Developing Plush with Zara Varin

Developing Plush with Zara Varin

If you were around last year, you might have seen this Longbean product illustration that was posted as a part of the Among Us Cursed Merch collection for April Fools’ Day by Zara Varin.

Illustration of a red Longbean plush. There is a sketch of a person hugging it to the right for scale, with the unit of measurement being "Long, Very Bean."

And if you’ve been around more recently, you’ve probably seen that even memes can become a real boy (bean?) and now this disturbingly delightful creature exists. We sat down with Zara to check out some exclusive looks behind the scenes, general plush development, and any insight they may have picked up along the way.

One of the biggest questions surrounding plush development seems to always be where to get started. Assuming someone already has a general idea for a plush, what artwork/files would they need to get the process going? How polished or detailed does a concept need to be in early stages? Any specific details to include? 

My top recommendation for this is making a turnaround! A turnaround shows various angles/views of your concept (front/back/left/right/top/bottom/etc - angled views and making sure any areas of overlap like hair or clothes are also clearly defined, as well as any details you need that might be obscured by them). It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it helps to know the placement of your details and their proportions so they can be translated from artwork into actual form!

For the Longbean specifically, do you have any examples of early sketches or design files you worked on?

I sure do! Even before the April Fool’s Day art, here’s the silly sketch that started it all and was posted shortly after I started at Dual Wield Studio:

Top: a screenshot from @InnerslothDevs on Twitter that reads "Rejected merch ideas, an anthology" with sketches of a Crewmate comforter, a person holding a Longbean plush and a Crewmate version of My Little Pony that reads "My Little Crewmate." Bottom: An enlarged version of the Longbean sketch, with three different versions of backpack placement.

Once we moved into the realm of actually making the plush, here’s the WIP simple turnaround and excerpt of the first round information sent to the manufacturer to inform the shape and show intended forms.
A size reference sketch of the Longbean plush that states it is 36 inches in height, 11 inches in width and 9 inches in thickness. It's noted that there's separate material or embroidery for the visor.
Sketches of the Longbean plush with Pantone colors selected.

Let’s say you’ve got your concept fleshed out - how does one go about sourcing a manufacturer? Do you have any advice on what someone should be looking for in their hunt for a manufacturer or important questions to ask? Any red flags to be on the lookout for?

The first question I’d start with is how many of any one plush design do you want to make? Most manufacturers have minimum order requirements of a few hundred, though there are some who will go as low as 100. If you want to make even fewer than that - maybe even just one! - I’d advocate for folks to seek out craftspeople who do hand-made plush to help bring your idea to life. This is a bespoke process partnering with a creator who will be handcrafting your idea!

Some folks are also willing to work with you with the intention of that prototype helping inform a manufacturing run, but not all; if you go this route, definitely discuss things with the creator you work with to ensure they’re on board for any intended use!

For larger batches of manufacturing (not just for plush), Alibaba can be intimidating to navigate but is industry-standard for sourcing and partnering with many manufacturers, especially in China. There are a number of ways you can seek out manufacturers, but I highly recommend utilizing the Request For Quotation (RFQ) process. When creating an RFQ, you will detail the specifications of what you are seeking to create and have the option of including an image showing what you’d like to make. Keep your specifications clear and concise! Creating this will invite prospective manufacturers to reach out and initiate conversations with you, at which point you can reiterate any specifics, ask any questions on their particular process, and consider which of the manufacturers will be the most suitable fit for your project. 

At the risk of taking a longwinded tangent about all of this, I recommend folks research lots of options!

On the subject of sourcing manufacturers, let’s talk about the etiquette surrounding that. What are your thoughts on artists being asked to share their manufacturers information?

This can be a really touchy subject and it’s one we’re sensitive to as well! Many folks are reticent to share manufacturers for a host of good reasons. Oftentimes, they’ve worked to find that manufacturer and build a relationship with them over months – if not years – of working together, and sharing that contact with other folks has the potential to introduce unforeseen complications or, worse, damage that relationship if a recommendation goes poorly. And those are just a few examples of concerns! Ultimately, some folks are comfortable sharing their manufacturer information, and others aren’t, and that’s okay; in the event someone shares their manufacturer info and contact with you, please treat that information and act upon it respectfully!

Walk us through what the pre-production process looks like. Once you’ve settled on a manufacturer to work with, what happens next? How many rounds of edits/prototypes did the Longbean plush take, and how does executing those changes in physical samples work?

It’s a little different every time - for this Longbean, after sharing the initial specifications and sketches with the manufacturer, they created a prototype. For most projects, we initially elect to review any prototype via photos, especially when we anticipate there are changes needed. For this bean, the first round of photos were a great start!

After discussion with the Innersloth team, we decided to make some revisions like removing the visor border and moving the position of the backpack. Here’s one of the compiled revision summaries including a paintover and revised artwork guidance that was sent along with revision notes:

Paintover and revised artwork guidance over top of images of the Longbean plush.

As a small aside, one of my favorite pieces of recurring guidance on Crewmate depictions for anything we make is in ensuring their lil feet are the correct shape; Innersloth describes them as needing to be “like a marshmallow” and I love it every time! Folks immediately understand what to go for.

Did you experience any bumps in the road with the Longbean development? Any issues that cropped up along the way?

Fortunately, no speed bumps on this long lad! We went through the iterative prototyping process and managed to arrive at a final product that folks were happy with very smoothly, which certainly isn’t always the case but I’m so grateful it worked out so well.

I’ll actually tangent a little into one of the things we were really happy with, which was our manufacturer individually vacuum-sealed each of these Longbeans to ensure they’re as efficiently-packed for shipping as possible!

Overall, how long would you say the development process took from start to finish?

We started discussing taking the silly sketch and making it a real bean shortly after April of 2022, and evaluated our approach and manufacturing options before reaching out to the chosen manufacturer. All told, it took a little over nine months from the point we began corresponding with our manufacturer to the point it was ready to launch! This is as close to an easy ideal as possible, and many plush projects - even comparable to this - take longer.

If an artist walked away with the greatest single piece of advice when it comes to plush development, what would you say it would be?

Oh man, I uhhh have three!

Reality-check yourself on what you want to make. Think through the time, effort, money, and logistics committed to the process. If you make 500 plush, how are you selling them? Do you have a reliable gauge of prospective customer commitment to justify that quantity? How are you safety testing them? Where are those plush going to be stored? What happens if they don’t sell? What do you do with any defective plush? There’s a litany of further questions - the goal is to ensure you’re truly on board with the investment of action involved in the process and thinking as much as you can to prepare for what you’ll need to do to be successful.

I’d also advise folks to talk to others with experience making things like this and seek out communities who can help offer guidance and expertise. 
Lastly, I’ll suggest you learn how to make something else first! Art prints and enamel pins, for example, are excellent items to become more familiar with the process of taking a concept and turning it tangible - each have their own challenges, but are more approachable in many ways for folks who want to dip into learning how to make things and will help build a knowledge base of the process that is helpful to understand when making plush.

Where can we find you and your work online?

I’m most active on Twitter (though am exploring alternatives considering … that whole situation🙃) @ZaraVarin and have links to most other places in my Carrd here. I’m active in fandom spaces under a host of other usernames but I’ll let folks find those on their own :D

Thanks for taking the time to read all this! I’ll close by just putting the evolution of this delightful Longbean in here because LOOK AT MY SON 😭 I’m still so happy with this and best of all it really is
fantastic to hug, 10000/10 experience I highly recommend 💙
The lifecycle of the Longbean plush - starting with initial sketch, then concept art, and lastly final product photography.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.