2012: 04/01 – Games Magazine
Games Magazine – She Puts Heart in These Guts
By Kevin Boone
Stomachs! Hearts! Brains! Now, we’re not about to review a 2012 interactive web-based version of the game Operation. These particular innards(or ultra-cute facsimiles thereof) can be found at the website iheartguts.com, home to some of the weirdest stuffed toys I have ever seen.
Clicking on the site, you are greeted by a smiling stuffed plush heart, circled with illustrations of other happy organs. I purchased a happy red heart, and after a few days I received it in the mail along with a personalized doodle on the envelope. It was a nice touch. Someone took the time to add a friendly message to me and it made me feel a little responsible to get the word out about what I had found. I told some friends and family, and everyone seemed to have the same reaction. “Hey, what’s that?” … Followed by, “Oh, a heart!”… And then, “That’s cute!”
When my sister fell ill and had to have her gallbladder removed, I went back to the site and purchased a plush new organ for her. I thought it would be a nice gesture from her crazy brother. She laughed after opening the present and maybe shed a tear or two, but she honestly liked it. So much so that she got a plush uterus for a friend after her operation.
Wendy Bryan, the founder of iheartguts.com, describes how it all started…
“The guts grew from a single drawing of a broken heart, after a string of bad hookups, dead-end relationships and lame-o boyfriends. At the time I was also doing a lot of drinking and smoking, so a sad liver and bummed-out lung followed. Years later, my wonderful husband wondered, ‘Why don’t you do something with those darned guts?’”
Thankfully, after six years, many people noticed her work. The iconic heart was featured for a few minutes on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and a uterus tee was worn by Web Soup host Chris Hardwick while presenting Internet videos on E! Channel’s The Soup. Wendy has also been featured in LA Weekly magazine and on Wired.com and Discover.com.
I had the chance to meet Wendy recently and asked her a few questions about her creations.
1. After the first few organ doodles, was it a natural progression to a plush? Or were there other avenues you explored first?
The first things we made were cheap things we could make locally, such as stickers, buttons and T-shirts. Folks started asking for liver T-shirts because they wanted to celebrate a liver transplant, labor and delivery nurses wanted uterus shirts, neurologists had to have a brain shirt, and so on, so we added body parts as we went along.
2. How did constructing these wonderful things begin? Meaning the time between the initial idea and what I hope is the mass manufacturing. The thought of you hand sewing each seems daunting.
If I hand-sewed the organs, they would look like sloppy footballs with arms and would cost $100 each. Believe me, no one would want one. My mom knows her way around a sewing machine, and she helped me make felt prototypes of the heart and stomach, which my husband and I dragged around and took snapshots on vacation in Tokyo, New York and Utah. Once people saw those photos, they had to have plush organ toys, which we started mass-manufacturing in 2007.
3. How did you approach mass-producing the guts?
We took a deep breath and just jumped into it. You can make toys in the U.S., but it costs an arm and a leg, so getting them made in China was inevitable. We started by making 1,500 each of the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys, 6,000 toys altogether. We sold out of the hearts in the four months between the holiday season and Valentine’s Day, and had to scramble to make more.
4. During the beginning phases what were you doing as your “day job?”
I was a freelance illustrator and graphic designer, mostly creating websites and logos. It took about two years working both jobs before the guts took over my life. I pitched the happy organ idea to a T-shirt company in 2000, but they didn’t bite, and I’m glad they thought it was too weird, otherwise I wouldn’t have my own company today.
5. Other then yourself and your husband (GAMES contributor Codi Lazar.) who else is involved in I Heart Guts?
We run a bare-bones operation here at Guts headquarters. By day my husband is an experimental geochemist and moonlights as I Heart Guts’ CFO. We are super lucky to have an amazing toy distributor, DKE Toys, who handles our wholesale orders to stores. We also recently hired someone part-time to help ship from our retail website and manage our inventory of intestines, spleens and so on.
6. What made you want to have the toys tested for safety? I purchased a uterus in 2007 and then I read that they were being changed due to a choking hazard.
Yes, our first uterus was recalled! All our guts passed toy safety tests with flying colors except for the good ol’ womb. The ovaries could easily be pulled off and potentially become a choking hazard for babies, so we issued a recall notice. Only one person returned the uterus, everyone else wanted to keep her, she turned out to be very popular! We figured very few children would actually want a toy uterus, but we wanted to be on the safe side, so we sold the bad uterus as an “adults-only” collectible plush. Now we have a new uterus that is not dangerous for kids.
7. Your guts are almost like little happy voodoo dolls. I know personally how they help cope after having an organ removed. Was this evident early on?
We didn’t plan it that way, but yes, the fluffy guts have definitely served as good luck charms for actual missing organs. There is a sense of loss, even if it’s just a pesky, useless, vestigial organ like the appendix. The plush gallbladder was an unexpected bestseller for us because there are about 50,000 gallbladder removals a year according to the Mayo Clinic, and it’s one of the organs you can live without (along with the spleen). Last year we got a taste of our own medicine when my husband had his thyroid removed as part of treatment for thyroid cancer (he’s doing great). Six months after his surgery, we released the thyroid plush. He keeps one on his desk.
8. All of the positive reactions must and should make you very proud. Was that at all surprising?
It was a huge surprise. I really started the whole thing as a weird silly side project, almost a joke, but the organs really took on a life of their own. People are so connected to their bodies, how they work, and need some comfort when things go wrong. Some people want to be able to laugh in the face of ill health to help them get well, or say “thank you” in a different way to nurses or doctors who have helped them. Folks who get a kidney from a friend or family member also enjoy “giving back” the organ, albeit a smiling cuddly one. I’m just so glad these ridiculous organs can help people in tough times, I love my job.
9. Having guts in hospitals was and is an incredibly good idea, how did that begin?
It’s funny, doctors, nurses and patients love the guts, however, we don’t sell to many hospital gift shops. Most of the buyers I have approached want to stick to get-well basics, such as bears, balloons and roses. Plush kidneys and bladders, not so much. It’s a shame, because about 70% of sales from a hospital gift shop come from people who work there, and our most enthusiastic customers are medical professionals. Plus, there are plenty of patients who’d rather have a heart than a bear.
10. How did you get involved with your charity work?
After being in business a few years, we started getting donation requests for fundraising events, but as a small company there was only so much we could give without going broke. So now we donate our characters and design time to non-profits and individuals who are having trouble paying their medical bills. One time I designed a shirt for a guy whose insurance wouldn’t cover experimental treatment for pancreatic cancer.
11. Your work seems both very fun and educational. Have you been approached by educators looking for new avenues for teaching?
Absolutely! We have a few posters that explain, in a very simple way, what each organ and gland does for a living. For example, the spleen is the fighter and the intestine takes out the garbage. The plush toys make great actors in any organ-themed puppet show. We didn’t mean I Heart Guts to be educational, it just happened that they are. Our 4-year-old son definitely knows his pituitary from his sweat gland.
12. How do you approach the creation of new guts? Personally I kept checking back early on, for when the stomach was going to be released.
At first it was all about the organs, but in the past couple years we’ve realized that I Heart Guts probably shouldn’t be limited to any particular aspect of anatomy, so we’ve developed a lot of new characters based on glands, connective tissue, bones, etc. This has pleased people like endocrinologists (glands), dermatologists (skin) and opthamologists (eyeball). Dentists, too: we have new anatomically correct teeth characters. As for other stuff, we keep our ears open. People send us great ideas all the time, and we definitely respond to popular demand. We constantly got requests for an appendix, and this past spring we released a new appendix plush.