How Mattel Designed Computer Engineer Barbie to Excite Adult Geeks, Young Minds

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As we wrap up our coverage of Toy Fair 2010, we go back to where the recent toy frenzy started: Computer Engineer Barbie. We had a chance to sit down with Mattel's Michelle Chidoni to talk Barbie stuff and to settle once and for all which laptop Barbie prefers.

On Friday when Mattel revealed Barbie's two newest careers they indicated that News Anchor was the Girls' choice but Computer Engineer won the popular vote. Part of the voting came from an online poll, but the Barbie team conducted surveys of young girls offline as well. Michelle told us that girls overwhelmingly wanted to be a News Anchor, so the 125th career went that way. But due to the groundswell of support and chatter about the vote on the Internet, Mattel "couldn't ignore the huge cultural conversation that was happening about Barbie becoming a Computer Engineer."

When the decision came down Mattel consulted members of the Society of Women Engineers and National Academy of Engineers on her clothes, accessories and even package design because they wanted the product to be authentic. The doll had to be real and accurate yet still maintain Barbie's style. The company received a lot of great feedback which they used to craft the final product.

The engineers said that Barbie shouldn't have a lab coat or jeans, but she definitely shouldn't have a dress or heels, either. They also expressed a desire for the doll to be Geek Chic -- fashionable but with a nerdy flair. Thus the binary t-shirt (which does spell out Barbie), cute, comfortable flats and geometric glasses came into play.

The women consulted also said that Barbie should have a Coke can and a bag of Doritos at her desk to be truly authentic. While Mattel couldn’t quite do that, she does have a coffee cup. The box we saw at Toy Fair isn’t the final, and Michelle told us that among the mock-ups she's seen there are designs that have a little stuffed Linux penguin by her monitor. She promised us that they're working to make that a reality because "people who are engineers will get it and love it." The design team incorporated a lot of little touches like that for geeks because they were so passionate about the concept of the doll.

I'd buy a Barbie who had a stuffed Linux penguin accessory, wouldn't you?

The conversation online has been generally positive with people asking whether Barbie is for open source coding and wondering whether she'd contribute to the community. (Someone tell her about Ubuntu Women!) And, of course, people wonder if she's a Mac or a PC. The answer is about what you'd expect from a Barbie rep: "Barbie is what you want her to be." It's up to girls to decide what kind of laptop she has when they play. Our readers seem to think it's a Sony VAIO W.

After Friday's announcement I mostly saw positive reactions online, but I was surprised to see that Loaded host Natali Del Conte was actually offended by the doll. Perhaps because Barbie is often accused of creating unrealistic aspirations in little girls due to her unrealistic proportions. However, as I stood in front of the wall of career Barbies and remembered the ones I had as a kid, I saw Astronaut, CEO, Presidential Candidate, Dentist, Pediatrician, and more.

"Barbie is the only girls brand that allows girls to try on different careers," Michelle told me. And though they partner with Disney to make some of the dolls in the Princess line, Michelle pointed out that those dolls would never run for president. A Bratz doll doesn't spark dreams of becoming a doctor. "Yes, Barbie has also been a princess and she is always a fashionista, but she's also allowed girls to put on these different roles and play them out." Barbie allows girls to experience all of the possibilities from model to pizza chef to CEO.

As with many of the dolls we saw at Toy fair, Barbies come with online codes to unlock special content on Barbie.com. Computer Engineer dolls will unlock videos and gameplay centered around software engineering and the game will be about how to create video games. Meta! But considering that last year only around 18% of the computer engineering degrees given went to women (according to Mattel), it's just as important as ever to relate what some engineers do in a way that makes sense to them. "We want to show girls that this is a great career and it's so important for women to be part of that growing industry."

Computer Engineer Barbie won't be available until the Fall -- just in time for holiday shopping. Maybe by then we'll also have news of a special Barbie netbook for kids and, if we're lucky, it'll have Ubuntu on it.

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