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As VP of product design, ASU alum helps keep the magic alive at Disney

ASU alum describes how she leads merchandise design process at Disney.
November 12, 2021

Industrial design grad leads teams that create toys from Disney movies, TV shows; she shared career tips at a recent campus event

A stuffed Simba or an Elsa doll are the toys that keep the Disney magic alive long after the movie is over or the day at the park is done. An Arizona State University alumna is one of the most prominent people involved in creating toys at Disney.

Tracy Thurman, who graduated with a degree in industrial design from ASU in 1993, is the vice president of product design for Disney parks, experiences and products. Thurman’s father also went to ASU, and she now has a son and a daughter who are students here.

“ASU was my launching point,” Thurman said. “It’s a place where I learned a lot, and I grew up here.”

On Nov. 8, Thurman spoke to industrial design students on the Tempe campus, about her career path and how she helps to create merchandise at Disney.

“I did many presentations in this area right here,” she said, referring to the bridge between the Design North and Design South buildings.

“This space has a lot of emotion and memory for me.”

Her time at ASU

Thurman was briefly an architecture major before an adviser guided her toward industrial design.

“I’ve always been very creative, I love thinking outside the box and I was always very artistic,” she said.

“But more than anything, I was very mechanically inclined. I took things apart and put them back together.”

She said some of the best advice she received was to begin working in her field as soon as possible. So the summer after her first year, she got an internship at an industrial design firm that made computer housings.

“I had to pick shades of gray,” she said. “I would spend a month during the summer working on vent design.

“After a couple of summers doing that, I realized that I had to find a more fun product to work on.”

So she looked up a company that invented toys near her family’s home in California and begged them for an internship. They said no.

“I actually got my portfolio together and dressed up and went to the office and knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m really interested in working for you. If you give me a project, I’ll do it for free and if you like me, we can talk about a job.’

“Not only did I get the internship, but when I graduated they had a job waiting for me and I worked for them for three years.”

Looney Tunes and Harry Potter

The toy-inventing company pitched its ideas to the large companies, and Thurman realized she wanted to work at Mattel, the largest toymaker. She was rejected four times before finally getting hired at an entry-level design job. She eventually worked her way up to management.

She worked on Looney Tunes mechanical plush toys, Polly Pocket dolls and products for the "Ice Age" and "Harry Potter" movies.

“I came up with the Polyjuice Potion Maker,” she said. “You could drink (the potions).”

After a few years, she was recruited by the Canadian company Spin Master as it was starting its Los Angeles office.

“There was no staff, no processes for dolls and girl-targeted toys. They never designed any of these products before, and we needed to find factories,” she said.

“They said, ‘You have need to create new brands and get them to market to make money and get this Los Angeles office going in the next two years.”

She started traveling to factories in China and building prototypes while launching the Liv fashion doll line and Zoobles collectible toys.

“I learned so much there, but I was traveling to China an awful lot and we were building the plane while flying it,” she said.

Designing for Disney

Then, she got a call recruiting her to Disney.

“I love their brands, I love their stories, I love the characters and it was an opportunity to do something different,” she said.

She also was inspired by Walt Disney.

“Not only was he an amazing artist and filmmaker, but he was one of the first people to figure out how to take those beloved characters in films and create merchandise and experiences that people can relive over and over and bring into their everyday lives,” she said.

“We are the physical manifestation of the magic,” she said of the toys and games her teams create.

Besides the Disney content, the company also owns the Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm properties, and recently added 20th Century Studios and National Geographic.

From show to shelf

Thurman described the product design process and how teams collaborate closely, especially on the TV shows, where the toy designers are sometimes involved in creating the look of the TV characters. That’s what happened with “Mickey and the Roadster Racers.”

“They said, ‘Let’s brainstorm what the vehicles should be because we want to make sure we can make merchandise to support the show,” she said.

The team did a lot of research.

“We wanted to understand how kids play with cars, what’s fun about them,” she said.

“We did a lot of product research to understand functionality, and we looked at trend reports to understand who we were targeting.”

Thurman said that brainstorming is her favorite part of the process, and when it comes to brainstorming she emphasizes quantity over quality.

“We’ll set a time period, like 30 minutes, and try to get as many ideas as possible — headlines only,” she said.

“No” is not allowed.

“There are a million reason to kill an idea: You can’t afford it. It won’t be safe. The technology is not there.

“But that hinders creative thinking,” she said.

She asks everyone to put away their phones, stay engaged and be visual — sketching out ideas.

“We were brainstorming ‘Frozen’ and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Olaf threw up snow?’ and we made Olaf snow cone makers.”

After brainstorming, the concepts are defined and the safety, engineering and product integrity teams weigh in. Size, features, colors and price point are determined.

“We start to understand what can and can’t be done. This is when we say ‘no.’ "

Then prototypes are developed.

“They send samples to us, and we’ll play with them to make sure they’re functioning the right way,” she said.

Finally, the toy is produced. In the case of "Mickey and the Roadster Racers," it’s a little sedan that transforms into a racing car with a posable Mickey Mouse driver, targeted to preschoolers.

Pandemic challenges

As people stayed home during the pandemic, demand for toys surged.

“People wanted happiness, and our product sales are through the roof,” she said.

But the process changed as the teams worked from home.

“Brainstorming was very different. We did Zoom and breakout rooms, but there is nothing like being together. There’s an energy there,” she said.

On the other hand, Thurman liked that everyone’s face on Zoom is equal.

“A lot of time in big meetings, we had senior executives in the front but the designer who actually designs the product was in the back,” she said.

“That was one thing I find great about Zoom.”

Another thing that changed was samples. Instead of shipping prototypes from factories, manufacturers invested in cameras and the designers reviewed high-quality photographs.

“We had to approve a lot of products that we never saw,” she said.

For example, they created a line of "Alice in Wonderland" home-decor items such as plates, mugs and tea sets.

“We would be on a conference call, and we would say, ‘Can you put your hand on that pillow so we can see how soft it is?’ ”


Thurman said that designing for sustainability is very important.

“We’re removing a lot of plastic from packaging and looking at soy-based inks,” she said.

“The hardest thing with plastic is that science hasn’t caught up yet. We have sugar-cane-based plastic but nothing that’s been able to be the same as what a traditional toy is made out of.”

Recently, Disney released a doll in a closed box without a plastic window.

“Most people care, so they’re willing to give up seeing it in the package.”

Ask for advice

Thurman offered several career tips to the ASU students:

  • Find lots of mentors: “That’s been so important to me. It doesn’t have to be a formal mentor. Most people are willing to give advice.”
  • Don’t be afraid to sidestep: “I started in industrial design working on consultancy and quickly realized that some of the more traditional industrial design wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
  • Think big picture and then small step: “I talk at a lot of high schools and they say, ‘I’m going to be the CEO of Disney someday.’ That’s awesome. But know that it’s important to think about the steps it’ll take to get there. You can hear in my career that I had to take smalls steps to get to a bigger place. I learned so much. I didn’t close many doors.”
  • Fill a large toolbox: “It is so important whether you start your own business, create your own products or work a for larger company, you work with people from all disciplines — marketing, engineering, product integrity, graphic design, packaging design. And you have to speak all those languages and work together. It doesn’t mean you all have to think alike. It’s important to build a team with a lot of different perspectives. Use all those tools.”

Top image: Tracy Thurman, vice president of product design for Disney parks, experiences and products, speaks to an industrial design class on the bridge between Design North and South on the Tempe campus on Nov. 8. Thurman graduated from ASU with a bachelor's degree in industrial design in 1993. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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The rent is due ... now what do we do?

November 12, 2021

ASU business professor says the social costs of tenant eviction are high, require strong policies to address the issue

Courts around the United States are starting to see an alarming uptick in tenant eviction filings, and the situation is headed toward catastrophe according to a recent New York Times article.

President Joe Biden’s extension of an eviction moratorium was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in August, and now more people are facing homelessness or are seeking cheaper rents in places they might not want to live.

Biden spent more than $46.5 billion during the pandemic to ensure that tenants could shelter in place and stay safe, but the ruling is now forcing them to make alternative plans. Even worse, there is no end in sight regarding the issue, according to a researcher quoted in the New York Times article.

ASU News turned to Mark Stapp for his insights into this emerging crisis. Stapp is the executive director of the W. P. Carey School of Business Master of Real Estate Development program and has been involved in planning, investing in, developing and consulting on real estate for 32 years.

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Mark Stapp

Question: Was allowing people to not pay rent or get evicted during the pandemic a good idea, given that the situation today seems to be spiraling in cities throughout the United States?

Answer: I think the answer is yes. It was necessary. This is a difficult situation made more difficult by a housing market much stronger than had been anticipated several years ago. A lot of this was predictable. We live in a very strong private-property-rights country, and when we discuss eviction moratoriums, we’re talking about the government interfering with private contracts. That’s what it boils down to and why this is hard. I realize landlords had a loss, too. So, should we not allow the government to interfere with private contracts and just let people suffer because they have no place to go? No, the social costs would be much higher. I think having a significant segment of the population get evicted would have created a significant community problem resulting in a bigger impact on the economy.

Many of those at risk are people who don’t have an alternative place to live and are suffering all sorts of other ills that cost society more. Mass eviction would have made matters much worse. Do we find a way to have the government help by avoiding those significant social ills? I believe the answer is that it’s far to better to do so — it's far more costly in the long run not to do so, and it's more also more humane. The moratorium has allowed a significant number of people to at least gain some financial footing again. But some are finding themselves in a position where they have no solution right now. We're going to see evictions continue to rise. There are many reasons for this, and part of the problem is that the resources targeted to help these people haven't always been effectively distributed. In some cases, no resources exist or it is hard for people to find them and it’s hard for the government to get it out to people.

Q: Did the government's interference in this scenario allow a winners-and-losers scenario? A lot of landlords have complained they have not been reimbursed by the government, and some have even claimed they have gone broke and are now out on the streets.

A: That’s a legitimate question, but I don't think this is a winners-and-losers scenario because those people who are facing possible eviction aren't necessarily winners even if they were able to remain in their units for a year. To categorize those who receive benefits because of an unpredictable event and risk living on the streets for no fault of their own as winners simply because they've got some sort of government help is misunderstanding their situation. These people are not winning; they are surviving.

Now, did landlords pay a price? Absolutely, they paid a price. Were there some tenants that took advantage of the situation? Sure. There’s always those who do. But some landlords took advantage of it, too. There's possible perverse action on both sides of this equation, so that is not a reason to not help. But what's the consequence to the landlord? What we have here is a situation where you must look fully at what the consequences would have been if you let it run its course and allowed evictions. Would landlords have been able to rent all those units, or would we have had a collapse of and damage to the economy and society where rents began to fall anyway? I don't know the answer, but it was plausible. My point is we could have had a much bigger impact on the economy maybe resulting in landlords in the same financial place they are now or possibly worse. You’d have to run on some form or counterfactual analysis to determine this.

Q: This situation doesn't sound like it's going to correct itself anytime soon given that the housing and rental market prices aren’t coming down unless there’s a market collapse like during the Great Recession.

A: You are correct. The housing market is hot. So, when we talk about evictions, we're talking about renters. Let me pause one second because there's an important distinction here. The housing market constitutes both owners and renters, and this market affects both. But, for an owner who finds themself in financial stress as a result of the inability to pay their mortgage, they have a possible solution in this market. Their possible solution: They can easily sell their house. I think one of the positive roles that iBuyersinstant buyers and institutional, single-family-for-rent buyers have in the market is they allow people to easily get out of their houses without being underwater and risking foreclosure. But now what happens to those people when they have to sell their house? They further exacerbate the rental side of the marketplace, because now you get a bunch of people pushing into the rental market, and that increases demand on a tight supply. But the evicted renter has no easy solution.

My point is this: We must recognize that this is a system, and when you impact one part of the system you may affect other parts. And there's no difference here. What happens when people are evicted? They've got to live someplace, so where do they live? And the answer is, "I don't know," because the housing market is so tight, there's little inventory to allow people to make that choice, especially at the low end. Then you end up with what we call working poor or people that are so severely housing burdened because they must choose a solution that provides them with no safety margin in their financial world or no place to live at all. And we're not talking about people who are not, or do not want to work. We're talking about people our community depends upon like service workers, phlebotomists, X-ray techs, first responders, professional people who we depend on. This influences the entire community in general — it’s a social issue, and these social issues impact the economy, too. So, if a business owner does not have a social conscience they should still care because these are their employees who they may know.

How do you build a resilient, desirable, supportive, diverse place without being able to create an environment whose very people being affected by this can prosper? That's the difficulty in a tight housing market. Without some policy changes, we’re not going to find an easy solution.

Q: Do these policy changes need to happen on the federal or local level to correct this situation?

A: These are mostly local problems, but they also require federal support to ensure comprehensive housing policies on a local level because the issues that most affect the marketplace are local. Most of the regulations that really impact the marketplace are those emanating from local policymakers — state, county and local jurisdictions (cities and towns). I think you must start with the political leadership that occurs at the state level where you're driving a state housing policy that is done in concert with local jurisdictions. So, we have to start with leadership at the top. The private marketplace cannot solve this problem.

The Legislature did pass a state affordable-housing tax credit that supplements the federal low-income housing tax credit. That is good but not nearly enough because it helps no one who today, or next week or next year needs affordable housing. It takes more. We’ve got to get money out to the market, but local jurisdictions have a profound impact on the ability to build more affordable housing because of local zoning laws and the discretion of elected officials to approve higher-density and rental projects. But there's stigmatization when you begin talking about developing multi-family housing. There’s pushback from community members who don't like it. They believe that it's going to cause an increase in traffic and it's going to be evil people living in apartments and affordable housing and oh my gosh, that would be terrible. The bottom line is you must have the political will to support it at the local level.

Q: How long do you think it’ll take to get this under control?

A: Listen, you can't build your way out of this. This is the difficult part. We will not build ourselves out of this right now. If metro Phoenix continues to grow at the rate it is, we continue to generate more demand than supply. We may be able to do so over 10 years, but the problem that exists now has its roots in the Great Recession in a response to what had occurred. We have been underbuilt for so many years that you can't make that up quickly. So, we must find other ways to help solve the problem. Government has to find mechanisms to allow people to get out from underneath being housing burdened, specifically evictions. This is a monetary issue, pure and simple. The only way you solve the problem is to find solutions either through tax incentives, incentives for development, tax breaks of some sort or incentives for landlords or some mechanism that helps people to make up the gap in what they can afford or combination of things. If we do not solve the problem, we will have a significant social problem with much higher economic and human costs.

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

Reporter , ASU News