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Photo by Dami Lee / The Verge

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How Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob meme toys were birthed by the internet

Nickelodeon’s Creative Director of Toy Design, Freddy Tutiven, explains

To celebrate SpongeBob Squarepants turning 20 this year, Nickelodeon released a “Masterpiece Memes” vinyl figurine collection featuring the most beloved memes birthed from the show, including “Imaaagination SpongeBob” and “Handsome Squidward.” The 8-inch figurines, retailing for around $20 each, immediately sold out when they were first released, speaking to the enduring popularity of the show and how closely it mirrors the internet’s language.

“The SpongeBob memes are a top seller. It’s just that pop culture, that older audience,” says Freddy Tutiven, Nickelodeon’s creative director of toy design. Now Nickelodeon is working on the second wave of SpongeBob meme toys. Like the first wave, which memes are chosen will be determined by fan demand.

There aren’t a lot of other shows that have a natural connection to memes to the degree that SpongeBob has, but the success of the line has given Nickelodeon some ideas for other meme collections. “I think the next one, I might be talking too soon, but it might be Rugrats,” Tutiven says.

Throughout his 10 years at Nickelodeon, Tutiven has supervised the designs and development of thousands of toys, ones created both internally and through licensees. He also teaches toy design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a two-year BFA program that covers everything from traditional model making to technical engineering and product safety. Tutiven showed me around Nickelodeon’s Consumer Products division where I got to see concept art, one-of-a-kind prototypes, and rare art toy collections.

An anatomical Patrick sculpture from artist Jason Freeny’s Hidden Dissectibles line.

How does a toy become a collector’s item? “It’s all fan-based. A lot of pop culture artists, they gravitate to certain characters, and then they approach us, or we find them and say, ‘Hey, it’d be great to do a collaboration.’”

Inktober sketches from the design team. “We had a basket of words, where we just took out two words and then made new sketches out of that.”

A wall of concept art featuring other Viacom properties like Top Gun (which gets licensed to other toy companies like Funko), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Paw Patrol, as well as YouTube star JoJo Siwa. Siwa has an exclusive licensing deal with Nickelodeon and has sold 35 million bows alone since 2016. “What’s amazing about her, is that she does a lot of her own network. Anytime we make a product, she is a promoter of her own brand,” Tutiven says.

A traditional maquette of CatDog, which was first sculpted in clay, then created into a mold and completed with resin. Maquettes are used as “rough sketches,” in a sense, to get a feel for what a toy will look like, as well as provide the manufacturing partners with a model to work off of. “Now with technology, we don’t send these anymore. We just send the rigs and the 3D files to our partners, but it’s a great starting point.”

A maquette for a TMNT Krang figurine that never made it to production, for being too large and expensive.

An entire closet full of maquettes, featuring characters from shows like The Fairly Odd Parents, Dora the Explorer, and Rocket Power.

Stuffed plush toys are considerably harder to make than hard figurines, because they first have to be stitched by hand. “This helps us with the consistency of our brand characters,” Tutiven says. On the left is the one-of-a-kind, handmade rough of a TMNT toy, which serves as the model to replicate for the mass-production version sold in stores. All students in the FIT toy design program have to take a sewing course.

Spongebob-themed kitchen accessories: slow cookers, measuring cups, and a Krusty Krab ceramic butter dish, where the sign also doubles as a butter knife.

Photography by Dami Lee / The Verge


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