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Meet Alena Niu

Today we’d like to introduce you to Alena Niu.

Alena, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My journey from a Biology major to a toy designer started at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

I was on track to become a doctor like many first-generation Asian-American kids whose hard-working immigrant parents hope for success and the best life for their kids.

I didn’t know anything about design and even less about it as a possible career. Somehow I learned about product design in those first years. As a junior, when everyone was studying abroad, I decided to study Industrial Design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. That semester, I fell in love and found what I was meant to do! When I returned to the US, I decided to pursue a career in industrial design. My parents were very supportive, but they insisted that I finish my degree before any further education in design. Challenge accepted!–I finished up my credits and graduated a semester early from Cornell with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. I used the next few months to apply to design schools while my friends finished up their degrees.

That summer, I ended up interviewing at several design schools including a few in New York City. In one particular interview, I remember being asked about what types of things I wanted to design. I said I wanted to design products for children and that I was really interested in toys. The dean of the program then gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received (which also felt like an instant rejection at the time!) He told me that if I really want to design toys, I should go to the Fashion Institute of Technology for their Toy Design program. FIT has the most established and the world’s first toy design program. I was shocked to find out that design careers and design education could get even more specific to my interests. Design is crazy like that, I guess! I was accepted into FIT’s Toy Design program, and I focused the next two years on developing my skills as a toy designer. That included learning about play, drawing, engineering, child psychology, sewing, model making, and more, with the ultimate goal of getting my dream job designing toys!

After I graduated from school, I got a job at Fisher-Price in New York City, where I worked on toy lines for some of my childhood faves: Minnie Mouse, Dora the Explorer, Alvin & the Chipmunks and more! I grew as a designer and I became really interested in design leadership and strategy. Back to school, I went! I received my Master’s Degree in Strategic Design Management from Parsons School of Design while I was working at Fisher-Price. I studied alongside a mix of designers and business people from all over the world and from many different industries! I really can’t express how important and valuable it was to step out of my industry bubble during this time. I widened my view of design, innovation, and what is possible with my classmates at Parsons.

After managing a small team of designers at Fisher-Price, in 2017, I got the opportunity to manage product design for the Barbie team at Mattel in El Segundo. My boyfriend (now husband), Alex and I packed up our Manhattan studio apartment (including our two cats, Godzilla and Megalon) into a U-Haul and drove it across the country to Los Angeles!

Fast forward to today, I now manage product design for the team that comes up with new fashion doll lines for Mattel. Fun and fashion are literally my job! My team is so talented, creative and passionate! Everyone has their own journey, but I feel really lucky that we all found our way to working together!

NY will always be a huge part of me, but I am so grateful to be here now living in sunny, flowery, ocean breezy LA!

Has it been a smooth road?
The road from biology to designing toys has been more winding and long than bumpy.

I guess the bumpiest part for me was just finding where the road was in the first place. Growing up and even up to the beginning of college, I had no idea how vast my career options actually were. I was always artistic and took art classes throughout school, but I never learned about art and design careers.

Once I found out about product design and then toy design, I feel like the path has been pretty smooth (knock on wood!). Don’t get me wrong!-I actually think toy design school was even harder than Cornell! There were a lot of all-nighters, and a lot of work in general. You can always put more work into design and never be finished. I’m sure I also worked harder because I was passionate about what I was doing!

There have definitely been challenges and stresses, but I like to think that I welcome a challenge as a learning experience. I’ve been lucky enough to work in supportive environments throughout my career where wins are celebrated as a team and losses are lessons for the next time! Without this, I’m sure there would have been a lot more memorable struggles. Instead, I hope I’m just a better designer for working through all my experiences so far.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I’m a toy designer and a design manager. I’m so lucky to work with so many talented designers who are creators and storytellers. We work cross-functionally to bring new doll brands into the world. It’s really exciting because we have the freedom and the ability to build toy brands from the ground up from nothing but strategy, ideas and vision. But we definitely can’t do it alone, and I am so grateful for the talented teams that help us to create amazing products. From the many designers, sculptors, sewing team, painters, model makers, skilled hair rooters, and engineers. It’s all of these people who help make toys come to life!

I am so proud to work at a place that had such a huge impact on my own childhood, and I’m really honored to have the chance to impact the lives of today’s kids! There is no better feeling than seeing a kid playing with and loving a toy that I helped put out into the world! It is a huge opportunity and responsibility to be a part of what kids will remember about their childhoods. I remember so many toys from my childhood and I’m so thankful to the designers who came before me and led me to becoming a toy designer myself!

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
As a three year transplant to LA from NY, I am still learning about LA! I have a horrible sense of direction and my friends know that I never know where any part of LA is in relation to another. I’m also not a great driver, so I guess having to drive everywhere is my dislike.

What do I like best about LA though? I love so many things about LA! I love the amount of creativity that exists here. It’s a colorful city that breeds and fosters creativity! I love the historic, kitschy, and mid-century aesthetic that can be found throughout the city in random buildings and signs! I love the tiki bars, and I really hope they reopen someday! I love carwashes with rainbow foam! I love the sun, hummingbirds, the flowers, and the ocean breeze! I love how crazy people are about Halloween here!

In my few years living here, I’ve found one of my favorite places that exist in the whole world, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater! It’s such a fun place filled with historic and famous marionettes, talent, creativity, streamers, and usually ice cream! I actually even just got married there in a Zoom elopement ceremony in August. A sparkly star-shaped marionette officiated for us, and it was pretty awesome.

I love that LA has so much history, and I love that now it’s a part of mine too!

Contact Info:

  • Email: alenaniu@gmail.com
  • Instagram: alenanews

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