Laughed at for wanting to follow your passion? Success is the best revenge. ↓
Have you ever felt like you’re not getting the support you need to succeed, especially from the people closest to you? Then you need to read every word of this interview with David Horvath – co-creator of the globally successful Uglydoll brand.
David, with the widespread success of Uglydolls, you are being hailed as one of the top character designers in the world, did you have this passion for toys as a kid?
David: When I was 12, the class was going around discussing what they wanted for Xmas, etc. The boys wanted Atari, footballs, etc. I already had all of that in my garage, so I said I wanted GOLION, a die cast metal Japanese robot. Many of the kids laughed until I explained that it said “ages 13 and up” on the box, meaning they weren’t old enough to play with it just yet. Then they kinda just stayed away. So in a way, the cool kids became the outsiders and I stayed put.
So it sounds like you chose to follow your own path from an early age. Did you get any support from the people around you?
David: My mother was a designer at Mattel for many years. I wish that had helped me some but the honest truth is, she wasn’t permitted to discuss her job with me and she stayed loyal to that golden requirement. The only way I knew she still worked there was through catalogs and purple He-Man errors brought home. But those catalogs were inspiring. I always knew that I wanted to tell stories through toys.
The resistance came from my father, who told me that surrounding myself with toys and quitting Art Center to go work at a toy store would never amount to me making my own toys. He would tell all his professional contacts and co-workers about his waste-of-life son locked up in his toy room, working at a toy shop. He made many a famous or well-known professional in the art and design world shake their head at me (being told his version, not mine). So there was resistance. Luckily, I didn’t care. He wanted to be a photographer more than anything in the world, but went into advertising because it seemed more stable to him. Avoiding your life passion out of fear is a no-no in my book.
When he would freak out over why I had so many toys (over 40 of them!) I would ask him why science majors had beakers and slides all around their room. He didn’t get it. Anyway, when I was 19, I did indeed quit advertising at Art Center so that I could go work at a local boutique toy shop, to learn the ins and outs of non-mass market toy distribution and observe moms, dads, and kids buying toys in a retail environment. That job also got me into toy fair, and got me deep into the side of toys I knew would prove to be very important if I wanted to make my dreams come true and go at it on my own.
Making toys means nothing if you don’t have any clue what will happen to them once they’re done. Now I hear my father clips articles and such, but from my early teens until well after we started Uglydoll, he told me toys and those stuffed doo-dads were a waste. It’s easy to get behind your kid when he’s in the paper, but with our daughter I want to be sure to be there for her during the process, not the irrelevant outcome. I hope I can use my past run in with this resistance as a life lesson so that I can do better than he did when raising my own child.
So your love of toys was a hard path to follow then, but what about your growth as an artist?
David: I didn’t set out to be an artist. I still draw the same way I did when I was 10. Is it art? I don’t really care but I did see a certain path I wanted to take as someone who spends their time working on their own toys and children’s books. It was mostly mental maybe? I knew this is how it was going to go, as I wouldn’t have it any other way. Many months on my sister’s floor in the early days, and skipping meals sometimes when things got serious at the start. But that stuff is always thrown in to test how dedicated you are. I always say if someone from the future travels back in time to tell you your lifelong dream will fail 100%, and you still go for it anyway, it will work.
You clearly had passion, did you set any specific goals from the beginning or did you wing it as you went along?
David: There was no winging it and the plan was always very specific. We get tons of emails asking how to do XYZ, which is great. I pretty much reply the same way each time, that in my experience, taking the same path someone else did results in getting close but never where you want to end up. Ignoring those paths and making up your own route leads you to where you really belong, wherever that may be.
Can you share any techniques you use to help you focus on achieving your goals?
David: Ugh I wish you asked before the “Secret” came out, but actually I have always believed in the law of attraction since I first read about it many years ago. I use this now pretty much scientifically proven method by the hour and it works. Your mind affects the universe, and it also creates it. Your thoughts absolutely determine your reality. How you generally feel inside, and what thoughts you generally carry in your head, is what’s going to keep coming at you. This is a huge part. The biggest. The rest is all minor detail, actually.
What about the excuses many people have for not following their creative dreams: no money, time, credibility, support etc.? Did you ever confront these same doubts?
David: Those aren’t excuses. Those are hurdles. Just need to jump. We had zero help. Zero cash. Ah but we had a needle, a scanner, a pen, an old borrowed digital camera, and a mac lap top which I got by selling my 2 older macs from when I had a job before. That first sewn doll sold for $30.00 And then the next one sold. Soon we had $3000! So we used that to make more and keep it all growing.
I had one design-ish art job after graduating from Parsons with Sun-Min. It didn’t last long. The first few weeks were great and I had a lot of fun animating in Flash until the boss told me to change a color to purple, and that was it for me. And I was super zapped by the end of the day anyway, too tired to work on my own stuff. Lesser paying jobs, be it retail stores or coffee houses, are great because you get so pissed off that your dream work comes out no matter what. But a “real” job with co-workers wanting to hang out and drink, late hours, weekends, and comfortable money coming in, is a dream killer.
When we decided to start for real, I slept on my sister’s floor for 9 months eating not much more than cereal, plain white bread, and salads. And then moved to a tiny illegally erected bedroom within an industrial building in the then very scary DUMBO, Brooklyn, surviving on a daily menu of egg on a roll in the morning, a bagel and coffee for lunch, and really good $3.00 chicken legs from a local corner stand at night. Rent was a few hundred bucks, paid for by selling everything I owned in LA, keeping 5 days of clothes and not much else. I bought an air bed but had no table, so the computer was on the bed. $5.00 a day was the food limit. Laundry was once a week, and monthly subway passes were $80. I had nothing else and often went without the coffee.
A Japanese magazine shooting “famous artists” homes came to do a shoot, and elected to take photos of someone else’s much nicer room in the building just to avoid wasting a whole day. They even dressed it with our dolls. ( I tried to tell them.)
I lived this way for the first 2 years of Uglydoll when everyone was calling me a millionaire. One guy called me just that on a day I had to skip lunch to survive. Then Sun-Min [my partner and co-designer] and I basically lived on the road when we went into full production and sales grew. Until we were married, we lived in hotels, traveling from trade show to trade show, driving across the US, stopping by small towns to find small shops.
Did you ever go out and actively ask people for help and advice?
David: I realized when I was much younger, after calling up Gary Baseman for some very good advice, that I was getting great advice on how to do things a way they had already been done. The best advice I can give is to get as much input as you can, and then don’t follow any of it.
Now you’ve been in the industry for many years do you find it easier to call on your creativity at will? Do you have any tips for being more creative more often?
David: I just make what comes out. For the Ugly Guide books, there’s no sketches. I draw and write with a pen. No eraser, so it’s all a mistake. As for how to be more creative more often, sit down and work. Done deal. Even if crap comes out, sitting down and getting to work is what matters. Read “The War Of Art” by Steven Pressfield. That will help with the procrastination, if that’s the issue. That book was a great help and I am pretty sure the above is a quote from that book. It’s engrained into my brain, so plagiarism not intended.
How do you keep your energy up with all the work required to make it in this business?
David: Meditation. Avoid all drugs and late week nights out. Basically be what losers call a “loser”. Stay home and make stuff for other people to go do. Avoid the “scene” and avoid hanging with the top artists in them. Scene-sters and others trying to “make it” like to keep each other in check and hold each other back, and they hate anyone who breaks away.
And your views on fitness?
David: Mental fitness is just as important as physical. Food is important. No soda. I quit all soda. But what’s most important is monitoring your daily, almost hourly mindset. Do you carry “Life is tough, life sucks” in your head all day? Then it will be. Careful, because the music, movies and games you repeat over and over too often can keep you in a certain mindset, good or bad.
David: If you’re living a rock and roll life style, you get your photos in the backs of magazines only you and your buddies read and not much else.
My title is : Nerdy Japanese robot collector and strong believer in UFOs, ghosts, and the paranormal. The artist part is helping me save my pennies so I can switch over to UFO research full time. For real. See my blog for more on that. It’s boring though, so careful.
Ghost hunting aside, how often in your creative work do you find yourself doing things that you are afraid of?
David: My daily routine is wake up, do things that make me afraid, eat, sleep, draw, repeat. If you’re afraid, you’re on the right track. Keep at it! Just don’t discuss it or dwell on it.
Fear is fine but don’t use it as a way to not do what you need to do. Talking about your fear can lead to a nightly talk about your fears while drinking beer. Forget that. Do your work, then drink.
How often do you find yourself failing at something or abandoning a piece of work?
David: The real failure is not starting. So, never.
Isn’t it a shame they don’t teach that approach in school!
David: Math was my favorite art class. I used to fill in my test answers with UFO drawings. I got an F but was I wrong? That’s the key. But if you get all A’s in school, what does that mean? Good job little Johnny, you memorized what we told you to and filled in the blanks. Maybe it’s better to fail. I want to send our daughter to a school where they have a good balance of math, science, nutrition, financial planning and no tests. So basically home school.
Early on I taught a class, once a week, at Otis Art School for one year. It was supposed to be a flash animation class, but I turned it into a self help class. The class was called “quit, get your tuition back before the deadline, and use that money to make your dreams come true, because this place is simply training you to work for someone else”.
Are there any lessons you’ve learned about money that you’d like to pass on to other people just starting out?
David: Money! I’ll never forget our second year at Toy Fair. Many designer toy production houses set up booths after seeing how well we seemingly did the year before. As I passed the booths, one of the guys was rubbing his hands, literally, and told me “well, I’m ready to make a million dollars!” I looked back and said “You mean spend a million dollars, right?” He looked at me with a sort of ghost face, and sure enough, he didn’t set his booth up the following year.
There’s nobody out there making instant cashola. There’s no “All you got to do is ________”. Even the guys you think hit it rich, did so well after you thought they did. A few smarty’s make it SEEM like they are making it big time, with hopes of selling their brand or company and its “perceived value” to larger companies looking to grab up a “hip, hot property/brand”, but no…its going to be a lot of work and nobody with some magic money wand is coming.
Hopefully. When the money comes in, save it! Or better, grow it. You’re going to need most of it to keep it all going. Making a lot of money costs a lot of money! And according to the music videos, when you make it big time, being a millionaire means buying nice cars and big houses, right? Well turns out, those are expensive!!! But the money is not as important as the “starting out” part… START! That’s all you have to do. Really. You’ll be surprised to find how few people do.
Don’t tell ANYONE what you’re up to either. Don’t reveal your plan to ANYONE! Not because it’s a secret, but because something in the universe happens when you tell us what you’re going to do instead of just doing it. The universe takes it all away and you never start. Tell us what you did, not what you’re going to do. Then you’ll be fine.
With success comes more attention, is life in the public eye what you thought it would be when you set out?
David: Some kid posted a self-made animated movie up on one of those movie sharing websites with characters that looked just like ours. So we made him take it down. Sad, because he was very talented and got a million hits. He called us evil and posted that we are evil all over the internet. Many fans of his movie called us evil too. Should we see him in person, who knows if there’s a danger.
But the truth is, if a giant entertainment company or toy company is looking to rip us off (and they are) and sees a kid with imitations of our stuff, they copy THAT instead of ours…and when we go after the said big company, they claim that our stuff is not unique, using those copy cat works as examples. And if we don’t go after everyone, they can claim we are selective. And there’s a lot of copy cats. We work very hard to stop them. So we make a lot of enthusiastic kids with a lack of understanding in the copyright & trademark realm very upset. I don’t like that part. That kid was very talented and the animation was a college final. His professor should have told him way beforehand.
So how do you handle negative attention?
David: After an art show with Dehara at Giant Robot, a boyfriend of one of the employees, who was apparently helping out, came over to let me know that he hated my work, and that he believed my work missed an opportunity to “say something” to the viewer. (I made drawings of sad fat little kids raised on junk food emerging from video game packaging and internet browsers.)
I was fine with his comments, and after listening as intently as I do to the good comments, I started to move on with a sort of “Thanks for sharing your thoughts” polite kinda way.
Uh but he kept at it, sort of chasing me around and started to add insults such as “if someone gave one of these to me as a gift, I would throw it away” (which is a horrible thing to do, I think. A gift is a gift, good or bad.) Anyway I soon realized, sadly, that my first true live and in-person critic had turned out to be not much more than a drunkard heckler who only wanted to somehow lift himself up by trying to bring me down. I then realized he really was helping out there and his job was to take photos of anyone who bought the art. I always buy a few of Dehara’s pieces when he has a show so as he took my photo, he said stuff like “try to look like you care.” Etc to try to get a rise out of me. I didn’t say anything, and I thanked him for taking my photo. There’s no come back to drunken jealousy, so you should never try. It wastes your energy.
I’m human and a few things bring me down. But a joker like that never could. I felt embarrassed for him, because I know what makes people say such things. It’s the rot you feel when you don’t do your own work. When you don’t do your work and let fear take over for too long, you begin to hate seeing others get theirs done and up on the wall, page, screen, etc.
I only remember him because nobody before him or after him has said anything negative about my work to me in person. Uh, except for some of my past art teachers. If you do your work, and know you gave it your all, and if you live your life the way you really know you were born to, other people’s negativity seems to roll right off.
Credits: Interview P Montreal, A Greenham. Images D Horvath.