Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Review of the Create-a-Monster Design Lab for Monster High

First of all, big congratulations to Dailey_Star for winning the caption contest!  Fantastic job--what a fun story and a well-earned prize!  Now you can continue the adventures of Daniela and her time machine at home with all of the dolls in the photo. :)

Last week was tough, and so this weekend I really wanted to play.  I have some great dolls in my review queue, but the toy that was calling out to me the most, promising a few hours of creative fun, was the Create-a-Monster Design Lab.  The fact that I even bought this set might surprise some of you, considering how disappointed I was with my last Create-a-Monster set.  The thing is, this toy was on clearance at Target (already) and seems to offer something very different from the other Create-a-Monster sets, and so I thought it was worth a look.  I also still have the Novi Star dolls on my mind, particularly the pictures of their heads on Monster High bodies from My Dolls Are My Models' flickr photostream. The Design Lab has a green-bodied Monster High doll and my Alie Lectric is green, so an added bonus of this set is that it gives me the perfect opportunity to see how easily a Novi Star head can fit on a different body.

Creation from the Monster High Create-a-Monster Design Lab.
Here's the Design Lab (Target, $27.99--clearance):

The basic idea with this set is that you can customize a blank Monster High doll with removable tattoos, just like those temporary tattoos you can buy at the art store for your own skin.  I love those tattoos.  My kids used to adore them--as did pretty much every kid who ever came over to my house.  They're just really, really fun.  The idea of applying these tattoos to a doll is very promising.

What's also promising is the list of things that you get with this set.  It comes with a complete doll, a wig, an outfit, shoes, the tattoo machine and over 100 tattoos.  Doesn't that sound like fun?

The doll is visible through the front of the box, and she looks neat.  Her outfit is simple but attractive and I like the combination of green skin and purple hair.  The wig is already on the doll, and it actually looks okay.  I figured that this blank doll is worth something to me even if the whole tattoo activity is terrible.

If all else fails, I can paint her face and make my own Monster High alien.
The box gives a nice overview of how the process will work--and promises that it'll be "so easy."  In addition to providing decoration for the body, the tattoos actually give the doll her facial features (eyes and mouth).

The tattoos are completely removable, which is critical.  I don't want to have to buy a whole new doll every time I want to try a new tattoo.

The doll parts fit into a big plastic coffin where they are held in place for the tattoo application.  You can only tattoo one body part at a time.   It looks like the process requires plain water, which is great.  I don't want to be messing around with glue or heat or anything like that.

It's got to be the first coffin-shaped tattoo machine ever made.
When I first saw this set at Toys R Us at full price ($40), the detail that stopped me from buying it (aside from the price) was that I don't really like the way the doll on the box looks:

Cute dress, cute hair, cute eyes and...droopy fish lips.
Her body tattoos look great, but her face is strange:

Her mouth is set way too low.  Also, there's all kinds of photo enhancement going on with that wig.
The disclaimer about the tattoos potentially requiring baby oil to be removed also scared me a bit.  If the tattoos are difficult to remove, or if removal creates a huge oily mess, then I'm likely to loose interest. 

You can use this set with any of the Create-a-Monster kits, but obviously the sets that have heads with faces on them already aren't going to work with the facial tattoos.  

The packaging is almost all cardboard.  The coffin is loose inside the main cardboard box and slides right out:

The coffin has a black base with a blue tray that holds all of the doll parts.  It has a decorative a pink lid and then a black contraption in the middle that holds a sponge for wetting and activating the tattoos.  The sponge holder is connected to a clear tube that disappears down into the base of the coffin.  The sponge holder can slide along the side of the coffin and also lifts up and down over the blue tray.

The doll is attached with rubber bands to a blue cardboard insert that slides out of one end of the box: 

It is very easy to get everything out of the box, and all of the packaging (with the exception of the small plastic window) is easily recyclable.  

The blank doll is oddly appealing to me.  She has a bit of an alien vibe to her, and also a bit of a Little Apple Doll spookiness to her vacant face.

How many fingers am I holding up?
Whoa--this is strange...I really need a face!
Um, hello?  Can anyone here get me a face?
There are a few extra plastic parts attached to the lid of the coffin, and four pages of fairly detailed directions:

One face tattoo was packaged next to the doll, but at first I couldn't find any of the other tattoos.  

This face makes me think of Lady Cassandra, from Dr. Who:

Goodbye trampoline, hello blondie! 
The grey handle snaps easily onto the top of the coffin, and the whole thing can be closed and locked in place.  It's big and garish, but having the contraption look like a coffin is clever...and creepy.

I try not to think too hard about being locked inside something like this while
having tattoos put on my face. 
The two small pink plastic parts are a lock for the coffin and a sponge applicator to help with the tattoos.

The coffin has a small drawer in the front, which is where the hundreds of tattoos were hiding:

So, let me show you how this thing works.  I read the directions pretty carefully, but I still made a few mistakes and noticed a few problems along the way.  

The first step is to fill the Design Lab with water.  You fill it through that spider web hole in the bottom right hand corner of the coffin:

It's a good idea to use something with a spout, like a liquid measuring cup.  There's no way to tell when you've poured in the right amount of water...well, except that water starts flowing over the edges when you've put in too much.

Pour until you feel like stopping.
Once you've added the water, you pump the skull shaped button just next to the water hole, drawing water out of the base of the coffin, up through a clear tube and into the white sponge.  You do this until the sponge is saturated.

This thing is making me nervous.
A few problems here.  First of all, if you pump water into the sponge with the sponge holder in an upright position, most of the water just leaks out of the hose and drips into the top of the coffin like this:  

Big mess.
I recommend filling the sponge with it lowered down over the blue tray like this:

This way, gravity is on your side.
Better yet, just remove the sponge (it comes out easily), dip it in water and then put it back.

The second problem is that the hose is pinched between the blue tray and the side of the coffin:

This makes it really hard to pump the water.  I wonder if the tube was supposed to be positioned somewhere else?  Like maybe running through this hole in the top of the tray?

That'd make a lot more sense.
The whole blue tray lifts out, so you can fiddle around with the hose and try to reposition it.  Without completely taking the hose apart, there's not a great solution, though.

Once you have the sponge saturated, you are ready to start tattooing.

Each compartment in the blue tray has a special symbol.  If you match this symbol to the symbols on the tattoos, you'll get the right tattoo for each body part.  For example, the torso slot has a heart inside it:

And all of the torso tattoos have a heart symbol in one corner:

As I was undressing my doll to get her ready for her tattoos, I noticed a fairly major defect in one of the legs.  The left knee joint is deformed and does not move.  This means I can't pose that leg and also that I can't place the lower leg in the tattoo machine.  Bummer.

Time to call Mattel, I think.  I have heard that they will cheerfully replace parts like this.  I hope so!

The doll has holes for wings, which is excellent news:

Tattooed wings would be great.
This outfit is nowhere near as creative or interesting as many of the other Monster High outfits, but I like the colors and appreciate the simple but fashionable design.

Have I mentioned that I really like the blank doll?  I do.  I really like it.  It showcases how expressive the Monster High body is--it doesn't even need a face to be interesting and provocative:

I can't see or eat and you think that's interesting and provocative?  Typical.
There's no contour to the mouth, which will make it easy to tattoo, but might make the tattoos look odd, especially with a plump, full lip design.

I love the elf ears!

I decided to tattoo the torso first.  There are many intricate designs to choose from...

I chose a pretty plain tattoo for my first attempt, just in case I made a mistake.  I got the torso inserted into the tray, made sure the sponge was wet...

I lined the sponge up in the middle of the coffin, matching up the arrows as I was told...

It snaps into place so you know it's right.
I inserted the tattoo into the holders that keep it secured to the sponge...

Then, I lowered the sponge down and pushed on it really hard...

When you push down on the sponge holder (which is also shaped like a coffin) a pair of red LED eyes on a decorative skull light up and flash.  They flash faster and faster until the time is up and you can release the sponge holder.

You have to push pretty hard to get those eyes to light up
I lifted up the sponge to find a failed tattoo.  It's way off to one side and barely attached to the torso at all.

She's molting.
Not surprisingly, this was completely my fault.  The sponge holder can actually move from side to side across the width of the coffin, and be locked into position over different body parts.

With the sponge locked in the correct position, I tried again...


Tire track torso!
You really need that little pink sponge applicator to smooth the tattoo down immediately after you apply it.  Even with some smoothing, though, the tattoo is slightly wrinkled:

This was pretty fun. I tried a few limb tattoos, but then quickly got impatient to attempt a face application.  There are a ton of different face tattoos to choose from, which is exciting:

Some of my favorites:

The head inserts very precisely into the tray, with a little tab that fits into the neck hole to hold everything really securely.

First you take me apart, now you're going to lock me in here, and you think I'm creepy?
Here's the face all ready to go...

I pushed down really hard and gave a few extra pumps on the water hose button...and it worked!

I can see!
When you first lift up the sponge, the tattoos will inevitably be pulled away from the doll's head in a few places, or wrinkled at the edges.  Just wet the small pink sponge tool and smooth the tattoo down, using very little pressure.

I can see that I have no body!
Here's the doll assembled with all of her various tattoos:

That's more like it.
The wig is of better quality than the other Create-a-Monster wigs I've seen.  It is easy to brush and fairly smooth and soft.  I don't like the bangs very much, and the attachment peg is harder to use than the peg on a Liv wig, but it is fine overall.

This face isn't quite what I was hoping for, though:

Her lips are flaking a bit.
I'm not sure what I don't like about this particular face--I think there's too much decoration around the eyes and not enough expression.  She has a vacant stare with a ditzy, befuddled look.

Thank you for the face...could I have some clothes now?
This first experiment already gives me new respect for the way that the Monster High designers mix the color of a character's vinyl with his or her unique face paint.  It's (apparently) not so simple to get a good match.

The lips do, indeed, look a bit funny with no three dimensionality in the profile:

What, no collagen with this kit?
Somehow, as I was playing around with the wig, I managed to ruin the eye tattoo on one side of her face.  This is good evidence for how fragile and temporary the tattoos are, especially when they are newly applied.

I'm melting!
The body tattoo started to wear off after a while, too, even without putting on the dress.  In fact, the tattoos make the body sticky, and so I didn't want to put the dress on and risk that getting all sticky, too.  Unless you want to pose your doll nude, I think maybe the torso tattoos are a bit of a waste.

The big question is, how easy is it to wash the tattoos off and start over?  Well, I tried a few things (including baby oil...) and found that soaking the parts in hot, soapy water for five minutes saved me the most time in the long run.  No other single trick helped to speed up the removal process more than a nice, long soak.

It's easier to get the tattoos off of the head than it is to get them off of the body.  Not only is the head easier to wash and manipulate, but the hard plastic of the body must make the tattoos stick better or something.  This, in conjunction with the fact that the tattoos leave the body feeling sticky, made me decide to clean off the body and then not apply any more tattoos...probably ever.

Wha--where'd everyone go?

What kind of cruel prank is this...?
The face cleans off beautifully--there's no visual evidence of the previous tattoo, just a very slightly sticky feel to the vinyl.

I tried this face next--it has a very different vibe:

It makes her look mystic and slightly vulnerable.  

Yeah, vulnerable because you keep taking away my face.
If you look closely, you can also see the small wrinkles in the tattoo that are impossible to avoid.

The wig doesn't really add anything to this face, in fact, I think she looks better bald.

This face might have been my favorite overall, but because it didn't work well with the wig, and because I really wanted to play around some more, I made the decision to try some more tattoos.  I just wish I had another copy of this tattoo so that I could re-apply it someday.  I hope Mattel makes that an option soon.

The next face I tried must have gotten seated wrong in the lab tray because the lips are waaay too low, just like in the picture on the box:

Droopy fish lips again.
Droopy, perhaps, but these lips are better than no lips...
I discovered that you can (very carefully) wash off just the mouth, and then replace it with another mouth that you cut away from a different face tattoo.  This adds another level of mixing and matching that is pretty fun, assuming that you can get the new mouth on straight...

She'd look cute with a small, sassy painted mouth, like this:

Ok, that's too much fun.  How about the face she'd make if I told her I was going to soak her head and start all over again??

Or, the face she'd make as she plots her evil revenge...?

Seriously, though, I wanted to find a good mouth for those pretty rainbow eyes.  I tried this blue one:

I think this mouth looks huge on her:

No, no, this mouth is fab-blu-ous!  Let's stop with this one. 
The blue color doesn't do much for the rest of the doll, either:

C'mon, it matches a tiny part of my eyeshadow...
...and the wig doesn't help:

It's a bit too Muppet Show, I think.

So, not quite what I was looking for--but I can just rub it off and try another one!

Something's wrong here, but I can't quite put my finger on it...

This is the face that is pictured on the box, but I must have gotten the head way out of alignment, because the eyes are crazy low:

Now you're just messing with me.
I tried this etherial face:

Suddenly, I feel calm and serene...

I really like this face, but again, I think the outfit and the wig don't go with the face--the face is too delicate for the dark, edgy color of the hair and the fall/winter tones of the outfit.

Just put your lips together and blow.
This face was one of my favorites from the very beginning:

But the lips are crooked and a bit too low, so I tried a pair of yellow lips, but I put these on crooked, too:

Finally, I found just the right combination for this doll.  The purple lips go with her hair and the eyes are fancy, but they also have a bit of fierceness to them:

Oh, ok.  I guess this was worth the wait.
The time and effort that it took me to find this combination puts a spotlight on the need for Mattel to make lots of extra tattoos available for sale.  If they don't market extra tattoos, this toy will very quickly hit the backs of shelves all over the world.

Before I give my bottom line, I have to show you how this body looks with the Novi Stars head.  I am not a head replacement expert, so I just left the Monster High neck exactly as it is and popped Alie's head right on:

The neck attachment is strange--the lump at the top of the Monster High neck doesn't merge well into the simple oval head of the Novi.  She looks like a praying mantis:

It's definitely alien-looking.  I think I'm missing a step that others have used to make the two parts meld together nicely.

I think I need to remove the attachment peg on the Monster High neck so that the Novi neck slides on around the rounded part of the neck that you can still see in these pictures.  I'm not sure that'll work, and I'm not sure I want to disassemble a perfectly good Monster High body to make it happen. 

For now, I like the Monster High body best with it's original head, especially with these tattoos, even though I know they won't last:

Bottom line?  As long as you are willing to read directions, work through some kinks, and aren't expecting the doll you create to last forever, you'll probably have some fun times with this set.  In many ways, the appeal of this toy is very similar to that of the removable tattoos that you can buy for your own skin.  Those tattoos aren't perfect and they don't last very long, but they are quite entertaining in the moment.   

Because the head tattoos are significantly more fun to play with and easier to remove than the body tattoos, I'd restructure this set, or offer a different version of the set that had the following features:  
1. Several heads (maybe three) so that you could design a new head without washing the old one every single time.  The add-on packs have two heads, which is good.
2. A smaller, less expensive design lab that has space for just the head (and maybe the upper arms).  I won't use most of the body tattoos ever again because of their sticky feel.
3. A sponge that you simply dip in water and insert into the sponge holder--get rid of the whole complicated, glitchy hose mechanism.
4. More tattoos!  Whether they come in the original set or can be easily and cheaply bought separately, I don't care, but the fun of this set is in having TONS of different tattoos to use and cut and mix and match (including some duplicates in case you ruin your favorite...).

This seems like a fun activity for parents and children to share, since younger children might have a hard time positioning everything just right, pushing the sponge holder down hard enough and fixing the unavoidable wrinkles that occur when the tattoo is first applied.  I wouldn't be surprised if children under 10 who are working with this set on their own are incredibly frustrated by some of the features.  

For me, this toy provided an entertaining way to spend the afternoon, although it would have been much more fun to share the experience with one of my nieces.  The blank doll has some fascinating creative potential and the outfit and wig are definitely usable, so for the clearance price of $28, I got enough fun for my money.  I'd be hesitant to spend the full $40 price and would definitely not give this toy to a young child and walk away.

Age Level
10 and up because of the complexity of the set’s operation.  Parental help is recommended.
Overpriced at $40.
There are a few minor design flaws with the lab and my doll has a deformed leg, but overall the quality is fine and the flaws can be overcome.  The wig is usable and better than other wigs from this series.  
Great packaging--mostly cardboard and all of the items are very easy to remove from the box.
No.  This is a toy and the tattoos don’t last.
Incredibly versatile in that you can design many different dolls, or just use the blank doll as a template to create something unique.  The fact that the tattoos are temporary and won’t last through any kind of play make this doll more of an art project than a play doll.  The availability of additional tattoos is a must for this product's success.
I would re-design this set to emphasize the fun of tattooing the head.  This is the toy’s best feature.  As it is sold, the set costs a lot and you pay for gimmicks and options that are not desirable or necessary.


  1. the blank head would be great for ooaking

  2. Nice review, it looks like a really nice set. Some of those faces had me cracking up! You could put some clear nail polish over the face to make it last longer.

  3. I've heard people seal the tattoos to make them last. :)

    1. how do people seal the tattoos??? I have got to know!!!

    2. Well you sure as heck don't use clear nail polish! That eats away at the vinyl :/
      Use Mod Podge or Mr. Super Clear (be sure to wear a mask whilst spraying this!)

  4. I love the faces you put together. Too bad they peel so easily. Congrats to Daily Star on her win. It was a fun contest. (Now I have to decide if I want to buy a Rochelle Goyle, she was too cute.

  5. This looks like it could be a lot of fun. I like the face you finally gave your doll. Sealing it sounds like a good idea if you want it to last longer. I suspect if you wanted to leave the Novi head on the Monster Body, you would have to enlarge the neck hole on the head - Muff has done a few posts on this kind of surgery.

  6. Could other types of tattoos be used with this kit? For example, what about those removable tattoos for people that were mentioned, is there any reason they could not be used on this doll? If so, that would greatly increase the tattoo-ing potential, although not for the faces probably.

  7. Love this review- and I LOVE the blank green doll- something is so simple and enchanting about her. Now I can't wait to get one of my own! (Just the doll- I'm afraid I'd never use the tattoo machine lol)

    1. Same here - I don't care about tattoos and machine, I just want blank doll.

  8. Another great and fun review! Although this sets looks like a lot of fun, I'm the type that would have a hard time getting everything ready AND eventually get a good result xD
    I know that if I had this set I wouldn't want to use the tattoos I like the most because I would be very upset if I would waste one.
    Complete with the flaws I don't think this would be a great toy for me, I know others would love it. I wish I had the doll though, she looks awesome and I love her outfit and wig!

    Also, thanks to everyone who voted for me on the caption contest, I'm really happy and I think it's great to know that others enjoyed reading my story!

  9. Hello from Spain: this box has many creative possibilities. I like all the changes you create in the face of the Monster. I will not buy it because it takes a long time to create ... Your post is very detailed. Thanks for sharing. Keep in touch

  10. Hi!
    I loved this funny and super detailed review! It's amazing what Mattel is doing with MH line. Here in Italy we don't have the create a monster set, but I hope that it'll be sold soon, because I see that's is a great source of entertainment! I think that I'll spend whole afternoons creating new faces and new looks even if probably I'll prefer to hold the blank MH doll as she is

  11. I've thought about getting this set but I just want the doll without the tattoos. I think she looks great faceless.

  12. Hi Emily,

    This sounds like an interesting doll, but, like many other commenters, I don't know if I would bother with the tattoos! She seems to be perfect just the way she is (although she may not think so). Of course, maybe if just her eyes were applied, that might be interesting too. I have to agree with the Lady Cassandra assessment of the facial tattoo; I'd forgotten about her being a piece of skin.

    I can see that this doll of yours has quite the bit of attitude, which really made this review one of your more entertaining ones. I may just have to find one of these sets for myself!

  13. With a power drill (or I'd use my dremel) you could easily make a hole for the tube to go thru so it's not getting pinched. I suspected these were shoddy & resolved to wait for future improvements (like we're forced to do with pretty much the entirety of the MH line) & it seems likes this was wise, since they're already getting cleared out (tho not at TRU). My bf & I are still really excited to play with our add-on kits to the lab & happy that not getting the lab itself won't be much of a setback.

    Can you apply a thin layer of matte modge-podge *over* the face tatto to make it stay longer & under the tats, directly onto the hard plastic parts, to make them easier to remove?

    1. Mod Podge wouldn't work under the tattoos - it becomes far too sticky when wet and then won't dry again :/ Another kind of sealant might work though - maybe Mr. Super Clear?

  14. I love your reviews! They make me laugh, those faces were hilarious.

    Great review!

  15. You do a great job with your reviews!

    Hmm... I don't really like the whole idea of the Monster High dolls, but the blank faced doll looks cute. If I had the know-how, I'd buy up a bunch and paint, drill, and melt them to make original dolls, girls AND boys!

  16. I would have just kept the head blank..or just put eyes on the head but no lips. the eyes seemed to have been the best thing for me. I don't think I would get the set for full price, although I only liked the doll alone, everything else could have been given away for all I care, just as long as I had that amazing blank monster high doll. Even finding the doll all nude and blank in a thrift shop would be a plus!

  17. This sort of reminds of the What's Her Face dolls from about 10 years ago. They used markers instead of tattoos.

  18. My 11 year old daughter just received this set for Christmas and it is her first Monster High set/doll. We have had a great time playing all afternoon, and thoroughly plan to play more, and begin sewing for our doll too! As a starter concept for OOAK work, this was super. PS...she figured out everything way faster than I did, and even had overcome nearly all of the "drawbacks" listed in the review. But we hadn't noticed the drawer inthe coffin for the tattoos, and we really enjoyed the photos and tenor of your writing.

  19. I liked it so much Im going to bye that!

  20. I love that you put Alie's head on CAM's green body. It's possible a little hack-sawing could be done to make a better fit, but I don't know if I'm willing to hacksaw my green CAM to find out! I think Obitsu 23cm would be better; too bad there's no green skin tones.

    1. Ah. As a PS:

      To make the tattoos more permanent, you could do what I do with Obitsu vinyl heads and decals- give a good coating of vinyl-safe varnish (Citadel makes one, so you won't need to go crazy finding Mr. Super Clear.)

  21. Now I want a Novi Star doll so I can put the head on a MH CAM body. I saw your NS review and since the heads come off pretty easily, I'm so tempted.

  22. This particular sort of reminds of the What's Her Face dolls after about 10 years back. The company utilized markers rather than tattoos.

    Tattoo machines kits for sale

  23. i wonder if the tattoos work on human skin?

    1. Possibly...they might not be non-toxic.

  24. Excellent, hilarious review!

  25. Excellent, toyboxphilosopher review. I like it. Apple Laptop Stickers

  26. Did you get any joy from Mattel about the faulty leg? I had a similar problem with a CAM doll, also half the body shell missing from an Inner Monster pack, & found them dismissive to the point of rudeness. Their attitude was "Really? Oh, well. Nothing we can do, take it back & get a refund".

  27. Hi,

    Cool experiments. I agree that the tattoos are basically ick, with regards to their staying power, fer SHURR. :(

    Peppermint Snowdrift