Lego. What next?

It seems that even Lego, the, the epitomal toy of modernism, has been bastardized my the postmodern America market. The modular has been compromised for more instantly gratifying parts. Where is Lego headed? Is there any going back from here?

in the past couple of years LEGO has actually gone back to the bricks (c’mon…look at all of the creator sets.)
The fact that Mega bloks sells all of their stuff so much cheaper (because it’s all made in China, not EU) forces LEGO to do more “what will Wal-mart want” type of stuff and even though they manufacture some of their packaging in China now, they still have been losing a lot of money every year…

the patent on all of the “modernist” bricks expired quite a while ago and it’s getting tougher and tougher for this privately owned company to compete…i, personally,think LEGO should present its product on American market more as a high quality toy made in Europe to compete more effectively with all of the other lower end brands allowing it to preserve its coolness in this terrible-terrible consumerist po-mo society.

I believe that the bricks are still very much the heart of LEGO. Yes, there are lots of instantly gratifying parts - but they’re usually damn nice parts. I see it as LEGO growing a little bit into Playmobil territory.

I think it’s great that they’re growing in a lot of directions - they certainly can’t keep the excitement level up by churning out the same basic brick toys over and over.

even the advanced lego technic sets still use bricks at there heart. even the robotics/computer programing sets. (

There was a great feature story on Lego in Fast Company on this back in 2001.

It has frightening implications for future generations.

A sampling of…

People who study children and how they play can’t speak highly enough about these classic Lego elements. “The thing that is so compelling about Legos is their flexibility,” says Lynn Galle, who is the director of the 75-year-old laboratory preschool at the University of Minnesota’s well-regarded Institute of Child Development. Unlike, say, a video game, says Galle, there is no right or wrong way to play with Legos.

But anyone who hasn’t looked at Lego toys since his or her own childhood is in for a rude shock. The shelves at Kmart, Target, Toys “R” Us, and Wal-Mart, aren’t stocked with bins of multicolored bricks, windows, and wheels. Indeed, the blocks sometimes can be difficult to find – crowded out by a vast array of intricate Lego kits that look more like models than open-ended play toys. Whether or not there is a “correct” way to play with Legos these days, most modern Lego kits are so elaborate that they come with a folder of step-by-step construction instructions.

Ethan, an 8-year-old boy from New England, is standing in front of a huge display of Lego kits: arctic adventurers, jungle explorers, and the Lego dinosaur adventurers – a series of toys that has particularly captivated Ethan. The boy gazes longingly at the Lego Dino Research Compound – 612 pieces. The box shows a Lego scientist in a Lego jeep in hot pursuit of a Lego T. Rex. It’s all inside the box.

Ethan is in one of Lego’s half-dozen company-run retail stores in the United States – this one in Orlando, at Downtown Disney. Ethan’s grandmother comes up holding an enormous tub of Lego bricks – 1,200 pieces. “With these,” Grandma says, “you can do whatever you want. It gives you examples right on the front.”

Grandma is funding this present. Ethan is picking. And although the dinosaur compound is $79.99, and the tub of bricks is $19.99, price isn’t the point of difference. Play is. “He and I have very different ideas about Legos,” says Ethan’s mom, Lisa Gates, a dean at Wesleyan University, who is in Orlando on vacation. “I prefer the free-form bricks, where he can make his own universe. Ethan is most drawn to the theme-based scenarios. He has an Egyptian-pyramid-dig set and some Star Wars sets. He’s fixated on the directions – when he builds it, he wants it to look exactly like it looks on the box. That introduces a note of anxiety into playing with Legos – did I do it right?”

The tug-of-war between Ethan’s view of playing with Legos and his mother’s view is a miniature of the problems that Lego itself faces – internally and in the wider world. (Ethan, for the record, goes home with the dinosaurs.) In fact, the shelves of the store in Orlando display all of the opportunity and confusion that exists in the modern world of Lego. In the beginning, there were bricks – and kids built whatever they imagined. The addition of roof tiles, windows, wheels, and trees allowed you to make more-realistic creations. Buckets of bricks are available in the store, but they attract almost no attention.

After the bricks came the themed sets – town and farm first, followed by space (almost 10 years after the moon landing), and then castle and pirate lines later. The theme sets added a dimension: You built it, the theme provided inspiration (and sometimes instruction), and you could play with what you’d built in the classic role-playing scenarios that kids dream up. The construction was less inventive, the play more so.

In 1998, Lego launched Mindstorms: programmable Lego bricks. In some ways, it was a return to the earliest roots of the company: You imagined not only what you wanted to build, but also how you wanted it to behave. You could use your computer and elegant Lego software to give your crab, your rabbit, or your robot behavior as well as a body. The heart of Mindstorms is known inside Lego as the “intelligent” brick.

At each step, the natural extension of Lego’s range is encouraged by spectacular sales. Wheels are a huge hit (and today, Lego rivals Bridgestone and Goodyear to produce the most tires in the world – making upward of 175 million tires per year). When figures, or miniature people, are introduced, they are the company’s biggest product. Even Mindstorms, with a starting price of $199, exceed expectations.

In 1999 came the biggest gamble of all: In partnership with Lucasfilm Ltd., Lego launched 14 Star Wars-themed kits. Here, Lego added a new facet to Lego play: storytelling. It was still Lego, but it was Star Wars Lego. The kits assembled into recognizable Star Wars vehicles, scenes, and characters. Kids knew the story that they were buying a kit for; the toy came not just with a design, but with a plot as well. The Star Wars products were the biggest sellers in company history.

It was Godtfred Kirk Christiansen (GKC, as he was known) who focused his father’s company on the “automatic binding bricks,” who imagined a whole system of play built around them. And it was GKC who institutionalized the value of free-form play. Each innovation tested that value.

The early space-themed sets caused some worry – space was not “real” play. Kids had experience with towns and farms, but what did they know of space? Plenty, it turned out.

Adding directions was not done lightly – how free-form could the building be if it required directions? But increasing the building challenges meant providing basic instructions.

The stories of two recent products, though, really show how Lego is struggling to figure out, and adapt to, the changed world of children. When Peter Eio, the recently retired head of Lego’s operations in the Americas, started thinking about a collaboration between Lego and Star Wars, it was late 1997. In some ways, Lego had already let the modern toy world evolve around it. In the United States, the largest toy market in the world, almost half of all toys are licensed products – from Sesame Street stuffed animals to Baywatch Barbie.

I worked for Lego Futura for a few months on a freelance project, back in ohhh 1999. This was one of the first critiques that our group had for the directors at the office. “Why do current sets use such complex parts, that are better suited to the look of the intended model, and not as good for creativity?”

Their answer was exactly as alluded to above, that the “style” of play had changed and currently the fascination was to build the model as depicted, set it on the shelf, to admire or play with it as built. It was seen as more of a puzzle, than a complex construction tool.

We all (a group of ten ID’ers) thought this was a terrible idea. I can see now that they had to compete for attention with more “exciting” toys on the shelf, and didn’t have to grab the attention of raised-in-the-70’s old farts who knew the value of building something new.

I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be practicing ID now if not for two things: Lego Technic sets and Japanese animation of the Robotech/Macross variety. Imagine my elation when my girlfriend bought me the Lego “Designer Kit” containing the Titan XP robot. Ho-leee shit.

I don’t think the simple block-locking aspect of the toy has been properly marketed, nor very popular since before the '70s. I looked forward to building the kits exactly as shown on the box back then too…but I’d tear them apart right after they were built and try something new.

I’m confident however that Lego will stick around and stay relevant and popular, because they have smart people running the show, and based on my experiences there, they have all drank the Kool-Aid containing the Lego mentality.

I wonder if ol Lego will branch out and try to redesign their blocks. I keep on thinking of Pixel Blocks and others where building in “3D” is possible. Lego’s patent is up - they are in need of a new invention.

Maybe some “vintage reissue” Lego sets would be cool. I’d love to pick up some of the old space sets I had. Dorky graphics and all.

It’s great to see so many other Lego maniacs on here… it IS sort of a “gateway drug” to ID…

Down with Mega Bloks:

Optimistic - remember this?


Heh heh heh. try and place that space set…

Oh hell yeah!

Or…Get the T-Shirt

Oh yeah! Man, I used to want that set SO bad. I think all I had were space sets… every brick I had was blue, grey, or black…

CG thanks for the shirt link. DAMN is that a great t-shirt idea!


I got all misty eyed seeing her again. Like a first girlfriend, or first car. Man.

Thanks for the links.

The fact that Mega bloks sells all of their stuff so much cheaper (because it’s all made in China, not EU) forces LEGO to do more “what will Wal-mart want” type of stuff and even though they manufacture some of their packaging in China now, they still have been losing a lot of money every year…

the patent on all of the “modernist” bricks expired quite a while ago and it’s getting tougher and tougher for this privately owned company to compete…i, personally,think LEGO should present its product on American market more as a high quality toy made in Europe to compete more effectively with all of the other lower end brands allowing it to preserve its coolness in this terrible-terrible consumerist po-mo society.

Unfortunately they will follow suit…

On a side note anyone interesting in Battletech and legos, check out this: then click on gallery. There are some really original builds in there.

In college we had a tour of a Samsonite plant molding lego, one of our professors was retired ex-CEO who brought Lego to North America. Awesome!

Now it does seem kids are more interested in the model pictured on the box. But I wonder if that’s more happenstance, akin to ‘adult contemporary’ commercial radio’s self proclaimed popularity because that’s all there is on the airwaves. I haven’t seen plain lego pieces or kits for sale anywhere in the world for over 30 years.

Having built and assisted on other lego creations on christmas day I am dismayed at the complexity, modular design with modular pieces made unmodular! Later, breaking apart the lego model and creating something different, the kids were just as happy to go along and create something new, tough though it is with the lego kits.

I don’t buy the Lego line ‘that’s what today’s kids want’. Kids are the same today as ever: they just want to play and have fun. I believe Lego’s prescribed kit models and their awesome assembly diagrams susbstantially replace parental involvement: creating actual model designs takes time and creativity. Also, the prescribed package images probably make for an easier sale (“do you want to build that” instead of “imagine all the things you could build…”).

My love for lego remains. I wonder if Lego has considered alternate markets. Buy in bulk! How cool would it be to go into a store and scoop out pieces and pay by weight. Think of the awesome retail design: bins and bins of primary colours. Why the heck aren’t there Lego stores? Years ago on a design project completion I attempted to create a celebratory promo kit: the product design in miniature lego replica. I was going to design it, buy all the lego pieces and put together about 70 mini kits to give away. I found it impossible to source the lego bricks to make my kits and abandoned the idea.

there ARE lego stores where you pay by weight. it’s like totally yr lucky day!


and they have them in europe AND USA…(eta) good excuse to travel, as you’re in Canada.


My experience with kids tells me one thing, that designers are different from the rest. What’s the difference? We can see something from nothing, and have the confidence to confront this challenge.

During this after school program that we(a team) volunteered, we asked them to draw or create whatever they want. Those who were known to be better at art drew known characters from cartoons. Those who tried to draw images from memory or imagination had the hardest time. Then there are those who are even too afraid to attempt and kept telling themselves that they can’t do it.

This will definitely reflect on legos. Personally, I get more intrigued by themed lego sets because it gives me a convenient starting point to set myself off. It also reminds me of my fantasies. Of course, if you give me a bucket of lego parts, I can make something too. However, I am already used to create things from stripped down elements. Kids now adays aren’t.

I get pissed off when i see lego making kits with more and more custom parts. However recently, I am pleasantly surprised to see their SpongeBob sets which, while offers a theme, includes many features such as mechanisms and versaltility. I’d be so happy to get that if I am into SpongeBob.

Lego should look into creating Lego clubs within local communities where kids or hobbists can interact with each other and exchange parts. Seeing other people’s creations will only stimulate even more.

You’re right! That would be a great occasion to stimulate inventiveness to both parts. I mean, even children can teach you something. You can discover in their little cute heads a lot of great ideas.

Ada marriage counseling

For what it’s worth…

I’m going through this at home now. I (as many other designers) was a total brick head as a kid. Legos + Hot Wheels + tractor/trucks + trains = countless hours of creative design/construct/play/reset.

I have a 6 year old son who is into lego’s, but can’t design or build to his desired goal (complicated trucks/figures/buildings), so I get to play legos quite a bit with him. He’s had a large bucket of the various bricks since he was 4-ish, and received a Lego train and tracks for xmas. VERY pre-defined play by comparison to the bucket.

As a father, I’m trying to restrain myself from imposing my lego ‘experience’ on him and helping to facilitate his own path of exploration. When I was 6, I’m pretty sure I didn’t touch the legos much as Lincoln Logs (which he is also into) were a bit more age/motor skill appropriate.

But I think the way he plays with his constructed toys (lego or lincoln logs) is more imaginative than mine were. A lot of role playing (heroes, book characters, professions, etc.) that I’m sure I didn’t explore. Perhaps it’s because he’s been exposed to so much more media than I was at his age; who knows. Regardless, legos are still a fairly big part of his play time as it was mine, but he seems to be implementing the ‘play’ differently.

of course the designer in me is chanting in the back of my head to push the design/build aspect, rather than the play, but his lego play is definitely expanding his though process in that area. Part of the contrast is due in part to the ‘themed’ versions of some of his smaller lego sets. I’m old enough to have missed the themed Lego kits, and had to make it up on my own (although I do remember having a few of the green pine trees…)
So the themed lego sets have helped set the hook in my kid, but now I’d prefer if he went back to the brick sets and cooked up his own themes.

We’ll see.