Design Insights From LEGO

By Dan Silver

I recently had the privilege of meeting with the talented designers at LEGO, in what we’ll call a knowledge exchange. In this article I’ll share some of my insights from our conversations.

Firstly, let me preface this article with a pretentious design quote…

Doing Less, Achieving More

‘Do Less’that’s one of the six design principles we strive for when designing products at Spotify. It’s a great mantra, to value simplicity and include only what matters, nothing else.

It turns out that ‘doing less’ is precisely what the designers at LEGO must do every time they come up with a new product. They need to construct models using as few bricks as possible, since using an excessive amount of pieces leads to an overly complex product. More pieces also results in longer build times and higher production costs.

LEGO experienced firsthand the consequences of not doing less back in 2000, where being somewhat overly creative began to hamper their production. They fell victim to designing across too many partnerships, with too many bespoke pieces, failing to see the value of reuse, and not fully appreciating the limitations of their manufacturing processes.

To recover from this, LEGO did less by shortening production times, closing a number of their amusement parks, and reassessing their less critical ventures. In short, they were forced to refocus their efforts, solely on what mattered most.

Targeting The AFOL — Adult Fans Of LEGO

Being a long-established company has its perks. For LEGO, that meant having generations of children mature into fully-grown adults.

By analysing their consumer-based statistics, LEGO soon identified one particular segment of customers that were receptive to more complex (and more expensive) products — the adult fans.

This realisation eventually gave rise to a range of products that were designed to trigger nostalgia and appeal to fans of LEGO that had now grown-up, yet still loved the product. Today, roughly 10% of annual profit at LEGO comes directly from adult consumers.

Crowdsourcing Innovation

One of LEGO’s biggest successes in creativity came in the form of crowdsourcing. LEGO Ideas is a process by which anyone is able to submit a creative proposal to the LEGO design team. With enough backing, such proposals are then shortlisted and eventually taken into formal production.

Through crowdsourcing LEGO successfully developed WALL-E. To qualify for production this proposal required huge support from fans, as well as approval from the original producers, Disney and Pixar. Credit: LEGO/Disney/Pixar

LEGO-Compliant Concepts

Today the LEGO brand appears to be ubiquitous. This is evident when we look at the wide range of markets the company has successfully entered. The LEGO Movie for example, demonstrates how far the company has managed to progress from simply manufacturing and selling its bricks.

One particular phase of their product development process really impressed me. It was when I learnt how LEGO and external production companies would collaborate closely during character development. By working together they are able to ensure that while a figure is being designed and 3D modelled, its dimensions are simultaneously assessed and adjusted to be LEGO-compliant. Basically, that means they can ensure any digital model can be built for real, using existing LEGO pieces, and to a high level of accuracy — that’s quite a remarkable demonstration of alignment.

Digital modelling gave LEGO a means to mapping its product to others, with great success. Credit: LEGO

Backwards Compatible

‘Stay Authentic’that’s another Spotify design principle which I see as integral to the success of LEGO as a company. I say this because they’ve managed to maintain the consistency of their product for years, certainly from a functional standpoint. For example, it’s not uncommon to find a piece of LEGO from the 90's that fits perfectly well with a piece manufactured only yesterday. This for me, is brand authenticity at its finest.

Their enduring consistency of product design is an important trait worth safeguarding, since it’s built and maintained consumer trust in their brand. It also pretty much guarantees that most customers will hold onto their LEGO. Or perhaps pass it along, since they know it’s highly unlikely to become outdated or obsolete. By virtue, LEGO products therefore become collectables — yet another valuable quality that fuels desire.

A True Reflection Of The Product

It’s easy to lose sight of reality, especially when working within a large, distributed company. Creative direction becomes entwined with business requirements and emerging ideas. Everything moves rapidly, from one project to another, leaving little time for reflection.

At LEGO, they make every effort to showcase the reality of their product through the eyes of the customer. Within their offices are dedicated spaces used to present their latest range of products currently on the shelves. Staff can inspect the packaging, play with the toys and assess close competitors.

A Spotify equivalent to this approach would be to setup a room of assorted devices. Each providing staff with access to both our Free and Premium tiers. That’s one way to boost awareness, remove knowledge gaps, bridge platforms more effectively, and really get to know your product and its diverse ecosystem.

Handmade Instructions

I asked LEGO how they manage to create those easy-to-follow instruction booklets, for what appear to be highly complex models. I learnt that they employ a core team of ‘building instruction’ designers. These designers sit with other teams and help them design assembly instructions. Every step must be defined and explained manually, often using computer renderings for visual reference. It’s a challenging process to get right, since most models are constructed in sections which need to be introduced to the builder in a logical order.

The amount of steps and complexity of the build process is therefore tailored, to better suit the target age range of a particular product.

Increasingly complex models can be built in steps. (Model: RC Volvo L350F wheel loader). Credit: LEGO/Volvo

Crafting The Experience

I was curious to find out how LEGO decides which toys to manufacture next, and what drives their decision-making? As it happens, LEGO don’t aimlessly pick themes for their toy production. Instead, they call upon the knowledge of psychologists, environmental experts and other such fields. By undertaking this type of research, LEGO are able to release toy sets that are fun, enjoyable to build, and also get children thinking about real-world issues. In essence, even the framework of play is shaped to instil positive influence in young, and creative minds.

Inside The Factory

I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the LEGO factory in Billund. Photography was prohibited on site. However, I was able to recall, then sketch some of the fascinating things I saw once inside.

Hundreds of strange spiky objects were being discarded (see top sketch). These were byproducts of the molten plastic flowing through steel moulding plates (see bottom sketch).

Inside the factory it became immediately obvious that LEGO have spent many years perfecting their production process. Everything that could be automated, has been. Thermoplastic grains rattled through pipes overhead, on their way into moulding plates. Heat and pressure transformed these grains into a molten liquid. This was then injected through intricate channels, that flood-fill special cavities. These were then pressed and cooled, to form solid LEGO bricks. In a matter of minutes, hundreds of pieces of LEGO can be pressed, boxed, and put into storage by automated robots — yes, robots.

The Challenge Of Simplicity

Perhaps one of the most important challenges both LEGO and Spotify face is the need to keep things simple. For LEGO, the importance of reusing existing pieces meant fewer moulds, fewer overheads, and more cross-compatibility amongst different toy sets. For Spotify’s product designers and developers, keeping things simple means working with established UX conventions in mind. It means embracing existing UI components and code frameworks — before deciding to ‘break the mould’. It requires learning how to repurpose the existing pieces efficiently, to save time, money, and effort. It’s about constructing a simpler, more coherent application, inside and out.

Thanks to Jason Ralls and Megan Shellenbarger at LEGO. Also a special thanks to Henrik Kniberg at Spotify, for arranging this awesome exchange.

Dan Silver is a Senior Product Designer at Spotify, based in Stockholm, previously at the BBC. His work focuses primarily on scaling design languages across platforms. His other passions include illustration, information graphics, nutrition and strength training.



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