As a Lego fan, it’s always fascinating to think about how much work goes into creating just one set. When you think about the massive ‘Expert’ models, it’s obvious that the design process must be painstaking. Take the Taj Mahal for instance — 6,000 bricks that perfectly interlock to create a scale-model of one of the wonders of the world. It’s insane to think of the detail that has gone into creating it.
And what about the mixed boxes of Lego bricks? Surely they’re just a case of tossing a nice selection of different-shaped bricks together and designing a label for it, right? Not quite. It turns out, even for the smaller Classic sets — the boxes of seemingly random bricks — a hell of a lot of thought goes into putting them together. I spoke to Jonathan Robson, a designer working on Lego’s Classic and Creator range, to find out exactly what goes into it.
Lego Bricks on a Roll, released in January 2018, is one of Jonathan Robson's more recent projects.
Like any design project, work on a Classic set starts with an initial brief that comes in from Lego’s design team. The amount of detail specified on each brief can be different, but it’ll always specify what size the box of Lego will be (and in turn, how big the design can be) and the age range, which will determine how simple or complex a model can be. Some briefs also include what kind of model — whether it’ll be a car or a building, for example — but for Jonathan, when working on Classic sets, there’s often several different models in the same box.
The design process is slightly different for each set, and every designer has their own preference. The team will always utilise CAD software, with a more advanced version of the Lego Digital Designer (which is available for anyone to download, by the way!). Some prefer to draw more rough designs on pen and paper, and of course, getting hands-on with actual bricks is always important. Digital designing is all well and good, but feeling how the physical bricks go together in any particular design is crucial.
Designing the box and its instruction booklet is just as important as the models themselves
Once a design is in place, it’ll then be reviewed. Does it fit the brief? Is it suitable for a particular age range? It’s at this stage that the design team will knuckle down with smaller details, such as how many pieces of Lego will be used, and what the packaging will look like. Designing the box, instructions and choosing the image for the box are all important tasks as well — after all, they need to adequately reflect what’s inside and be eye-catching to the target audience.
When it comes to deciding what types of bricks go into a set, Jonathan explained it was heavily dependent on the brief. Many of Lego’s Classic sets revolve around a particular theme or idea — for instance, a range of small Creativity Box sets feature bricks in a certain colour. Jonathan recently worked on Bricks on a Roll (10715) and Bricks and Gears (10712) which both focus around a certain type of brick — wheels and gears respectively. The themes were obviously set by the design brief, but exactly what bricks went in was, largely, up to the design team — providing they fitted with the brief, of course. Other constraints may be stipulated depending on the brief too, such as the age group the set is for. Tiny studs in a set aimed at four year-olds probably isn’t a great idea, for example.
Bricks on a Roll - tagged "many different wheels" - suggests merely cars and vehicles, but as this pug on a skateboard shows, thinking outside the box of a brief is key to success
I asked Jonathan about the types of challenge he and the rest of the design team come up against when working on a project, and if they’ve ever come across an issue which meant they had to return to the drawing board. He was remarkably upbeat; he explained that the team come up against various challenges every time — it’s the nature of design work. Sometimes, if a certain approach didn’t work for one brief, it may work for another. He also went onto explain that occasionally, ideas that aren’t quite right for one project but might be good for something else are shelved in the “idea bank” to revisit at a later date. Like any kind of innovation, there’s always going to be an element of trial and error. Trying different approaches and working as a team are very important in nailing the perfect design.
Bricks and Gears, another set released in January 2018 that Jonathan worked on
My biggest takeaway from chatting with Jonathan, though, is how refreshing it is to see someone have a clear passion for their job. It’s not hard to imagine when your employer is Lego, but surely working with the bricks day-in, day-out would make them lose some of their shine? Not so, according to Jonathan. I asked him if he still found time to build outside of work and he assured me he does. The Lego sets he’s worked on are proudly collected at home, and seeing the finished product that he’s helped bring to life available on a shop shelf gives him a real sense of accomplishment. As it should.