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Features / Illustration

Guess Who: John Goode on illustrating Action Man, My Little Pony and Guess Who?

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2013

Words by

Rob Alderson

Half an hour north of London, there lives someone who, chances are, helped shape what your childhood looked like. Is it a man? Yes. Does he wear glasses? No. Does he have a beard? Yes. Is it Jon? Spot on, Jon Goode to be precise, an illustrator who specialises in children’s toys and games. He created the faces for three versions of the wildly popular Guess Who?, two boxes for Buckaroo! and scores of images for Action Man, GI Joe and My Little Pony packaging. In the fiercely competitive world of toy marketing, Jon has for three decades been one of the go-to-guys for manufacturers who wanted their wares to stand out from the crowd. From box illustrations to game boards and even prototypes for new toys (he shows me some rough sketches for a Hannah Montana musical game) Jon gets what kids want and gets how to communicate with them.

After art school in Watford, Jon worked as a graphic designer before discovering an affinity with the airbrush. “It was seen as a bit of a black art back in the day and because there were only about 20 of us in the industry who could really use them, I started doing more and more illustration. When I started doing the games it was with Action Man. They had a guy who was great at doing faces and figures but he always fucked up when it came to the vehicles, so they brought me in.”

He moved on from packaging to the games themselves with Ghost Castle “and ended up backing myself into a bit of a cottage industry.” Ghost Castle led directly to Guess Who?.

“In the original version the faces were quite crude and the colour was quite flat. They wanted a more polished look and I worked on three derivations of it. You get given a template – so many people have to be bald, so many have to wear glasses, so many have to have beards. You get these funny instructions – four of them have to have big noses. But you are free to draw what you like – in the last version some of the staff from Hasbro wanted to feature in it so I put them in.” Immediately I start mentally trying to work out which ones these could have been. “They’ve replaced the ones I did now – the last time I saw them they were featured on the pub quiz machines.”

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For several years Jon’s working life was shaped by two real stalwarts of the toy scene.

“The My Little Pony season always coincided with the Action Man season. That was pretty grueling. With My Little Pony we’d be given one pack a week for ten weeks, and each one needed five little illustrated elements on it, matched up with the right Pantone colours. But I bought my first Harley on the back of My Little Pony.”

He split the two projects with his friend Mick, a fellow illustrator and one of several creatives that share the same office space just behind Luton train station. “They call us the moribund of artists in the pub,” he laughs. “Mick and I used to go up there about 10pm after a hard day’s pony painting with our faces covered in glitter. That was always a hard one to explain!”

He shows me an Action Man drawing he did for a fighter plane toy, and explains: “They wanted it to be flying through a city so they gave me a prototype and I took loads of photos from different angles. I worked out if I drew it from above you’d get the perspective and it would look right whichever way round you looked at the box.”

Jon always begins drawing out his ideas in pencil, then colouring them up in marker pen, before scanning them and layering the image up on the computer. His bookshelves are packed with diverse titles – The Surgery Book, Encyclopedia of the Horse, Mysteries of the Sea.

But sometimes his imagination has to be tempered with external considerations. He worked on the boards for various versions of a game called Destination!, one of which was set in Hogwart’s School of Harry Potter fame.

“Warner Brothers insisted the game layout had to work properly. People would say things like ‘They would not be able to go from there to there, they’d have to go round the Whomping Willow.’ I’d think for fuck’s sake, it’s a game!”

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Sometimes though Jon could have a little fun. “With the Cindy doll houses, I used to stitch them up so badly. Her bookshelves were full of the most inappropriate reading material and her DVD collections became famous.”

He remembers once being caught out working on My Little Party Pony. “I did a drawing of three ponies stood round with cocktails. With their different coloured lips and a slightly unsuitable angle of the eye” – he sketches out what he means – “it becomes something else. The lady phoned up and said, ‘You are going to have completely redo that. They look like a bunch of tarts!’.” Jon had the last laugh though. “I sold those drawings to a My Little Pony collector in America – he paid £1,000 for two visuals.”

But amid all the anecdotes Jon is very modest about his career. “I worked with some really good designers over the years but with games it helps if you are not that good. I’ve seen these great designers working for days but coming up with something that doesn’t really work. It’s the Apple approach; too nice, too clean but it’s not going to sell. Stick it on its side on a shelf in Toys R Us and it’s not going to work.”

But budgets have been squeezed and Jon admits it’s getting harder to secure proper payment for his craft. He’s moved onto creating covers for computer games, evolving along with the toy market. But he shouldn’t come cheap – he has a serious eye for graphic design and is baffled by some of the shoddy work he comes across. “At art school we had to do old school Roman lettering, I see national adverts now and think ‘How the fuck did that get through?’ They’ll say they did the kerning and that’s what the Mac told them it should be.”

And with that it’s back to work. He picks up a game called Banana Drama (“Don’t Take a Tumble in the Jungle!”). “There’s too much green, green is recessive and it doesn’t stick out on the shelf,” he says. “I’ll probably do it in yellow. Whenever I’m struggling on a box I go for bright yellow.”