In the Spotlight with Tou Yia Xiong

Tou Yia Xiong is an illustrator and designer who recently designed a toy which was featured on ABCs daytime talk show The View during their Best of 2014 New York Toy Fair segment. Tou Yia’s toy design, called Tree Top Adventures, is an elevated four quadrant wooden activity center that includes 6 bead tracks and 6 gliding tracks.


As I sat down with Tou Yia in his room to conduct the interview, I couldn’t help but feel reminded of my childhood; all his creative gadgets and toys, to his cartoony illustrations made me remember what it felt to be a kid again. When I found out he was 26, I was astonished that he was so accomplished already. He also handed me his professional portfolio book that had many of his illustrations, which I was extremely impressed by.

How long have you been affiliated with CHAT?
I have been involved with CHAT for several years now. My initial involvement was when I took part in CHAT’s Masters Gallery in 2009 when Kathy Mouacheupao was the executive director. Since then I have helped out with several CHAT programs such as Fresh Traditions (a fashion show highlighting Hmong designers). Additionally, I started my own event called X-Draw-Vaganza as a part of CHAT’s visual art program. In that program, we held drawing classes last summer that I facilitated. The students and I also curated an art show that coincided with last year’s Fresh Traditions.

When did you start your work as an illustrator and designer?
I don’t know if that counts, but I used to make drawings in elementary school then sold it to my classmates for a few quarters each. The drawings included Sylvester the Cat, Mickey Mouse, and some dinosaurs I think. It was enough to buy me a bag of chips and soda. Then in high school and college, I did small design projects for family and smaller businesses. It wasn’t until after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stout that I delved more into my career as an illustrator and designer.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in multimedia design. The program allowed me to practice many different aspects of design including graphic design, animation, web design and game design. Shortly after graduation, I moved to Seattle and found a job working on an iOS game called, Mr. Dreamer. I created everything visual including user interface design, character and world designs, and animations. During my time in Seattle, I did freelance illustration and design too. That’s when I really learned more about illustration. Now, I am starting a new creative path as an Associate Product Designer at The Manhattan Toy Company in Minneapolis. I have been with them for about a year.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
I think one of the most rewarding parts of my job is seeing the final product whether that’s a toy, illustration, game, or printed item. You understand all the hard work and time you’ve put into it, then to see it realized is quite an amazing feeling. The thing I love most about this is how an idea blooms into something that now takes form in our world.

How did you come up with the idea or concept of your Tree Top Adventure toy?
This toy was developed with The Manhattan Toy Company. The idea was to create a wooden activity toy to meet certain costs goals and other business metrics. After the project is handed off to me, I start my market and competitor research. Then I proceed to doing rough sketches, which get more refined once I have a better direction for the toy. It has to be marketable, manufacturer-able, and visually appealing, too. A lot of collaboration happens during this development process. My team has a lot of input into my concepts. During my research, I noticed many activity toys had no legs, which got me started thinking of ways to incorporate them. The legs evolved into the tree trunk after having thought about my tree-house days as a kid. With the raised play area, kids can stand and play with it as well as move around into the different play quadrants.


How does it feel having your toy design being recognized as one of the year’s best toys?
I am humbled by the recognition. It feels great to see my toy share the same stage with other large brand name toys like LEGOs. It was quite nerve wrecking to watch the hosts and guests play with it on The View. I was scared something would go wrong or break, but nothing bad happened.

Is there any advice that you have for fellow illustrators and designers and how they could make a career out of their hobby/passion?
Share your passion! This line of work is not a traditional path for many people, especially for a Hmong person. Often times we are told not to go into this direction, but rather go and become something prestigious with a higher earning job like a doctor. If it’s your passion, then share it with others. Surround yourself with people who support and understand you even if you have to break some hearts along the way.

Work hard at being the best! Being an illustrator or designer could sound dreamy, but know that it involves actually doing work. And by doing work, you will only get better and always chase that. Being at your best involves constant learning, especially if you’re interested art and technology. Go learn, whether that’s through college classes, listening to podcasts, or simply asking for help.

Step away from your desk! As an illustrator and designer, you’ll end up behind a desk most of the time. It’s where we get carried away in our work, but we must remember that there’s a greater community out there. It is important to remember to step back from our desk and go out to engage ourselves in such communities. You might just learn a thing or two, heck maybe even get a gig here or there or simply to commiserate with.


How do you find inspiration for your work? I’m looking at this illustration of this marshmallow guy; it’s so fun and creative. Where does it come from?
It’s as simple as asking what can I do with this shape or thing. How else can I reinterpret this? I turned the simple marshmallow shape into characters and placed them in an environment that I thought would be funny. My kind of funny is pushing a marshmallow in a cup of steaming hot chocolate. I would like to think that my work is an extension of my own character and influences. Much of the influences came from Saturday morning cartoons, The Simpsons, and Far Side comics.

If you had to choose, what has been your favorite piece that best represents your work?
My favorite piece was not even professional. It was my senior project at UW-Stout, which was Vauj – A Kite Story. It is a 2D animation about a boy reminiscing about his father when they flew kites together in a refugee camp. The animated short was inspired by a moment I had with my late father. The animation visual style is a good representation of my work and what I am creating now. Its narrative and theme represent something I continually want to achieve.

If you had the opportunity to work with any artist who would it be?
Nicolas Marlet would be someone I would enjoy working with and learn from. I really admire his work. His character designs are phenomenal! You have to see his sketches though. They are so lively! They should make animation in the style of his sketches. He does a lot of work with DreamWorks. He did the concept art for Kung Fu Panda and How to Train your Dragon.


Following the interview Tou Yia showed me many of his sketches that not many people have seen. I felt privileged to take a peek at the concept designs of his work.

His toy is available for shipping on March 19th with The Manhattan Toy Company at

My interview with Tou Yia Xiong showed me that you can pursue a career in something you love, Art, and still be successful.

See more of Tou’s Work:

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You can also see more of his work  at

See Tree Top Adventure preview on ABC’s show, The View!


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