For Craig Yoe, the Tao of designing is knowing how to locate cool. ‘People want cool . . . and that’s a worthy goal, but coolness is not just putting sunglasses on a character or standing it on a skateboard. It’s something beyond that; it’s more spiritual. It’s the intangibles you have to get a hold of and put into a product or property.’
As president and owner of Yoe Studio, a full-service design house located in Peeksgill, New York, Yoe and his staff have been chasing that timeless catchall for all things interesting through nearly every facet of the kids licensing business, from designing packaging and new concepts for toys to creating set designs for television programs and booths for trade shows. Yoe, along with a platoon of other designers working specifically in the kids entertainment business, are the hired guns licensors rely on to make their properties more or less of whatever adjective they believe the market currently demands.
‘They can be a very useful tool in either selling the property or during the maturation stage when you need to refresh it,’ says Nancy Overfield-Delmar, a licensing and retail consultant with Parachute Consumer Products. One reason Overfield-Delmar uses independent designers is because not all properties that begin life as a book or TV show can be easily imagined as product right away. For such cases, she’ll get artists to create concept boards that provide a physical representation of the property, which she’ll then pitch to potential licensees and promotional partners. ‘It’s not necessarily that those drawings would be the ones that licensees would turn into a product. . . . But they at least give some direction as to where the property could go,’ says Overfield-Delmar.
Indeed, much of what independent designers create for licensors, such as presentation boards and style guides, goes unseen by the public. Nevertheless, it’s work that is crucial to selling a property and ensuring its integrity after it is sold, says Graham Halky, director of creative services at the itsy bitsy Entertainment Company. If a designer provides comprehensive information in a style guide, it can act as more than just a catalogue, but as a directory and as a tutorial for the licensee, says Halky. For itsy bitsy Entertainment Company, which, Halky says, farms out 70 percent of its design work, the advantage of hiring out-of-house is twofold. It gives them access to the expertise of artists in many specialized areas, without having to pay the exorbitant costs that accompany staffing a full-service design department year-round.
Naturally, independent designers benefit from the arrangement, too. Jim Fletcher, a Fairfield, Connecticut-based designer, says the amount of cross-pollination that happens in his work, as a result of the different functions he’s asked to perform, makes him an an invaluable part of the licensing’s infrastructure. It’s not uncommon, says Fletcher, whose past credits include designing products for the Warner Bros. store, and concept drawings for a new live-action Superman movie, for him to work ‘both sides of the fence’-to create a style guide for a licensor, then work with the licensees that have signed on to help make product from it. It’s a situation that occurs frequently in the licensing business, says Overfield-Delmar, because it can save time for licensees who are trying to get their product out to market as soon as they can. But, Overfield-Delmar cautions, it is exactly why licensors need to be sure that a designer understands the sensibilities of their property.
To Craig Yoe, who claims to have worked with more licensed properties than anyone else on the planet, caring about the fidelity of the characters is what draws a lot of companies to his studio. At the moment, Yoe is putting the finishing touches on a style guide for Comedy Central’s hit cartoon South Park and working with Overfield-Delmar on a makeover for Scholastic’s Goosebumps. Goosebumps’ audience is getting older, says Yoe, and Scholastic is hoping to grab a younger demographic. Yoe is convinced his studio can deliver that younger audience, even though his influence begins and ends with property’s appearance.
‘You have to look at a property in a holistic way. Certainly, the main thing we work on is the visual side, but visuals are 80 percent of what we care about in a character. The writing on The Simpsons, for example, is brilliant. You can’t say that that’s not a part of a character’s appeal, but the look of those characters is what is emblazoned on people’s brains-the simple but great design of those characters.’