matter of fact. Haha. There’s a sense of innocence that works here.

It’s hard to judge the branding and packaging fairly. Too much nostalgia is rooted on how I look at this. Good, warm feelings right now looking at this vintage packaging. It certainly is a testament to how good this brand, packaging and game is. Let’s UNO!

AARON DRAPLIN, Designer, Author

What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

Hot Wheels instantly come to mind. And shooting them down little dirt tunnels so they’d come whipping out the bottom.

But as cool as they were, something else comes to mind. The handheld Mattel Football game is something I loved. I’m lucky to travel all over the place and tell my story, and something people wouldn’t know about me, is when I was young, I loved football, baseball and basketball. And that’s kind of all we had, growing up in my small Midwestern town of Central Lake, Michigan. Playing with my buddies in school yards and at football games—that was the best! Up until I got a skateboard, and that changed everything.

What I loved the most about that game? It was playable. As in, it wasn’t too hard, and you could enjoy kicking the thing’s butt. I remember the dawn of video games, and how some of them were so hard they weren’t even fun!

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging? Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

Oh man, so many things to talk about here. I remember the logo. And the type at the top. And the little football player illustration. Thick lines, and modern-feeling. There was just something about the thing. It felt good in the hands, it worked and the type and forms backed it up.

This little piece of type and logo?

The absolute best. I remember it, some 35 years later!


What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

As a young child the only toy that existed for me was Major Matt Mason, "Mattel's Man in Space.”

What made this toy so spectacular to me as a child was that it was based entirely on ideas being developed by NASA for the future of space exploration. NASA's concept drawings had been featured prominently in popular magazines like Life and Look, copies of which my parents had all over our house. I could not stop reading those stories. They fired up my imagination.

Astronauts! Rockets! Spacesuits!

It was all part of how America was working together on the "Race to the Moon" in the 1960s.

The toy line included four, six-inch tall astronauts with rubber bodies molded over posable armatures. They had removable plastic space helmets and visors. Covered with official insignias, symbols and, of course, the American flag, these astronauts looked and felt real.

The buzz-cut Major Matt Mason—who launched the series—was soon followed by Sgt. Storm, Doug Davis and Lt. Jeff Long, a black astronaut who arrived twenty years before Guion Bluford, the first real African-American in space. More than the astronauts themselves, however, was the innovative, tightly integrated system of flying jet packs, lunar vehicles, space ships, tools and exploration suits along with an epic three-story moon-based "Space Station.”

My parents had to keep me in an endless supply of batteries as all of this equipment—which spun, walked, flashed, and flew—sucked up energy like water.

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging? Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

You bet it does. And I still have all of the toys.

Before Major Matt and the astronauts, before the insanely imaginative accessories—came all of Mattel's packaging. And they were all knockout. To this day, it still is. Seeing it now fills me with the same level of excitement and anticipation I had when I was seven. Like posters from some mid-century, epic science fiction movie, the graphic design and photography were cinematic in their framing, color and scale.

As a child, the boxes were awe-inspiring. I now understand where my fetish for science fiction—as well as tall, super-condensed, san-serif typography—comes from.

TIM BELONAX, Senior Brand Designer, Pinterest

As a child, I didn’t have much brand allegiance when it came to toys. I was more interested in the characters or storyline that made them unique and fun. With Mattel, it’s really hard to choose a favorite toy because of the breadth of the catalog. I was a huge Ghostbusters fan growing up. It’s probably still one of my most watched movies. I loved all of the characters (and sub characters) for their own unique personalities. The whole movie had a very DIY aspect to it around repurposing existing structures in pursuit of your goals. To this day, I’d still love to live in a decommissioned fire house with a poll. The Stay Puft marshmallow man was a literal depiction of a cartoon character coming to life (albeit more angry than expected). How could I not love him or the buffet-loving Slimer?

As an adult, I look at most toy packaging today and only see wastefulness in its forms and a myriad of moral issues with its messaging (from gender politics to consumerism). I realize that this is a fairly pessimistic view on the modern toy. They aren’t all inherently bad. I’ve come to appreciate the value of toys—to spark imagination and joy—as an adult. Most toy branding aims at basic human visual characteristics (we respond to bright, shiny things) while creating a clear link to the branded character/universe it’s promoting. Toy branding and packaging today doesn’t evoke the same feelings for me because my relationship with it has changed. I’m an adult, graphic designer, with knowledge of printing and fabrication processes that would be the sole purchaser of these toys as opposed to my younger self: a shelter child receiving toys as a gift. Perhaps my relationship with toys will evolve again should I find myself purchasing them for myself or a loved one.



What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

My Favorite toy was a HotWheels. I had a least a hundred. I would take my allowance money every Saturday and buy a new one. My dad was a mechanic growing up and as a result, I was into cars big time.

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging? Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

The HotWheels logo was so iconic. Even at age 10 I was drawn to it. To this day I think it is badass and love it. It brings back so many awesome memories. It has certainly stood the test of time.

BRIAN SINGER, Artist/Designer

What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

I had two favorite Mattel toys growing up, Baseball 2 and Football 2 (the electronic versions). To me, these were like video games, but portable. Like the first Gameboy. I was at the right age where the simplicity of gameplay was perfect, and the fact that they were two player allowed for social interaction. I was also pretty damn good at them, if I do say so.

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging? Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

Honestly, I don’t remember the packaging at all, at least not the boxes. The toy design itself though was iconic, in that it referenced the field of play for each sport, from the yard lines and bases, to the surrounding stadium. The typography of the Mattel Electronics symbolized...if you believe it, the future. That data/byte/tech look that was popular during the 80’s. To me, it made the game feel more advanced than it probably was. Small side note, Blip, the digital game by Tomy had a similar design and feel (and was also a childhood favorite). However, after taking it apart (which is what kids do), it turns out it wasn’t digital at all, but rather a series of gears moving a light back and forth.

Look at them now, I feel very nostalgic. For that time of my life (childhood), but also the simplicity of technology. You can move left, right, forward or back, and that’s it. Now go score a touchdown.


What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

He-Man Master of the Universe. I don’t remember why I liked this collection. I just remember that I had a lot of them and a played with them all the time. I’m sure the cartoon had a lot to do with my enthusiasm.

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging? Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

The packaging screams mid-1980s. So it feels nostalgic. But I’m struck by how moody and romanticized the imagery is—which I didn’t remember. Usually kids toys are bright, poppy, and saccharine. The most interesting part is that I can still remember how the toys feels and move and where they were in my home. I can even remember some of that same feelings I felt towards some of the toys. For instance, there are a couple figures I remember being excited about and a couple I felt “meh.”


What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

The very first toy that popped in my head was this: The Barbie Dream’Vette. OMG—I could just envision myself in that ride. Little did I know I would fall in love with vintage, roadster, and tricked out hot rods. A little foreshadowing I guess.

I couldn’t stop there. I had to make sure that this was REALLY my favorite toy. I toppled head first into a massive deep dive of all the toys that I had loved from as far back as I could remember to when I stopped playing with toys.

One highlight for sure was the Cabbage Patch Doll. People went crazy for that business in the 80s. I got me a preemie for Christmas as did every privileged child in 1983. I knew the second I saw that box under the tree and was STOKED. I carried it around for about a week and was over it. Never to be touched again. I was sure that this would be the toy I would write about however Cabbage Patch dolls were not acquired by Mattel until 1994. Alas, long after it was a thing for me.

The other toy that sparked a massive memory flood for me was Teddy Ruxpin—brought to us by Worlds of Wonder in 1985. I never got that one—but thought about all the endless conversations we would share together. All the places we would go together....sigh. I didn’t know that it was a cassette tape doing the talking. Had I received that gift—I would have been sorely disappointed.

The toy that unearthed a moment in time that I would NEVER have remembered without this adventure was a bath toy called Sea Wees produced by Kenner from 1979-1985. It was a small doll and her baby that came with a floating foam flower and a brush. Everything a little person needs to be entertained for 10 minutes in the bath. I remember how magical watching her hair in the water was—what a WILD flashback.

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging?  Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

Looking at the packaging for all these products—especially the Dream’Vette—delights me. The twinkle light flare—are you kidding me?—I still love it today. Packaging has a way of making a lasting impression if done right—as we all know—presentation is EVERYTHING.


ELLE LUNA, Artist, Author, Designer

What was your favorite Mattel toy growing up? Why?

My favorite Mattel toy growing up was, of course, Barbie, but I specifically loved my Barbie Campervan. It folded out into a patio where Skipper, Barbie, Ken and all of their friends could hang out. On the weekends that my brother and Dad were out of town, Mom and I would turn the whole house into Barbie World, putting masking tape “dashes” down the hallway so that the Campervan could hit the road and go to Water World (an extensive Barbie water experience set up on the back porch). As someone who now owns a VW camper van, I can’t help but wonder about this early toy and its effects on my life and lifestyle...

Looking at it now, what are your thoughts about the branding and packaging?  Does it evoke the same feelings it did when you were a child?

The camper was two tone pink, and while I can’t recall what kind of packaging it came in, I bet it was pink, too. In fact, the whole aisle was pink. And I loved it. For awhile I stopped loving the color pink and even boycotted it. But I have sense returned to my love of the color pink, and enjoy it immensely. Just looking at the old campervan brings back really fond memories...

Vanessa Dewey
Vanessa is a Downtown Los Angeles based art director, cultural disruptor, in-house and gender gap advocate. After almost going into the Foreign Service, Vanessa’s affinity for color and problem solving led her to Graphic Design. After earning her BFA and dabbling in diverse design verticals, she arrived at Mattel. Over her 8 years at Mattel, Vanessa designed for iconic IP and licensed brands. Not one content on being confined to a cube, Vanessa consistently looks beyond to create impact. Outside Mattel, she continues this drive: she is on the AIGA National Inhouse INitiative Steering Committee, the board of directors for LA Design Festival, and the inaugural committee for Ladies Get Paid in Los Angeles. And, one might say she has a slight obsession with coffee.

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