No, this is not going to be another article about the proper use of our favorite brand name, for that check out: LEGO, Lego, lego, legos – Does it Really Matter? “Only sheeps say legos” is actually a quote from one of my favorite LEGO designers, Mark Stafford in a recent discussion on Reddit. The whole thread is so interesting that I thought to bring it to your attention. 🙂
I appreciate the work of Mark not just because he is a great LEGO designer (see the LEGO sets he designed here, and his personal gallery here), but because he actively participates in the LEGO community in various LEGO forums and social sites. This keeps him very aware of what the LEGO community wants, and also allows LEGO fans to interact with a LEGO designer on a personal level. Going back to the discussion on Reddit, below I have picked out and paraphrases some of the most interesting questions for you and also quote Mark’s responses, and you can also read the original here.
❓ QUESTION: I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Bionicle saved the LEGO company from bankruptcy, but is there a good source for this story? I’m very curious, since the late 90’s was the height of when I was collecting as a kid, and it seemed like things were in full swing. Lots of set variety that didn’t rely on licensed properties.
💡 ANSWER: I’ve been present at several presentations about this period – both internal and public by high up LEGO managers, including Mads Nipper, Marketing Director and Jorgen Vig, CEO. I was one of many people interviewed for this book which tells the full story of the turnaround of LEGO’s fortunes: Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry
Mads was most open about the situation from 1999 to 2003 at the AFOLCon LEGO event in the UK two years ago. This was the first time I had heard the company came within six months of bankruptcy in that period. When Jorgen first analyzed the company and for the first time ever figured out the outgoings and the profits he almost had a heart attack. The LEGO company at that stage had no idea how much it cost to manufacture the majority of their bricks, they had no idea how much certain sets made. The most shocking finding was about sets that included the LEGO micro-motor and fiber-optic kits (in both cases it cost LEGO more to source these parts then the whole set was being sold for); everyone of these sets was a massive loss leader and no one actually knew.
This was combined with a decision to ‘retire’ a large number of the LEGO Designers who had created the sets from the late 70’s through the 80’s and into the 90’s and replace them with 30 ‘innovators’ who were the top graduates from the best design colleges around Europe. Unfortunately, though great designers they knew little specifically about toy design and less about LEGO building. The number of parts climbed rapidly from 6000 to over 12,000 causing a nightmare of logistics and storage and a huge amount of infrastructure expansion for no gain in sales. Products like Znap, Primo, Scala and worst; Galidor all came out of this period.
The only reason the company survived was the incredibly lucky timing of the brilliant and very popular home grown LEGO Bionicle theme and the internally controversial decision to license and make Star Wars sets – which turned out to a very good idea. Jorgen Vig was put in charge, he made the hard call and made redundancies, they slashed the number of parts down to 6000 (a figure that has grown, but we’re still well below the 2003 total), the company reorganized and analyzed all costs, design was finally linked to manufacturing cost and re-focused on the core business of making construction sets. The unprofitable LEGO computer games business was shut down. (Some of these guys returned to the UK and started their own company called Travellers Tales, they then licensed the LEGO computer game business and freed from LEGO management – who know nothing about computer games – they still make the LEGO computer games today – making good money for all involved – including LEGO.)
After two/three years of consolidation and streamlining the company had it’s first Designer Recruitment Workshop in September 2006. I was one of the 11 designers hired at that time. New managers were in place in the design building, all developed inside the company. These guys loved the product, they knew the customers (as they had grown up playing with LEGO), and they had ideas that had been restrained for years. They hired several kid-focused design graduates and a few AFOLs (Adult Fans of LEGO) – of which I was one. We already knew and loved the product, we brought new energy and new ideas to the cream of the old designers who had survived the bad times.
For me it’s been an absolutely fantastic seven years so far and I see all of the work and principles these guys have created as the message of The LEGO Movie; it’s not just a toy, it’s a tool for creation and imagination and getting LEGO bricks into the hands of kids is the only aim of everything we do. I’m so proud of being even a tiny bit involved in it!
❓ QUESTION: Why doesn’t LEGO make some of the same type of sets they used to? The Space themed sets from the 80’s and 90’s (like Blacktron, M-Tron, Space Police etc.) are awesome sets and I can’t figure out why similar sets aren’t being produced today. Did they really not sell?
💡 ANSWER: LEGO still makes Space themes (see here). It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the marketing of , movie tie-ins, Ninjago and Chima and think that’s all LEGO does these days, but the three evergreens of LEGO minifigure themes are City, Castle and Space. If there is not one of these themes on the shelf at the moment you can be sure one is in development. (basic buckets of bricks, Creator, Technic and DUPLO will always exist too, and Friends should soon move into this category also.) That said, LEGO Space themes do not sell like they used to, and part of this is the co-opting of everything sci-fi by the Star Wars universe. It cannibalizes LEGO Space sales and the biggest difficulty of designing a LEGO Space theme is to make sure it does not look like something from Star Wars.
❓ QUESTION: Are they LEGO or LEGOs?
💡 ANSWER: They are LEGO bricks. It is the LEGO Company. (The brand name LEGO standing alone is discouraged – though used frequently around here when we speak.) There is never an ‘s’ on the end. Only sheeps say legos.
❓ QUESTION: Am I the only one who enjoyed the Galidor sets as a kid?
💡 ANSWER: No. According to our sales figures there were about three of you…
❓ QUESTION: Since LEGO moved some of its production to China, it seems like fake LEGO sets are everywhere! What can you say about that?
💡 ANSWER: Most LEGO sets are manufactured and packed at one of four locations; Billund in Denmark (about 5 minutes walk from where I’m sitting), The Czech Republic, Hungary, and just over the US border in Mexico. Some parts are made by external partners in China, but these are the hard to mold or print parts that Chinese manufacturing has perfected over the last 40 years. Many companies who make high end electronics or need precision molding tend to manufacture in China these days – their knowledge is greater, their skills are better honed.
LEGO is soon to open it’s own factory in China, but this will be to serve that part of the world (Asia and Australasia) and will not lead to closures elsewhere. The growth in ‘cloned’ cheap crap from these parts of the world just means we are popular there now. It’s a weird way to show a company some love, but that’s how it’s viewed in the culture; you buy a cheap copy because you want to show how much you wish you could afford the real thing. Of course they don’t understand why if you can afford the real thing you’d want to buy a copy, but that’s cultural differences for you!
❓ QUESTION: LEGO should make biodegradable bricks that work like normal LEGO, but starts to break apart after six months. This way they could be sold cheaper. Having a LEGO obsession seems like a rich kids’ hobby. My son likes playing with his old LEGO sets, but what he really loves is getting and building new sets. I know you can get giant bags of old LEGO pieces cheap on the secondary market, but it’s just not the same, and they are often mixed with other stuff. I doubt that LEGO would want their customers to feel like they are digging through someone else’s trash.
💡 ANSWER: Three to four generations seems like pretty good value for the money and environmentally that life span is pretty good too. (Plus the whole manufacturing aspect should be carbon neutral soon, as we are building a massive windmill farm to offset it all.) However changing to a cheaper material or less accurate molds would just lead to a decrease in the building abilities of the bricks. The LEGO Company is a premium brand and this will never happen. If you take a look at MegaBloks or some of the Chinese knock-offs you can see why; either they won’t go together or they will fall apart. (Not all of them, there are some nice sets and parts out there from other companies – but they tend to be inconsistent.)
Every LEGO part is molded to 10,000ths of a millimeter and most molds cost over $100,000 (over 7000 elements at four factories and these costs add up fast), that’s why LEGO bricks are not cheap. I wish it could be otherwise. On the bright side for you US consumers, the cost of LEGO sets is almost half what it is in Canada, Europe, or Australia – in fact one of the most expensive places you can buy LEGO sets is in it’s home country of Denmark.
Personally I’ve found the best way to wash LEGO bricks is put the parts in a pillow-case and tie it off, put this in a second pillow-case for redundancy. Then pop it in the clothes washer with a very small amount of soap. Stickers will be destroyed by this though. And this is not something the LEGO Company recommends, it’s just how I personally do it – I accept no responsibility for broken anythings resulting from anyone copying me!
❓ QUESTION: How successful is LEGO Friends? Is it doing well enough that we’ll continue seeing support and new sets coming out in this line? Or will they eventually disappear from the shelves just as my daughter reaches prime age for them?
💡 ANSWER: LEGO Friends Is insanely popular and will continue for many more years. It’s also a gateway back into LEGO building for girls, and once they start building with the bricks their interest is piqued by the other themes. For years we neglected them, now they have their own line. Plus females are a lot more represented in other sets; female cops, fire-fighters, pilots, Samurai, and in the LEGO Legends of Chima line female Warrior Eagle, Rhino Warrior, Gorilla, Wolf, Lion and our first year antagonist was the female Crocodile Cruella.
❓ QUESTION: My favorite non-licensed LEGO Space theme of the last few years was Alien Conquest. Shame the theme didn’t get a longer run.
💡 ANSWER: We designed a whole second year, but it was cut… some of the best stuff I ever did…
❓ QUESTION: I’ve always been curious how much time you put into a model (or how much time they give you, I suppose). I know the answer is it depends based on the complexity of what you’re designing, but is there a rule of thumb? A month per 1000 parts or something? Oh, and are models designed in some sort of “LEGO-CAD” these days, or do you still break out the big bins of parts?
💡 ANSWER: The themes can take years to nail down, but the sets have between 4 and 6 months from the initial ‘sketch model’ to the final set used for production. Sometimes smaller sets take less time, but as budgets are tighter they can be more difficult and take longer to work out. The most sets I’ve worked on at one time is five, that was a tough six months! We have a CAD program based on Maya used during development and for building instructions, and we also sometimes use LDD (LEGO Digital Designer), which is available to download for free at LEGO’s website.
❓ QUESTION: I really miss the LEGO Castle sets from my childhood (90s), is there any chance of some of those sets being re-released?
❓ QUESTION: Would you hurry up and snap up the license to Doctor Who? It makes my heart hurt to see Doctor Who being peddled by Character Building. I want proper Doctor Who LEGO minifigures!
💡 ANSWER: Kids outside the UK have no idea who Doctor Who is. This is changing in the US, but it’s nowhere near being universally recognized enough for us to pursue. I build my own Doctor Who LEGO for fun though.
❓ QUESTION: I love the LEGO Architecture line and would like to see LEGO continuing to develop sets that appeal to older LEGO fans.
💡 ANSWER: Adult LEGO sales are still only 5% of total sales (as far as we can work out) so we develop about 5% of the sets for you guys (I’m one of ‘you guys’ by the way) and there’s no way we’re going to stop. We have to concentrate on the 95% though – it’s all about the kids!
❓ QUESTION: How do I get a job as a LEGO designer? Is it the dream job I imagine it to be?
💡 ANSWER: Watch the LEGO Jobs section at LEGO’s website. Check jobs in Denmark (all design jobs are in Denmark). Have a kickass design portfolio ready. Apply, two day interview, get hired. Yes, it is as great as you imagine it to be… except for the location; its in the middle of nowhere…
❓ QUESTION: Any chance of LEGO Bionicle coming back?
💡ANSWER: I won’t/can’t speculate either way on this and I don’t want to get anyone excited or crushed by doing so.
❓ QUESTION: Is LEGO still marketed toward children? With the huge marketing (at least that’s what I perceived) on movie tie-ins and the way The LEGO Movie seems to be directed, it seems that LEGO is now more directed to adults who grew up with LEGO.
💡 ANSWER: 95% of LEGO is still bought for and by children. Adults are a valued part of our consumer market though and we do make several large sets per year for them (including movie tie-ins) – these sets seem to be featured a lot on ‘geek’ websites and might give you the impression kids are not our focus, but they are!
❓ QUESTION: I really loved the LEGO Exo-Force series. Why did it end without proper ending?
💡 ANSWER: Who says we’re done? New Exo-Force, anyone? Unlikely I think, but the reason we didn’t end the story was because then why buy the sets? We left it up to the kids to rescue Master Keiken and finish the story. However this left a lot of people feeling unfulfilled, so with Ninjago (and when its time is up Chima) there is proper ending to the story. But Ninjago came back, so you don’t want to shut down every story-hook and marry everyone off with kids or anything! There’s also a problem with costs; if there are no more products there is no marketing budget to spend ending the story. This is why themes like Bionicle have such poor endings (in that case a series of illustrations and paragraphs of text) to finish the story off.
❓ QUESTION: Is LEGO looking to expand more into Asian markets?
💡 ANSWER: Yes, big priority right now…
Interesting stuff isn’t it? As I mentioned I just choose some of the questions and answers to give you a good variety, but there is a lot more! You can read the full exchange on Reddit. What do you think? Did you find the questions and answers interesting? What would you ask from a LEGO designer? Feel free to share and discuss in the comment section below! 😉
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