Jessica Helfand | Essays

Art Director Ken

Art Director Ken © Mattel, 2003.

Ken, who turned 46 yesterday, shares a birthday with eighteenth-century chemist Joseph Priestly, nineteenth-century astronomer Percival Lowell, and twentieth-century singer songwriter, Neil Sedaka. (And as of yesterday, twenty-first century newborn heir to an entertainment empire, Liam Aaron McDermott.) Over the years, Ken-the-chameleon has evolved from being "Barbie's Boy-Friend" to being a man in his own right, from "Live Action Ken" in 1970, to "Walk Lively Ken," "Busy Ken" and even "Talking Busy Ken" in 1971. (If you pulled a string, he said things like "Barbie's a great cook!") 1973's "Live Action Ken" gave way to "Gold Medal Ken" in 1974 (weirdly, as the Olympics were held in 1972) and what followed were a good decade's-worth of beach surfing, fun-loving, disco-dancing Kens taking us into the early '80s. ("Dream Date Ken," a 1982 issue, was dressed in a silver bodysuit with a pink cummerbund.) By the late 1980s, Ken had joined the Ice Capades and was piloting an airplane ("Ice Capades Ken" and "Flight Time Ken," both 1989) and two years later he was rapping, rollerblading and had joined the Marines.

Spandex and, curiously, shaving ("Dip shaver in warm water and shave off his beard!") make continued appearances through the 1990s and on into the new century, where the classic themes of sun, parties — and yes, patriotism would eventually come to position the now-global Ken brand as America's premier dreamboat. Despite some bizarre little blips on what some might call the spectrum of family values (consider 1997's caucasian and African-American versions of "Dr. Ken & Little Patient Tommy," or 1999's "Swim Buddies Ken and Tommy"), Ken's 40—year evolution casts a fascinating lens on the plastic condition.

Art Director Ken, © Mattel, 2003.

In 2000, Canadian manufacturers released "Photographer Ken" whose casual attire (T-shirt and shorts) matched his no-nonsense approach to his work. Camera at the ready, messenger bag at his side, "Photographer Ken" even came with a pair of tongs and a developing tray. ("Pictures develop in warm water and disappear in cold water!") "Photo Student Ken" ("Photography 101 is the coolest class at my school!") appeared two years later, in identical attire but with shorter hair and, bizarrely, a golden retriever at his side. Throughout these early years of the new century, Ken keeps on skating and sunning, while (presumably) honing his passion for black and white photography: having "built a reputation as an artistic visionary," he is released, in 2003, as "Art Director Ken", a "sensitive artist with a passion for life." And blonde highlights.

"Art Director Ken" is dressed in black, carries a portfolio, and is part of a set-of-four "Modern Circle" dolls that feature Barbie as the producer, Melody as the production assistant and Simone as the makeup artist. Where Ken once spoke of Barbie's skills in the kitchen, he now shares a more multifaceted connection to his companion of four decades who thrives in business but retains her, um, softer side. "Professionally, (Ken) see Barbie as open and energetic, but while not engaged in business matters, he finds her shy and distant." At turns heroic, regal and sun-kissed (Ken returns in 2005 as "Superman," "Prince Stefan in Rapunzel" and a suntan-lotion toting "Beach Ken") one has to wonder how "Art Director Ken" made the cut. From Olympian athlete to airline pilot is an easy enough leap to make. But Art Director? That's just weird.

Of course, "Art Director Ken" is meant to be a movie person. (In the second edition of "Art Director Ken," the portfolio is gone: Ken is at the world premiere of his new movie, wearing a Nehru collar shirt and an iridescent taffeta long-length jacket.) And here, the barometer of recognition is clear: "Art Director Ken" is glamorous not because he's an art director, but because he's managed to carve out a glamorous role for himself in the movie industry. Surrounded by beautiful women, clad in black and claiming "visionary" status, who would dare question his seriousness of purpose, his education, what's inside that portfolio? Certainly not the audience for "Art Director Ken" — little girls and the people who buy for them — a demographic that might well see "Art Director Ken" and "Barbie Fantasy Tales Tea Party Prince Ken" as, well, fungible. And who would dare disagree? Ken has survived for 46 years by catering to precisely this demographic. (And to collectors, who are likely to scrutinize the details, many of them rather fetishistically sartorial.)

Still, Ken's is a charmed, if mildly cautionary tale, for it brings to mind the potentially superficial nature in which we judge a person, an identity — indeed, a profession. For those of us engaged in juried competitions, given mere minutes to rule on the value of a piece of graphic, or industrial, or architectural, or even movie-related design, this is a slippery slope: are we not perpetuating an unsatisfying cycle in which we sacrifice real substance to superficial judgment? Unlike our plastic friend, it's worth considering a world in which real, live art directors engage in a more reflective kind of conversation that gives the work its due. Or maybe I should just wait for "Design Critic Ken" ("Comes With Light-Up Laptop!") or "Design Blogger Ken" ("He Posts! He Comments!") or even better — "Design Juror Ken" ("He Ponders! He Reflects! He Debates The Vicissitudes of Form With Barbie!").

Today, by the way, is Albert Einstein's birthday. This should put to rest any residual notions that astrology and commerce have any relationship whatsoever. As for Ken? Whatever his next "artistic" incarnation, I'd say there's a pretty good chance he'll be wearing black — which, lest we forget, has been known to cover a multitude of sins. Including blonde highlights.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Product Design

Comments [24]

Ken is gay. Ken has always been gay (although sometimes gayer than others), and despite the insidious nod re: Tommy, he has always been tragically alone. I think this constant career-seeking he and Barbie both do are just expressions of their supreme unhappinesss in the unfulfillment of their enforced relationship. The question should not be "what is the career of the moment?" or "what do the kids want?" but "What does Ken want?" I think once Ken comes out of the closet and Mattel gives him a suitable mate we will finally see the true Ken ... and with all that other career experience I think he could actually make a fine graphic designer ... should he so choose.

But I have to say, that detailed head shot looks awesome on the DO page.
marian bantjes

so the one reference you managed to leave out of this cornucopia was earring magic ken (or, as more commonly called, "cockring ken.")

Give Ken a break Marian. He's just a little confused.
David Airey

Ken and Barbie was a pre-arranged (?marriage?) relationship. They were forced together and clearly put their careers first so that they don't have to spend too much time together.

Could you imagine seeing Ken's resume on your desk? Would you hire him?
diane witman

AWESOME. Don't forget to include in the audience profile "mildly aimless, creatively-inclined 20-something hipsters struck by a bizarre sense of irony." And of course me. I'm buying this later today. I actually have blond highlights at the moment and I admit it freely. I also wear tight blue jeans and cowboy boots, which I guess the doll sorta captures.

All kidding aside (well, not really, but for the sake of my reputation...), this is just kinda weird. I've seen plenty of strange toys, from specialty Legos to various Fischer-Price incarnations, as well as that line of Jesus-Aiding-the-Child-Athlete figurines, and across not one but more like three Christmas seasons I practically begged my long-suffering (and still suffering) parents for toy vacuum sweepers, real vacuum sweepers, sewing machines, and other things you don't expect to deal with when you have children.

Art Director Ken is pretty curious. He's a sort of accidental collection of what people think someone might be, based on horribly vague pop-culture stereotypes derived from "Thirty Something," that crappy-looking new movie with the increasingly unbearable Zach Braff (as an assistant associate creative or something inane like that), and the truly unfortunate Jennifer Aniston picture known as "Picture Perfect," (where she jumps from being an account exec to director of creative services because of an idea to use Cindy Crawford as a spokesperson for Guilden's Mustard. Guilden's is second in market share, and Crawford finished second at Princeton, so, y'know, second ain't all that bad. I wish I could get promoted like that. And to think, so many ad people want to work in Hollywood, yet the Hollywood writers fumble around with advertising even worse than they do with cops and lawyers.).

And in short, yes, he's symptomatic of an increasingly shallow, image-driven and surface-consumed culture. What I find reassuring though, is that you wrote this article with not only a sense of humor, but a lot of depth. Eventually, I believe, society will circle around and get away from stereotyping so blithely--or at least there's a chance that'll happen, so long as there are people who are constantly trying.
Brad Gutting

i thought everyone knew that ken and g.i. joe have been together for years now.

as a result, barbie has been having a blast with batwoman...
debbie millman

I assert here and now that shaving Ken was THE herald for art director Ken.

You see, I was the proud owner of shaving Ken - circa 1985 - and it must be noted that he had billowing and brushable brown hair (not a plastic coif). He was also the most interactive of all of my Barbies, if not the hairiest. What made shaving Ken the herald for all future Kens's (designer and art director related) was that he came with a magnificent brown marker. This significant accessory allowed for drawing on every single Barbie and Ken in my collection and to change their physical appearances (including adding pictorial tattoos, cryptic words in secret places, and long story-like phrases that started on one doll's leg and finished on another's).

It is for this reason that shaving Ken cracked the world of single occupation definition into something richer, fuller and more colorful.
Jessica Gladstone

hahaha... i sent this around to the rest of my department with my art directors name - "art director mark"

i have heard a few laughs over the walls already...

Hilarious, Marian.

Of course, even if Ken comes to terms with his sexuality and finds a suitable mate, he still won't be able to get married in most of his home country.

Somehow I don't see "Domestic Partnership Ken" making the cut at Mattel.

By the way, did any of you know that Ken's last name is Carson. And if there were any doubt that he were gay, what about his stint with Barbie and the Rockers? Which my sister had. Really.

No, really.
Andrew Twigg

Since Ken has been on an endless quest for new professions and closets to occupy, what's next for our intrepid explorer? Here's a couple of thoughts

Christian Ken- Fresh from an Evangelical gay rehabilitation center, comes complete with a clueless wife and Ted Haggard's phone number.

American Idol Ken- Complete with runner up status, and spiky, product filled hair, pull his string and he says "No Comment" when asked about his sexuality.
Mark Kaufman

I happen to be working on an essay and photo spread on my own Barbie experience. My editor cut out all references to Barbie's sex life. I need a new editor.

Like Marian, I knew Ken was gay. (I swear when I washed all my old dolls for the recent photo shoot, Ken went after Alan right there in the sink.)

My Barbie was too snotty to have anything to do with the GI Joes (they where muddy), so Ken could have them all. She had a thing with James West who was soooo hot, but frustrating because his clothes were painted on. Although, since he ran her ranch, today Barbie would be sued with sexual harassment.

Earring Magic Ken can avail himself of the companionship of Carlos the UPS man (who is well equipped in the area that Ken is lacking).

And Barbie continues to run her businesses, look fabulous and have dinner with her gay designer friends.
Michelle French

Barbie is Ken's beard, for sure.

Damn, wish I'd had an Art Director Ken when I was a boy; all macho Action Man (Britain's GI Joe) had a scarred face for god's sake! He should be wearing a black sweater though.
John C

Ken and GI Joe got going--at least in my formative years--in my playtime--with my neighbor Fran when we played "Barbie and Ken," I always brought over my GI Joes so Ken could get creative. Fran had Barbie and his companion Ken, but as a fortelling of my future, I always brought the gay element into the mix. My parents, probably noting what a precocious child I was, steered me clear of Ken, and only bought me GI Joes.

Everyone likes a gay person until they actually SAY they are gay. Only then are you marginalized or at least whispered about at the water cooler in most office environments—not a design firm usually. But it seems that Ken has made more comebacks than Ellen (although she is a real live person) and for that he should be applauded.

It seems that at least metaphorically, Shaving Ken (shaving off his beard--Barbie--was as out as he'll ever get) and still be marketable. Well, on second thought--Earring Magic Ken was always known in gay circles as "Gay Ken" at least with his cockring worn proudly around his neck over his tight lavender shirt! Every gay friend I have was snatching those up as collector's items. That alone, probably upped the market share considerably. I'm so sorry I never got one. I do have Carlos, the UPS man though! But I think I'll get him the Tom of Finland doll to play with. He's much more hypermasculinely gay than Billy (his marketed boyfriend) ever could be (with his dumb jock expression).
Darryl M

Not to bring up the debate again, but it proves the Graphic Glass ceiling exists.

Where's Art Director Barbie?

I was never one for Barbie/Ken as a child, but I think I'm going to have to buy Photographer Ken now, if only for kicks.

(...But does this mean that I need to give myself blonde highlights to stay in the profession? Alas.)

i will come out of the closet here as an occasional barbie person. i have a handful of the weirdest because they, quite frankly, link directly into my deep, deep love of camp and drag.

i also have the art director ken being discussed, but only because someone gave it to me. i took it as an insult and he's still in the box. nobody likes getting a ken.

the fact that i was given an art director ken was telling to me of the gift-giver's deep deep misunderstandings. he clearly thought that:

1) i would identify with the stereotype of the snotty dressed-in-black art director. it never fails that those who are willing to live in that particular fiction are both deeply conservative and deeply insecure of their position in the cultural landscape. i stay away from such people because they are exactly no fun and contribute to design only to increase its status as a status symbol (which i don't believe).

2) that i actually use dolls as a method of identification, which is a pretty freaky thing to think about a middle-aged man. and finally,

3) giving a gay acquaintance—not a close friend, an acquaintance—is okay.

people, giving a gay man you barely know a barbie is never okay.

upon being given the doll, i decided that ken brings out more of the worst in people than barbie ever could.

fortunately, the discusion may be temporary as both barbie and ken are in a heap of financial trouble. the market has shifted towards bratz as the dominant force in play for girls. but those dolls are an entirely different discussion.


Yes. It's alright though. They're cool and you can do them yourself.
Brad Gutting

And on the subject of comical creative types, it's probably worth mentioning that other Art Director with a preference for dressing in black.
Jessica Helfand

A co-worker of mine wrote an interesting (funny) piece on a concept she's called CDU (Creative Directors Uniform). Check it out, its a good laugh.
Joe Guzman

Erk... I just read about the CDU above while sitting here in my black turtle neck and black jeans. Oh, and my head is shaved down to 3mm...
John C


Natalya Ilyin wrote a whole book as a guide for us: Blonde Like Me.
Michelle French

Wow, this is truly made my night. What an insightful post, didn't know that "Ken" was an Art Director by the way. Very funny topic ..
Ken Torry

Wow, I have NEVER heard a gay Ken comment before. EVER. It's so, so sad when some people cannot come up with an original response. Hopefully your work is a bit more artful. Yawnnn... All you others, kudos for not being hackneyed ho's.

he turned 46 and no crinkles.... :D

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