Design Edge Rocks 30 Years of Toy Innovation
(Mark, Linda, Matt, Michelle, Nico and Lucas)
How does a typical day begin at Design Edge studios?
“On my way to the office this morning, I was stuck in a traffic jam behind truckloads of fake palm trees that were headed for a film set,” says Matt Nuccio.
Located on the Gold Coast movie studio lot in Bethpage, New York, Nuccio’s business address is wildly colorful and a little unpredictable. Neighbors also include a pyrotechnic company and a candy company, making it the perfect atmosphere for the explosive creativity that’s been coming from the Nuccio family for more than 30 years.
The company has earned a well-deserved reputation for pushing the envelope with skillful, modern design that tests creative boundaries. Packaging that jumps from the shelf in the store aisle and product development that finds a better way to do things are hallmarks of their work. Paired with bigger-than-life personalities, deep industry relationships, a thirst for learning and a knack for creating win-win situations, Design Edge rocks the 21st century toy business at a time when the industry ranks are skewing older and young, fresh talent is in high demand.
Making–do Breeds Genius
Founder, Mark Nuccio, grew up in the 1950s and 60s in a modest New York city household in the borough of Queens. His father fought in World War II, then worked for the postal service, and had his family later in life. Both parents were creative people and encouraged creative play in their children.
But money was scarce and store-bought toys were a luxury they could not afford. Instead, they supplied their children with plenty of crayons, paste and modest art supplies. So, Mark and his brother, Chris Sr., made their own toys using these and other found items.
This was the era of the legendary Louis Marx Toy empire, a time when cowboys, the wild west, and historical events dominated pop culture and the airwaves in the emerging Golden Age of Television.
Marx created a long series of children’s playsets during this period, inspired by action-packed weekly shows like Gunsmoke, Roy Rogers, Robin Hood, Davy Crockett and the Alamo.
The young Nuccio brothers were enchanted with those television programs… and captivated by those unattainable Marx playsets.
“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”
Not to be denied, the boys began to implement, building their own versions of the popular toys they coveted.
Using crayons, paste and an endless supply of discarded cardboard shirt liners (thanks to a neighborhood drycleaner), the resourceful boys spent countless hours, painstakingly duplicating the store-bought Marx playsets that were out of their financial reach. They would make their own cannons, teepees, forts, figures and buildings.
Little did they know at the time, that their seemingly deprived childhood would shape them for a lifetime of prolific creativity and innovative thinking.
(A very detailed and sturdy homemade model playset of the Alamo, crafted by DesignEdge patriarch, Mark Nuccio during his 1950s childhood, survives today for play by the newest generation of Nuccios.)
Turning Child’s Play into a Career
This penchant for creativity remained and Mark graduated from St. John’s University with a fine arts degree. He began working as a freelance designer at Ideal Toys in 1969 and Aurora Toys shortly after, designing packaging for both.
With a young family to support, he quickly realized that his artistic skills could only get him so far, and that his mind had ideas that reached far beyond packaging.
He needed to add mechanical skills to his toolbox.
So, he went back to school and began taking technical courses in engineering at night. These additional skills equipped him to do product design, model building, prototyping and manufacturing, allowing him to deliver more value to his clients.
While still in night school, Mark’s name “got around” and in the early 1970’s, a company named HG Toys came knocking. Based in Long Beach, New York, HG manufactured themed and licensed jigsaw puzzles and small novelties since the late 1940’s. They offered Mark a good deal to come and work for them, so he took it.
After being with HG for only a couple of months, the principals of the company came to Mark and said, “We are close to going under.”
Things were not going well economically in the United States at the time. President Nixon was embroiled in scandal, the Vietnam War was a political quagmire, and unemployment was on the rise.
Mark’s wife, Linda, was an art teacher at the time, and they had a young daughter at home. Anxious to maintain financial stability, he interviewed with Matchbox, and was offered a job, but passed on the opportunity because he didn’t want to move his family to New Jersey.
(Mark and Linda Nuccio)
Determined to make the best of his circumstances, Mark took a chance and went back to HG. He confronted them with some difficult feedback on their current product line. He told them that he thought the line looked too old fashioned and urged them to update the packaging and graphics to make things look more current. This was a risky move confronting his bosses this way, but in light of the company’s precarious financial situation, he felt he had little to lose by pitching his idea. Adding to the challenge was the company’s long time art director was notoriously resistant to change. The owners hesitated to consider changing the way things had always been done, and his feedback was dismissed.
Rather than take no for an answer, Mark took his own gamble - gambled on himself. He took the entire HG product line home and, on his own time, completely overhauled all the designs. When he brought everything back to the office, the reaction was, “Wow! This looks different.”
“Take this new stuff out to the field and show it to your sales force,” said Mark, “If they say it’s shit, then fire me. But if they like it, put me in charge of design.”
The sales team loved the new look and feel of the line and things began to improve. Mark kept his job!
Of the other HG partner, Mark reminisces, “(He) hated my guts and did everything he could to annoy me,” he said, “He had a big mouth, and I had a big mouth. But he was a great engineer and I wanted to get into engineering technology. So even though we didn’t get along, I had to figure out how to work together with him so I could learn from him.”
The two would continue their contentious relationship, punctuated by verbal sparring and carping at one another, until, eventually, one day it came to a head. Tired of spinning his wheels when he knew he could be having a much bigger impact on the business, Mark confronted the partner face to face in the parking lot. “I’m a learner and I’m an earner,” he challenged, and dared him to acknowledge Mark’s contributions, move past their personal pettiness, and give him more control in the business.
The parking lot exchange must have been compelling. Of course, Mark was physically a much bigger guy, so maybe that had something to do with it too.
But from that day forward, Mark had the run of the place and became head of Research & Development and Marketing.
(Mark playing guitar at HG Toys cira 1982)
A Growing Family: “The Ninja Kid”
During this time, Mark and Linda had their second child, a son, named Matt. Even as a small boy, Matt showed keen interest in his father’s work and would often come to the HG offices and observe. He recalls hanging out in the modeling and sculpting department making his own little dudes and figures. It was during this time, in the mid-70’s, when Matt was just five or six years old, that he made a little ninja figure and shared it with his dad. Mark showed it to his team and convinced HG Toys to develop it into a complete ninja toy line that included action figures and playsets.
They even licensed a line of gold painted ninja figures to CBS Toys/Tyco, and those executives called Matt “The Ninja Kid,” a nickname that would stick throughout his childhood.
Mark developed strong business relationships across the industry and the world – especially in China – where more and more manufacturing was being done. “The Chinese would come to New York to see me, I didn’t have to go to China,” he said, a sign of the respected reputation he cultivated.
Over the next decade, he would take the company from $1.5 million to $170 million!
HG Toys was making puzzles, playsets and action figures, leveraging popular licensed entertainment properties such as Godzilla, King Kong, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, James Bond, Dukes of Hazard, Happy Days, and many others.
As the company grew, and the owners neared retirement, Mark looked forward to having a chance to lead the company. But that was not to be.
The partners opted instead to bring in their children to take over the company. After witnessing some bad business decisions, and anticipating a decline, Mark decided to leave and start his own full service design agency.
A New Company is Born
He and wife, Linda, launched Design Edge, in 1987, out of their garage. Because of the many strong friendships he had nurtured over the years, they were able to start working, building up a book of business very quickly. Within three months, Design Edge had more work than they could handle, and within a year, they relocated to Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
In the meantime, a friend at Superior Toys bought out HG Toys and tried to convince Mark to come back to the business and relocate to Chicago. He passed on the offer, preferring to raise his family on the East Coast.
Matt and his sister, Jennifer, enjoyed a childhood where imagination was nurtured and creativity was encouraged by their parents, much in the same way Mark’s parents encouraged him and his brother, albeit perhaps with more resources for the new generation of Nuccios. Matt grew up in the family studios, working side by side with his dad as a junior designer and learning the family business. He studied Package Design and Advertising the Fashion Institute of Technology, and took additional courses for Illustration and Cartooning at the School of Visual Arts NYC.
Mark and Linda knew that they had to wear many hats to compete, and that they couldn’t just do graphic design. They established a business that could function as an end-to-end solution for design, development, marketing and inventing of products in a range of industries. As they grew, Matt, Jennifer and their nephew, Chris, all joined the team.
“We are a toy company, without being a toy company,” says Mark.
He acknowledged that building key relationships and creating win-win opportunities for others is what really allowed Design Edge to grow into a successful business, and recalls a key moment at HG that would lead to big things later.
“I remember when a young Jim Silver (now CEO/Editor in Chief of TTPM Media) approached me at HG and asked me to buy some ads.” It was during a down period in the industry, and that was the beginning of a long standing relationship. Mark realized the ad purchases were a really big deal to Jim when he said, “Someday, I will have the chance to return the favor.” Years later, when Mark and Linda started Design Edge, Silver came through and said “my turn to help you.” He reciprocated with free ads and client referrals, which gave the fledgling startup the shot in the arm needed to get going quickly. Other close industry friends who helped them find those early clients included Bob Glazer, Michael Kohner, Michael Or and Bob Gellman.
In 1997, Mark and Linda began handing the reins over to Matt and, by 2004, he had grown the company to include sourcing services and opened an office in Hong Kong. Their presence in China allowed them to further develop their longtime relationships with Chinese colleagues and serve as a sourcing agent for brands such as Hanes, Kodak, Barnes and Noble among dozens of clients across the toy, gift, pet, food and beverage, hardware and house wares categories.
(Matt and Nico Nuccio)
The Next Generation
While Mark likes to tell people he is “semi-retired,” he still spends time in the office regularly and continues to be involved in the business. He spends his free time writing, painting, boating, playing guitar and spending time with his grandchildren. Linda, who facilitated the company’s transition from paste up art to computers way back in the late 1980s, made Design Edge one of the first studios to work digitally. She still comes in to the office.
Mark acknowledges that he is creative and gets things done, but he’s not much of a diplomat these days, outside his close circle of friends. “Matt knows how to work a crowd, so I leave that part up to him now,” he says.
Matt grew up in the family business. Mark would take him to the office to get him out of his mother’s hair and he would spend time in the modeling department carving swords on lathes and casting them in resin.
“My face wound up on a lot of packaging as a kid,” Matt says.
(Matt on the box for the Dukes of Hazard playset)
As a teen, Matt began building toy air craft carriers, carving them out of blue foam. He became the de facto company courier, delivering prototypes to various companies, navigating the busy streets of New York City before the days of smart phones and GPS devices. This allowed him to meet and become familiar with senior executives in the industry at a young age.
(Matt on the cover of the HGSpring 1984 Catalog)
In 2005, Matt was elected co-chairman of the Toy Industry Association (TIA) associated panel representing all designers and inventors in the toy industry. In 2014, he was selected to sit on the Board of Directors of the United Inventors Association of America (UIA).
Matt lectures on the topic of design, inventing and manufacturing at universities, trade shows and television programs. He also writes articles focusing on design and manufacturing for several trade magazines.
(Matt, of course!)
“Today, we do everything: Consult, paint, prototype, design, packaging, sourcing,” he says. The company relies on both traditional and new technology to create. “We have two 3D printers in our studio,” says Matt, “but it’s not the holy grail everybody thinks it is. Many times, I can hand sculpt something I need much faster than 3D printing it.”
Because they are working globally, the office operates on a 24 hour basis and Matt’s phone is ALWAYS on.
They are a full-service, end-to-end, toy and game industry design house divided into four focused areas.
DesignEdge – design/product development
DesignEdgeGlobal – other industries including food packaging, apparel, etc.
BuyProduct – licensing company for anything invented by DesignEdge that earns royalties
Walrus – development of private label products
Last year alone, DesignEdge provided professional services to 117 juvenile products companies in a range of industries including garments, food, gift, electronics and toys.
There are approximately 12 employees in United States and another five to eight in Asia.
Do The Nuccio’s have some advice for new inventors? You bet they do!
“Don’t worry about embarrassing yourself or being wrong. Say 101 bad things then hit on the right thing. Be prolific. Be open and willing to listen.”
“Patience is a virtue. We once had an item that we sat on for 13 years that finally went into production.”
New Products to Watch For
Besides creating packaging for dozens of toy companies their game #Hashtagit is the #3 adult party game at Barnes & Noble. Matt got the idea for hashtagit when he woke up late for a meeting with Hasbro.
They're looking forward to a great year with some of their last inventions coming to market with Fisher Price, Spin Master, Goliath, Kreative Kids, I-Toys, Endless Games, Yulu, TCG, Hooters, Vitamin Shoppe and Procter and Gamble to name a few.
(Mark with Matt's boys Nico and Lucas)
What Others are Saying About the Nuccio Family
“Looking back to when I met Mark before and when he went out on his own he was (and still is) ahead of his time. He knew trends before they were trends. He knew hot colors before they were hot colors. He knew he needed and never shied away from state of the art equipment. All why Design Edge is a success today together with a mini Mark on steroids, named Matt, who I admire and respect so much for his contributions to the toy industry, his customers, licensees and peers. I think the day I met Mark we became instant friends (I mean soul friends) and I love him and his beautiful wife Linda very much. Yes, definitely befitting to use the term LEGENDS and LEGACIES here”
– Michael Kohner, The Michael Kohner Corporation
"Nooch was the first friend I made in the toy industry. We were showroom neighbors at my very first Toy Fair in 200 5th Ave., and we hit it off right away. He was full of stories of Ninjas and Temporary Tattoos and classic NY toy lore. Always a great friend of Spin Master, he’s a multitalented renaissance man - an inventor, designer, artist, musician, and one million laughs!"
– Ben Dermer, Spin Master
"I've had the pleasure of knowing, and working with, Mark and Matt Nuccio for over 20 years. The professionalism, and more importantly, the passion they bring to each and every client is unparalleled in the toy industry. When a client signs on to work with Design Edge they can rest assured Design Edge will give their product what is needed to stand out in the cluttered retail landscape."
- Bob Glaser, TTPM
"When Endless Games was just formed Mark and Matt of Design Edge came to visit us at our New York City office at the behest of Jim Silver, a mutual friend. We all connected on a higher level than usual. We all felt that "those guys are alright". I have come to love both Mark and Matt. They have been our in-house design team, our new product source, and an inspiration as to what could be. Mark and I are cut from the same cloth and both knew what it was like to be in the Toy Business in the old days. We always share memories. Matt is simply a natural and has taken the business into new forms and is in my eye the most talented guy in design, development and knows how to "get it done". Endless Games and Design Edge share a very special bond together that cannot be broken. It is an honor for me to call them friends." Kevin McNulty, Founder of Endless Games
"One of Matt’s many fine qualities as both friend and colleague is he’ll tell you like it is and he’ll always have your back. I’ll never forget when we were struggling with our logo and brand identity some years ago, Matt stepped in and created our exceptional CHITAG logo and gave brand advice we use today. Although I’ve not had the good fortune of working with Mark, I love that he bares more than a passing resemblance to one of my favorite actors, Robert DeNiro! The Nuccios work hard and play hard and our industry benefits greatly that they do."
-Mary Couzin, Chicago Toy & Game Group
Away from Toys
The Nuccio family remains very close knit. Matt and his wife, Michelle, have two young sons, who have a front row seat for the ingenuity that happens in the family business, and already show signs of following in the footsteps of their creative dad.
The Nuccio penchant for music doesn’t stop with Mark. Matt plays lead guitar for the Mighty Barley Brothers band and his cousin is in the band too. They perform a couple of times a month in clubs mostly around Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“The collapse of the record industry is allowing for small bands to get opportunities that would have been out of reach in the past,” says Matt, “Musical audiences have ‘aged up.”
The Design Edge offices have a fully equipped music studio, and many of the staff play a variety of instruments.
“Music can help change your mood and perspective,” says Matt.
Mountain biking is another hobby that Matt loves to decompress, especially when the weather is cold. “It’s an escape,” he says.
Innovating in the Toy Industry and Beyond
What gets the Family Nuccio excited today?
“Constantly getting new ideas,” says Matt, “Thinking of new better ways to do things and always looking for opportunities, always being creative. We just don’t stop moving…. It’s a Nuccio thing. When you join the creative process, everything falls into place.
Wanna hear the Mighty Barley Brothers play? Click here to listen. www.barleybrothersband.com
Visit www.designedge.net to learn more about the Family Nuccio.
About the Author:
Michelle Spelman is Inventor Relations Liaison for Chicago Toy & Game Group. She is a patented game inventor, and co-founder of Flying Pig Games LLC, creators of award-winning Jukem Sports card games. She is also founder of Cincinnati Game & Toy Industry Professionals group. An independent marketing consultant providing research, brand planning, strategic direction, and executive coaching services, she’s in her sweet spot when she is working with companies focused on women and family-oriented products and services.