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Alum Doesn’t Play Around When it Comes to Toy Design

Design alum Jim Swearingen was the first person in Cincinnati to read the unreleased script for Star Wars in 1976. He went on to design the toys associated with the 1977 mega-blockbuster and hasn’t slowed down since. Jim’s latest toy designs are games and figures associated with Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest.

Date: 8/18/2006
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover
UC ingot It’s a good thing toy designer Jim Swearingen keeps his batteries fully charged – because  he’s a toy designer in demand.

Jim’s latest creations, associated with the movie Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest and completed with the help of partners Tim Effler and Chris Reiff, had a fast turn-around time of less than a year. These were the “Isla Cruces” play set, a “Black Pearl ship” play set as well as seven-inch action figures of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and new character Davy Jones, a half-man/half-crustacean figure.

Jim Swearingen

In order to complete this work, Jim and his partners at SOEDA, Inc., had the chance to read the Pirates II script early on. Also, they saw early drawings and still photographs from the movie. What’s more, Jim may even do some figures from Pirates III, but he’s quick to add, “That’s nothing I can talk about.”

“You see,” he adds, “Because of the short life cycle of most of these products, there’s no industry more security conscious than the toy industry. They’re nearly on a par with the Defense Department.”

But Jim can and does happily talk about his Pirates II creations, especially the Black Pearl play set. Most play sets, he explains, have three main features while “the rest is fluff.” Not so with the Black Pearl play set. Says Jim, “The decks expand. The guns deploy through portholes that open on the sides of the ship. Cannons fire. Walls give way. An escape chute deploys. All with accompanying electronic sounds. It is an exciting toy because the manufacturer, Zizzle out of Chicago, was willing to put a lot into the product. They wanted a toy with more.”

Jim Swearingen
Jim Swearingen with two of the Pirates II action figures he helped design: Davy Jones and Will Turner.

And that’s also why Zizzle first turned to Jim and his partners when they needed to go from concept to finished product in less than a year for the Pirates II toys. After all, Jim has 30 years of experience in both designing and marketing toys.

He started out his credit-filled career in the University of Cincinnati’s top-ranked industrial design program. “I’d been accepted to design programs on the East and West Coasts and elsewhere, but I opted for UC,” he states. “The co-op program at UC made perfect sense to me, and in the university setting, the design programs here offered so much. You could be a design student but also take dance at CCM (UC’s College Conservatory of Music) or also study Chinese in A&S (UC’s McMicken College of Arts & Sciences).”

During his student days, Jim co-opped at two toy makers – Rainbow Crafts and Kenner Co. – as well as for Phillips Electronics in the Netherlands. While all were great experiences, what Jim really recalls from his student days were the Vietnam War protests and civil unrest that – like his co-op work quarters – influenced the course of his life.

“We DAAP (College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning) students really didn’t participate in the war protests. In fact, when other students took over campus and were smashing windows and throwing furniture out on the lawns, we design students actually stood guard on our studios,” laughs Jim. “We had far too much of ourselves invested in our design projects to risk that they might be tossed out a window!”

Upon graduating in 1972, Jim was all set to go to work for a Columbus design firm when the Vietnam War – or rather – the army intervened. “The Vietnam draft was in force at the time. I had a fairly low number in the lottery, number 63, which meant I was likely to be called up. When the Columbus firm found that out, they dropped me like a hot potato. However, my co-op supervisor from Kenner remembered me and remembered my work. He told me that if I ever wanted a job, I just had to say the word. So, that’s what I did,” recalls Jim.

So, in the end, flat feet may have kept Jim out of the military, but his UC co-op experience got him into Kenner.

Jim Swearingen
Jim Swearingen with an X-Wing fighter. Behind him are other Star Wars-related toys he helped design.

At Kenner, his first mega-toy designs grew out of the movie Star Wars. Remembers Jim, “I was the first person to read the George Lucas’ Star Wars script. It was in 1976, the year before the movie came out in 1977. This script came to us, and I remembered having seen an earlier film by George Lucas, THX1138, when it had shown at UC under the sponsorship of the UC film society. So, I took the Star Wars script home to read. The next day, I gave the script to my boss, and said, ‘You’ve got to read this. We’ve got to make these toys.’”

In some ways the Star Wars action figures and toys changed the standards in the industry, according to Jim. Up to that point, he said action figures consisted of very large-sized dolls like G.I. Joe. However, look at the Star Wars action figures, and you’ll see that they’re about four inches tall.

“We discovered we had to make them small,” states Jim. “That’s because we had to be able to fit them inside the space ships like the X-Wing fighters. There was no way we could make the ships large enough to accommodate traditional 12-inch action-figure sizes of the time.”

From 1976-79, Jim worked on toy designs associated with Star Wars and even recalls lunching with George Lucas at one point. Says Jim, “I even got to pet George’s dog, an Alaskan malamute called ‘Indiana.’”

“We were out in California to prepare for some new toy design. It was between movies, and we were going to produce a Boba Fet character. So, we were out looking at the costume and taking reference photos. My boss had wandered off with a producer, and I was left alone to have lunch with George and Indiana. I often wonder what might have happened had I thought to ask Lucas for a job at that time.”

But Jim didn’t think of it, and so, he returned to toy design career and has since worked on toys related to the Pirates movies as well as those associated with movies like Alien, Jurassic Park, Men in Black and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s also designed a range of other toys for Kenner, Fisher Price and Hasbro as well as products like lunch boxes, tool boxes, coffee carafes, watches and more.

In 1992, he formed his own Cincinnati-based design firm, SOEDA, Inc., with two partners, and despite his then-20 years experience in toy design and marketing, Jim says starting his own firm was heart stopping. He states, “I think it was when I finally felt like a responsible adult.”

Now that Jim has had ten years as a “responsible adult” helping to run a business, he’s ready for a new stage. Jim’s stepping away from his core product design business to work on projects that intrigue him from a different perspective. Special ventures that just “make me happy,” he states. “I’m coming to a point where I don’t need to chase product development jobs.”

One of his efforts consists of revisiting DAAP where he’s been a guest lecturer in industrial design classes taught by Tom Osborne, a former SOEDA partner.

Jim Swearingen with Kimmy Cares dolls.
Jim Swearingen with Kimmy Cares dolls.

Another ongoing project is a series of dolls, a book and a Web site called Kimmy Cares. The dolls will serve as tools for families affected by cancer. For instance, the first doll and book are designed to help mothers with cancer explain the treatment process as well as the emotions associated with cancer care. Explains Jim, “The doll comes with removable hair and with wig and scarf accessories. One of the most frightening things for children is when a mother dealing with cancer may lose her hair from chemo.”

On this project, Jim is working with Kris Kalnow of Hyde Park, and both were inspired in the effort by Kris’ sister, Kim Goebel, who died of brain cancer. “It was Kim’s dream to put a project like this together to help children and families. We’ll launch the effort in October, and profits from the sales of books and dolls via the Web will benefit families dealing with cancer, to aid them with the smaller, every day expenses like child care and transportation.”

It’s how Jim now wants to practice design: Not so much as a business where day-to-day expenses and year-end profits are a large part of the focus, but rather as a vehicle to benefit others. “It’s all been fun – all the years I’ve spent in making toys. But to do this kind of work and also not to stress so much about the financial details… Well, that’s even more fun.”

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