I recently received a copy of the LEGO Life magazine (December 2014 – NO. 4 issue), which is an internal publication for employees of The LEGO Group. It has some really interesting articles, and I thought to share some of them with you. You can read a couple of previous articles from the magazine here: 2015 LEGO Star Wars New Life to the Galaxy. Another article I found very interesting was on the history of LEGO minifigures. It is titled “Ancestor of All Minifigures” written by Bo Byskov-Eriksen with photos by Niels Age Skovbo. You can read the article below. 🙂
ANCESTORS OF ALL MINIFIGURES – There would be no minifigures if it wasn’t for a few resourceful LEGO employees – 40 years ago – taking the initiative in creating the LEGO construction figure.
It is probably difficult for most people today to imagine a LEGO set without minifigures as a natural part of the play scene. But until as late as 1974 children had to mange without the now-familiar minifigs. In the 1960s and 1970s most LEGO building activity consisted of houses, trains and cars – and if “people” were needed, children had to create them. To give children more options in their creative play, in 1969 the LEGO Group worked on the idea of creating “people” for the LEGO universe. And company designers were asked for their suggestions for a LEGO figure.
The static figure – One of those designers was Jan Ryaa. “In 1971”, says Jan Ryaa, “we were producing sets for girls – doll houses with furniture but no people. Role play in those days was very much dad-mom-children, so a play figure was important. We got to work on it, but I seem to recall we had a few problems getting the arms to work properly.” Today, Jan Ryaa is a senior platform specialist with Design Lab and has worked with the LEGO Group for more than 40 years.
The designers’ various suggestions were tested on children in the 4-7 age group, and one of the ideas (a figure with movable legs) was dropped because tests showed it was too difficult for children both to build and play with the figure. Jan Ryaa: “We worked and experimented with several moving joints on the figure. We tried unsuccessfully with jointed hips and legs – and finally ended up with a figure built entirely of ordinary LEGO bricks.”
Welcome to the LEGO family – The designers produces a figure which had a torso and legs built from ordinary LEGO bricks but had a few new elements; a yellow, round head and an element complete with arms and hands.
In 1973 the designers and the LEGO Group revisited the problem, discussing the appearance of the figure. After lots of talk across the design desk about skin color and facial expression the decision was: a yellow head with black facial markings. “We spent ages decorating those figures, and as was the custom in those days we got help from external partners in arriving at the finished figure”, says Jan Ryaa.
After what had been several years of development, the figures made their debut in 1974, joining the LEGO range as product set #200, a family group consisting of grandmother, father, mother and two children. The family members had movable arms, brick torso, and hair elements which could be swapped around. The set was an instant hit with shoppers, and established new standards for production.
“Having decided to make the figures, we then had to improve our in-house skills for decorating them. Consequently, we invested in our first decorating machines – and introduced weekend production”, recalls Jan Ryaa. The success of set #200 was recognized by a Toy of the Year award in Britain that same year.
Fine-tuning the figure – However, the figure had one major problem: it was too large in relation to the rest of the building set. So it was back to the drawing board, creating a new figure more in proportion to the rest of the range. When complete, it had a shiny yellow head, a torso with the contours of arms, and a single solid leg. Its in-house nickname was “The Extra”.
In 1975, LEGO Group Owner Godtfred Kirk Christiansen (father of the present owner, Kjeld Kirk) worked intensely with the development team in creating a more suitable figure. Jan Ryaa: “The aim was to create a figure which matched the general LEGO environment – and development work became a day-and-night effort. There were people with saws and files working on the original, stiff-legged miniature.”
Four years after the construction figure was invented, and after many prototypes, the little character with moving arms and legs – with hands which could hold objects and a smiling face and eyes was ready in 1978. The minifigure was born.
Construction figure retires – The construction figure continued for a few more happy years – but in 1980 it retired from active duty, not to be used in new products. But the arms and hands were used for new functions for some years beyond that.
When LEGO Technic registered its success, a figure on the same scale was produced. It had movable arms and legs. And later, product developers created some figures for girls. They were designed to be more natural with the intention of encouraging girls to engage in LEGO building – for example, LEGO Belville and the Scala universes.
“Minifigures became popular as soon as they arrived on the scene – so much so that interest in the construction figure declined completely. But in a way the 1974 construction figure and grandmother were the ancestors of the minifigure – and the rest is history,” says Jan Ryaa.
Interesting, isn’t it? I think this article is particularly significant in light of the still ongoing (although much quieter) debate about the LEGO Friends and LEGO Disney Princess mini-dolls. Some people feel resentful that the mini-dolls are different than regular LEGO minifigures. However if we put the mini-dolls in historical perspective we will see that LEGO has always experimented with different types of characters. Yes, the minifigure has been the most successful and well known in recent times, however this doesn’t mean that LEGO stopped creating different figures for different themes and product lines.
LEGO Technic had its own larger figures that fit into Technic vehicles better. LEGO Juniors also had larger figures made for younger children. The LEGO Hero Factory and LEGO Bionicle lines have their own entirely different figures built with ball-joint elements and clip-on armor-plates. And don’t forget about the adorable and now highly collectible LEGO Fabuland characters. Also, two previous LEGO themes aimed at girls had their own special line of figures as mentioned in the article: LEGO Scala (1997-2001) and LEGO Belville (1994-2008). In addition, LEGOLAND parks have figures in LEGO MiniLand scale, which are the closest to the original brick-built characters. Interestingly, hardly anyone ever complain about any of them.
While LEGO minifigs are very popular and most people like them and even collect them, I think it’s important that we don’t try to force a highly creative company like LEGO into one scale and one type of figure design only. We know that LEGO vigorously tests their new products with children and take kids’ feedback very seriously. It was the children (specifically young girls who previously were not interested in LEGO) who choose the mini-dolls, over regular minifigs, so let them have their own characters. Their existence in no way threatens regular minifigs, and girls who prefer minifigs over mini-dolls continue to have plenty of choices as well.
So I would say let LEGO pursue testing, creating, inventing, and offering a range of products that many different people can enjoy. After all the world of LEGO is a miniature reflection of our own, and in reality there are people of different sizes, colors and shapes. LEGO is already quite uniform with making sure that everything fits into their well-defined and time-tested system. A little diversity will only add more options and flavor to it. LEGO Friends and LEGO Disney Princess have been a huge hit, so obviously the careful testing, and meticulous design process paid off yet again – just like in the past…
What do you think? How did you like the article on the history of LEGO minifigures? Did you learn something you didn’t know before? Do you have any of the original brick-built LEGO figures? Are there any LEGO characters that you really like that are non-standard minifigs? Feel free to share your thoughts and discuss in the comment section below! 😉
And you might also like to check out the following related posts:
- LEGO Star Wars New Life to the Galaxy
- An Ideal Book for LEGO Minifig Collectors!
- LEGO Friends – LEGO’s Billion Dollar Girl
- The LEGO Inside Tour – Introduction
- Wishing Happy 80th Birthday to LEGO!
- How Much Do You Know About LEGO?
- Unofficial LEGO Collector’s Guide Available!
- LEGO Book: Brick by Brick Review
- CNN News: Everything is Awesome for LEGO