The Birth of BB8: Interview with toy designer Thomas Tretter


Spin Master is one of the leading companies in the toy and games industry due to their incredibly innovative and tech-savvy creations. Since their establishment in 1994, Spin Master has been developing some of the most cutting-edge toys and has quickly become one of the most recognized and respected producers of playthings in the toy industry.

Thomas Tretter is one of the in-house designers at the Spin Master Corporation, where he is the director of boy’s design. Thomas works out of the Los Angeles office and oversees the design and development on all of the boy’s action lines. Although Thomas has only been with Spin Master for three years, he has over fifteen years of product and toy design experience under his belt.

Interestingly, Thomas started out working in the film industry doing everything from creature and character design to story boards for major films and TV shows. His first job as a toy designer was working for The Marketing Store developing licensed promotional toys for the McDonalds Happy Meal program. Aside from comic books, movies and toys, Thomas credits his mother with having been a big influence on his becoming a toy designer since she was a well know doll designer and had her own collector line through Ashton Drake Galleries. As Thomas stated, “Growing up around my mother sculpting, drawing and painting definitely piqued my interest in the arts. She would also attend the New York Toy Fair to sign her dolls for the collectors.”

Although he is a Chicago native, Thomas attended high school in upstate New York and currently resides in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, California, with his wife Myra. Recently, Thomas granted an exclusive interview about his experiences working in the toy industry:

Meagan Meehan (M.M.) of Entertainment Vine: How did you get interested in toy design?

Thomas Tretter (T.T.): I was working in the film industry as a creature and character designer. I was noticing how most the work I was doing was going to digital formats so I decided to go back to school to brush up on my design skills in the digital realm. During this time I interviewed for a job that was looking for designers and illustrators that were familiar with licensed characters. That job turned out to be a designer role at a company called The Marketing Store developing promotional premiums (Happy Meal Toys) for McDonald’s. So, from that moment I discovered the world of toys and knew I was in a line of work that I loved. I worked for a few more promotional marketing companies (Equity Marketing, Strottman) before I made the jump to retail. I’m very happy working at Spin Master and I love the innovative culture.

M.M.: As a child, what were your favorite toys? Do you think they impacted the kinds of things you now design?

T.T.: Hands down I was a Star Wars toy fanatic. My Star Wars toys and others definitely are linked to what I work on today. I oversaw the design and development for Spin Masters Legendary Yoda (BB-8 is our follow up item) and the serendipitous moment with that project goes back to something I did as a child. I had a vinyl Yoda puppet that I loved. For my birthday I received a remote control R2-D2. The first thing I did with that RC R2-D2 was take it apart and attempt to put all its circuitry and mechanics into my Yoda puppet. Of course I was unable to bring my Yoda puppet to life but it is funny looking back now because I oversaw the design and development on the Spin Master Yoda. At least he worked. So working on this BB-8 toy is definitely a childhood dream. I am beyond gracious to be involved on this project. Plus my mother was an artist so being around her while she worked influenced me as well.

M.M.: Generally, what is your product design process like? For example, do you use any special tools or programs?

T.T.: Collaboration is key. We have such an innovative culture here at Spin Master. What we always start with is a brainstorm. Once we identify what we want to develop we get into the details of the toys play pattern. At this point we have our design team working closely with our brand team identifying key features of the toy. You will see tons of drawings illustrating toy concepts pinned to boards. After many reviews we usually dial in what we want the toy to do and we get our vendors, Asia team etc., started on model making. We go through several rounds of models before we go to production. Everything from basic drawing skills to 3D software is a part of this process. But what is key is a bunch of creative people working together driving innovation, play and fun. Design, Marketing, Engineering and Inventors are all key players in the process.

M.M.: What have been the most interesting and/or rewarding parts of making toys?

T.T.: I love when I go to the toy store and I see kids getting excited over toys I worked on. It’s a visceral experience. When I see kids getting excited over toys it reminds me of my childhood. I loved art, comic books and drawing and that love was sparked by the toys I had as a kid. So seeing a kid get excited makes me think somehow I’ve inspired that child to do something creative or fun later in life.

M.M.: How did you get involved with Spin Master?

T.T.: I always admired products that Spin Master developed. I was a creative director at another company and I took a job with Spin Master as a design manager. I was willing to take any position that was available and fortunately the design manager was available and I was chosen to come aboard. I remember coming to Spin Master for an interview back in 2009 and I said to myself I have to work here. So back in 2012 I interviewed again and here I am.

M.M.: You have created an awesome BB8. How did you get to that project?

T.T.: I oversee design for the boy’s action group. Star Wars/Lucasfilm is one of the brands under my management. As a design director you tend to focus on the bigger projects from an individual standpoint. And coming fresh off of our Legendary Yoda I was ready for BB-8. I do get a lot of the credit but I have to admit it’s a collective process. I oversee the design, drive the development and do have a heavy hand on the play pattern. But I couldn’t do my job without my team. Our outside vendors and inventors are a huge part of how we work at Spin Master. Plus our CCO Ben Varadi pushes us to be better than great and is a stickler for play pattern. You have to have someone like Benny pushing you. It keeps us on our toes. So I got to this project with a great team.

M.M.: What are your career aspirations over the next ten years?

T.T.: I truly want to keep on delivering outstanding toys that children will refer to as adults. I love hearing people talk about their favorite toys. I want to be that old creative guy that tells young adults that their favorite toy was one I worked on.

M.M.: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to enter the toy or game design industry?

T.T.: Focus on the area you excel in (drawing, digital, engineering, marketing, etc.) There are many areas to work in which coincide with toy and game design. Whatever it is you do well bring that to the table. If you want to design toys focus on traditional drawing but push yourself to expand your creative thinking, Ideation is key. Get familiar with digital design software. You have to be skilled with the tech tools that support product design. Find a school that specializes in toy and product design. There are quite a few out there.

M.M.: Are you currently working on any projects that you would like to mention?

T.T.: I have quite a few projects on the table, so stay tuned!

* * * * *

To learn more about Thomas Tretter visit his LinkedIn profile. To learn more about Spin Master, visit their official website.

* * * Please support independent press * * *
Thank you!