We were lucky enough to snag a spot at the sold out CreativeMornings show at this month’s partner, The Art Institute of Chicago in the Modern Wing to learn about the peculiar and fascinating life of Shawn Smith and Shawnimals.
First off, CreativeMornings is a monthly breakfast lecture series of creative types. The Chicago chapter of this international event is run by Mig Reyes of 37Signals and was attended by 115 small business owners, designers, artists, design agency and startup types. Spoiler Alert: CreativeMornings is also in the process of hosting next month’s meeting at Doejo.
Local character design studio, Shawnimals has been producing designer toys, lifestyle accessories, video games, apparel, etc., with a passion for creating lovable characters for its devoted fan base. Shawnimals founder and create director, Shawn Smith—a friendly bearded fella who describes his job essentially as making ninjas for a living—talked about who Shawnimals is as a company, their aesthetics and how the small design studio runs.
This is what we learned from Shawn Smith from Shawnimals.
1. Shawn is a big kid at heart: The artist holds a BFA in painting from Illinois State University and was a video game reviewer and gadget editor for Electronic Gaming Monthly from 1994-2000. “My background is in pop culture,” Shawn says. He started Shawnimals in 2002 in his apartment in college: “I thought it would be cool to create weird stuffed animals based on characters from my sketchbook.”
2. He works with his wife: The Shawnimals team consists of about five other artists, designers and techies but also Shawn’s wife and business partner Jen Brody. She takes care of the internal aspects of the company like HR and quality control. They actually met in college and launched Shawnimals together a year later.
3. Great storytelling is at their core: Shawnimals has a WIDE variety of characters consisting of about 450 characters that populate 23 different lands like “Zombie Ninja” and “Ell Ninja” in Ninja Town. These characters, for example, are a part of the “Ninja of the Month” club. Shawn says well-written narratives for each eccentric character is a big part of their success. With an order of a Shawnimals plush doll, for example, you get a character button, sticker and a signed/ numbered tag with a special mini background story.
4. Being a bit naive is good: There’s a level of naiveté that can work for your advantage as a company, he says. When the hobby-turned-business first started, it wasn’t about “buy now” but “hey, check out our characters.” This authentic, labor-of-love early business model helped Shawnimals build a non-corporate reputation.
5. They’re an infusion of art and commerce: “We want to make products that are design-conscious and artful,” Shawn said, but they’re also making products that sell to sustain the business, obviously. After the Nintendo DS release of “Ninja Town,” the Shawnimals site went from 500 to 10,000-20,000 unique visitors. They also currently have an iOS/ Android game app called “Ninjatown: Trees of Doom!” and the free “Ninjatown Ninja Builder.”
6. Shawnimals has VERY devoted fans: After showing an impressive stop motion video by a 13-year-old fan using Shawnimals characters and fan art, Shawn explained that fans collect sometimes hundreds of Shawnimals products. “It’s the highest form of flattery,” he said, “We are fans of our fans … It’s this level of ownership that our fans have taken on that has helped us understand the kind of impact we have.” Kids, adults and parents are constantly giving them glowing feedback.
7. Shawnimals is also a client-serving design studio: Clients such as MailChimp and LiveNation with Deadmau5 are just a few of Shawnimals clients seeking custom and collectible characters.