“Not all germs are bad and out to kill us.”
Growing up, Vanessa Germosen (BFA 2003 Illustration) heard her fair share of germ-related jokes about her last name. This, along with a keen interest in biology, led her to launch her germ-based toy line, Germusu. Germosen, who worked in product development of licensed characters for several years after graduating from SVA, was motivated to impart a lesson that most children—and adults—don’t always consider: Germs don’t just make us sick; many of them serve important functions. “I really wanted the germ-based characters to be useful as a product and unexpected in terms of germ characteristics,” she says.
Each brightly colored Germusu plush toy—designed not for strict biological accuracy, but rather to function as a zippered pouch, as useful as it is cute—comes with its own text about the characteristics of that particular germ, whether it’s lactobacillus (responsible for turning milk into yogurt) or brevibacterium (one cause for stinky feet). Germosen offers many other items—including a germy ABC’s poster, mugs, pillows, phone cases and tongue-in-cheek greeting cards—and the line, much like real germs, continues to multiply, with new pouches currently in the works.
Germosen was one of the many alumni entrepreneurs who participated in SVA’s last Markers Market, held in June, and she recently spoke with the College’s magazine, Visual Arts Journal, about her growing business.
Why did you decide to create a germ inspired toy line?
When I first graduated from SVA, I had the opportunity to work on the product development of licensed characters. After a few years in the industry, I was itching to try to develop my own line of anything. In the beginning, I really just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I wanted to conceptualize and execute something from idea to sketch to the product, all by myself. I also wanted to have something to own. When you work for someone else, for a company especially, you have no ownership. You trade in the safety of a job for the restrictions of another person’s idea and that aspect of work really got to me sometimes.
I was always interested in biology—it was my major before I transferred to SVA! That appeal, paired with a last name that’s always been a source of germ-related jokes, gave me the idea to start some germ-inspired characters. I really wanted them to be useful as a product, cute and unexpected in terms of germ characteristics.
Usefulness is why I decided to make them little pouches, I made them simple shapes with simple features to make them cute, and then I used the idea of “good” germs to teach something that we don’t always hear: the fact that not all germs are bad and out to kill us and that we actually need them for a lot of the things we take for granted.
Do you have a favorite character you’ve created?
I would say Mooger is definitely my favorite, for sentimental reasons. He was the first one I created. He’s not perfect in terms of concept and execution, but he reminds me that I’m capable of diving head first into something and making it work regardless of setbacks and mistakes. He’s not the cutest one either, but he’s still my special reminder of how capable I am.
Any plans to continue to expand the line and if so what might you be adding coming up?
At the moment I have no plans to expand to more physical products [beyond additional pouches], but a few years after launching the line, I updated the Germusu website to include the actual bacteria, fungus, or virus each germ is inspired by. I call it “Learn to Germ.”
But I do plan to keep adding to the germy character lineup. I’ve been eyeing some of the gut bacteria that are being proven to be beneficial to us. Those will be fun to pair up with poop illustrations [laughs].
What’s the most surprising thing that came out of Germsu?
The first time I personally sold Germusu to the public, I did it at a neighborhood craft fair. I expected they would interest young kids, maybe a few nerdy adults and was surprised by the spectrum of ages that loved them immediately.
What really blew me away was the reaction I got from tweens, and teens who I was sure would think they were corny. They were the best customers! Boys and girls alike laughed and asked for them. The last craft fair I did was last year, and most of my sales were still to tweens. It was definitely surprising, since from the beginning I was sure these little germs would only appeal to a certain demographic. It was nice to learn and be proved wrong in the best way possible—having a 12-year-old cool kid say, “Aw, I love these!”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
A version of this article appears in the spring 2018 issue of the Visual Arts Journal.