Playing with Legos seems like such a simple thing, yet it has held the interest of countless amateur “brickmasters” around the world for years. I got a glimmer of why this might be in reading this quote from Harmutt Esslinger, founder and CEO of FrogDesign Inc., which appeared in Fast Company (12/07): "In a sense, playing with Legos is a lot like designing: The process is slow and requires focus. A joint is missing here or there. You make mistakes. So you try something else, and that leads you to a different form, a different connection, a new discovery."
You may have noticed that Lego was in the news recently for disallowing a teenager’s Lego-brick video tribute to Spinal Tap to be seen in a new Spinal Tap concert DVD. (“The tone wasn’t appropriate for our target audience of kids 6 to 12,” said a Lego spokesperson, much to Harry Shearer’s dismay.) A more recent business profile of Lego in The New York Times by Nelson Schwartz put a cooler spin on the private company, which has had an unprecedented long run in the “imagination-oriented” play world.
Back about five years ago, though, Lego was faltering and it was time for a changeup, both in the company’s product lines and its marketing. In 2004, a new CEO was brought into the Danish company and Lego has since bounced back by becoming both more cost conscious and more daring in its product lines, expanding into Hollywood-themed Lego sets such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars and exploring board games, Web virtual reality systems (kids can build toys from virtual bricks), video games, and a Lego-themed live-action/animated film. (Sorry, no Spinal Tap music planned for the soundtrack.)
A few highlights from the Times profile:
- Lego was founded in 1932 on the principle of “play well,” or “leg godt” in Danish.
- As Lego becomes more bottom-line oriented, toy designers are now encouraged to re-use parts and molds (there used to be more than 13,000 different bricks molds used just one time). A bracing quote from Paal Smith-Meyer, head of Lego’s new business group: “You have to design for Lego. If you want to design for yourself, go be an artist.”
- Andrew Becraft, a tech writer at Microsoft, created the Brothers Brick blog which pulls in 125,000 unique visitors a month. “There’s a huge community of people that treat Lego as an art form rather than just a toy,” says Becraft.
- Close to 1 million people worldwide attended Lego conventions and events in the first seven months of 2009.
These legions of grown-up Lego fans are driving sales of, among other things, architect-designed models of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and famous Fallingwater house. (I wonder how long it takes to construct those
Lego models? Speaking of which, click here to see an entire two-story house made out of Legos
, which when completed will have a fully plumbed Lego loo, bath and giant [uncomfortable] bed.)
The most interesting thing to me about Lego
is the way it has invited the public to help design its products. The company has long been out in front of the open source design movement, recruiting its adult fans as “ambassadors” and “certified professionals,” the latter an elite group of Lego hobbyists who’ve made their obsession with Lego building a full or part-time profession. (That’s Manhattan-based “certified professional” Nathan Sawaya’s yellow lego figure above. Check out the rest of his amazing art gallery @ http://www.brickartist.com/lego-art/yellow.html
The unpaid group of fans deemed “Ambassadors” are expected to exemplify building proficiency, enthusiasm, and professionalism towards the public, other fans, and Lego. In exchange for all their contributions to the worldwide Lego online communities, writing articles for publication, and presenting Lego building subject matter at events and conferences, these Ambassadors get pre-launch access to new Lego products, invitations to participate in top-secret projects and Lego marketing events, and their name listed on the official Lego website.
Lego has smartly harnessed all this free enthusiasm by actually making it “exclusive” to become an Ambassador
. The current Lego Ambassador program has only 40 members from 22 different countries, and their term lasts one year. Lego won’t say when the application cycle starts for next year—you have to monitor their website and then arrange to be nominated by your local Lego group.
Is it worth all the effort? If you’re a Brickhead, probably. If you’re Lego—definitely.
1. If you want to see Lego hobbyists in action, and you’re near Seattle on October 3, check out BrickCon ’09
(about 240 exhibitors, with 7,000 attendees).
2. For those really into design techniques, don’t miss this appreciative essay
by Frog Design’s Nick de la Mare on how Lego’s packaging and instructions are wonderfully designed to be as simple and clear as possible (posted on Creativity
No related posts, but check around GlimmerSite for lots of other interesting articles.