“It feels like a family”: DesignbyChey’s Cheyenne Raker on the welcoming nature of the toy industry

Cheyenne Raker, DesignbyChey

Hi Chey, it’s great to chat! To kick us off, what set you on the path to design?
I got started in design back in eighth grade. There was a competition called Invention Convention. I entered it with an idea that I developed with my grandpa, and I won first place in my district. It sparked an interest in design and I wanted to continue to learn about how to develop my ideas. I went on to do my undergrad in Mechanical Engineering, but I didn’t find out about toy and game design until I was 22.

How did it pop up on your radar?
I started grad school at Georgia Tech doing a master’s in Industrial Design. I met a professor that did toy and game design on the side, and I had no idea that was even a thing! Since then, I was hooked and started reaching out to people on LinkedIn, learning as much as I could about the industry.

I also have to know, what did you and your grandpa invent to win first prize at Invention Convention?
It was a butter dispenser for popcorn. Usually, you just squirt your butter on top of the popcorn, but I was annoyed that the butter just sits on top. It doesn’t filter down throughout the tub. I came up with a perforated tube with a plunger, and this tube would go down into the popcorn and squirt out butter throughout the popcorn. It was a simple idea!

A top idea! Going back to toys, how was that process of getting to grips with the industry?
Honestly, it was amazing. It feels like a family. I listened to podcasts, I joined Women in Toys… It was such a welcoming community. I started by listening to Azhelle Wade’s podcast “Making it in The Toy Industry” – that helped me get into it. Then I joined WIT and gained a mentor – Todd Piccus, VP Global Head of Legal & Business Affairs at Mattel; that was great. Over time, I’ve acquired many more great mentors along the way who have been really encouraging.

I’ve got to give a shout-out to Dave Yearick of The Good Game Company. He’s been a great mentor to me ever since I first met him. My first in-person pitch event was in Dallas through the WIT Empowerment Day event in September 2022. I set up a meeting with him because his company looked like a good fit for one of my games and when I walked up to his booth he said: “It’s funny we’re talking because we’re from the same area… I’m also from Greenville, South Carolina”. I couldn’t believe it. We’ve remained in contact ever since. He’s like 15 minutes from me! He’s taught me a lot about the industry.

Cheyenne Raker, DesignbyChey

Brilliant. Now, last year saw you launch your own design studio in DesignbyChey. What prompted the move to do your own thing?
I was kind of forced into it! I worked full-time as a lighting designer for two years, doing toy and game inventing on the side. Then, in October 2023, I got laid off. I always wanted to do toys full-time, and this was the push that helped me do it. I needed it, and if there was ever a time to do it, this was it. Also, shout out to Lee Allentuck for helping me throughout the whole transition process!

The other big reason to work for myself is that I love Greenville, SC. I didn’t want to move to New York or California. I’m not a city girl! I love to help people and this way of life allows me to tap into so many different projects. It could be toy design one day, packaging the next. I love the diversity of work; it keeps me creative.

On that, what sorts of services are you offering clients?
I don’t like to pigeonhole myself because I get excited about lots of aspects of the toy industry. I’ve done 3D printing, CAD 3D modeling, packaging design, graphic design, industrial design, product design, mechanisms… All of the above!

And you’re doing both invention and work-for-hire design?
Yes, I’m doing both, but I am focusing on work-for-hire right now. I’ve had some inventors reach out about collaborating and that’s been exciting and fun. They have talents I don’t have and brainstorming ideas with other people makes them so much better. I still do some solo inventing, but it’s mostly collaborations now.

As you’re pitching more and more, what do you value in a partnership with a toy company?
I really value pitching in person. I sometimes don’t enjoy solely submitting to a portal, because I want to present myself as well as my idea. You can see my enthusiasm and passion in a face-to-face meeting, and I love getting solid feedback. I find it’s easier to get amazing feedback in a live meeting. I really value that.

Is there much crossover in terms of skillsets from your time as a lighting designer?
It helped me on the manufacturing side of things because we worked a lot with China. Understanding that side of things has been useful to what I’m doing now in toys. Also, I did 3D modelling every day in that job, coming up with new concepts… I was a CAD junkie! That all feeds into what I do now.

And what helps you have ideas? What tops up your creative tank?
Life! I’ll go for a walk and inspiration strikes. The best ideas arrive when I’m doing mundane tasks. Also, talking to people really helps ideas take shape. Asking ‘what if?’ and brainstorming is great. And Greenville is also a great place to be a creative. It’s beautiful, the people are amazing, the weather is great – and it’s an art-centred city. As a place, it values artists.

On the flipside, does anything kill creativity for you?
My engineering brain!

Oh! How so?
I have a design brain and an engineering brain. When my engineering brain takes over, it kills my creativity because it says things like: ‘That’s too expensive; it’s not going to work!’ It convinces me that an idea sucks before I’ve had a chance to prototype it and work things through. That happened a lot when I was working as a lighting designer. I have to shut it off to be creative.

Chey, this has been fun! How can people reach out if they want to connect?
They can head to my website, https://designbychey.com/. My contact info is there, or people can reach out to me directly at [email protected]. Or through Linkedin – I’m on there way too much!

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