11 Secrets of LEGO Designers
Many kids (and adult fans) fantasize about getting to play with LEGO bricks all day. For the professional designers who work for the toy company, that’s their life. “It’s unfair how cool this job is,” LEGO designer Mike Psiaki confirms to Mental Floss.
Though it’s a dream job for many, designing sets for The LEGO Group has a less-glamorous side as well. We spoke with three LEGO designers about the ins and outs of the job, including the rigorous quality-control process, their all-time favorite sets, and their unique workspace.
1. Lego designers come from diverse backgrounds.
There’s no such thing as a typical background in LEGO’s design department. “We worked with someone who was a professional goldsmith for 20 years. We had a guy who was a fisherman. We had someone who was a professional circus clown,” says LEGO designer Carl Merriam.
Before coming to LEGO, Merriam worked in video production in Los Angeles for eight years. Psiaki, meanwhile, previously worked as a mechanical engineer. Both came from the LEGO fan community and were experienced hobbyists before they considered pursuing LEGO design as a career.
Senior design manager Tara Wike had less experience playing with LEGO as an adult before joining the company. She has a background in designing buildings meant to accommodate real people, rather than blocky minifigures. “To go from making architecture on a massive scale to suddenly worrying about fractions of a millimeter in these pieces, it was a whole new world for me,” Wike says.
There is no single path to a career as a LEGO designer, but certain criteria help. “We like the idea that someone would have a college degree,” Psiaki says. “It’s not mandatory, it’s definitely not required, but it’s one of those things that’s an easy way to see: OK, this person has the ability to be educated.”
2. Lego bricks are their preferred medium.
Unlike many toys, new LEGO sets don’t necessarily start out as sketches. Instead, designers start brainstorming using the same bricks that will be used to make the final product. “We do nearly everything starting with building bricks,” Psiaki says. “You can draw something that is super awesome, but you may have made something that is horrible to be built out of LEGO bricks. There are some people who would even start in a computer, but that’s quite difficult to do. It’s hard to conceptualize the dimensions and the size, even the gravity, because something that looks good in a computer could just disintegrate in your hands in real life.”
Merriam agrees that using bricks is the easiest way to flesh out new designs: “It’s an interesting process. Say you want to build a car—you have to think through the theory of how the model is going to work. It's almost like woodworking; you want to make sure you’re working in the right direction.”
3. Lego designers work with limited colors.
Part of the appeal of LEGO is the ability to build amazing creations with limited resources. From a design perspective, however, those limitations are sometimes frustrating. “We have about 50 or 60 colors that our bricks can come in, and some of those are quite limited, so there’s really only about 20 colors that you see regularly,” Wike says. “If you’re not a designer, maybe that sounds like a lot, but it's incredibly limiting when you’re used to pulling up Photoshop and having every possible RBG value at your fingertips.”
The designers do see some benefits to working with a constrained color palette, though. “When you see that LEGO red, yellow, green, that’s always going to be what that is, and there’s going to be this immediate connection to it,” Wike says.
There are also limitations on which elements come in which colors. For Psiaki, having the power to change what’s available as a designer is preferable to waiting around for changes as a fan. “When we were fans, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we would spend hours dreaming about, 'Oh man, what if the 1x2 slope came in tan,'” he says. “Now we’re the ones that get to make that decision.”
4. A LEGO designer's workspace is every fan's dream.
Instead of going to a regular office, designers spend the workday in a LEGO-filled building in Billund, Denmark. “We call it the Fortress of Innovation,” Psiaki says. Because working with real LEGO pieces is such a big part of the job, there’s no shortage of them on site. Drawers in the workrooms contain plastic pods that are used to store different LEGO elements. The system is fully customizable, and pods can be switched out to fit the needs of the design team. “We have a plastic modular storage system for our plastic modular building system,” Psiaki says.
5. New LEGO elements are rare.
As is the case with colors, LEGO is conservative about adding new pieces to its catalog. The company wants fans to be able to mix and match pieces from different sets, so making a brand-new element for one product is a big deal. “We have to be clever about when and how we introduce new pieces,” Wike says. “Modularity is one of the cool things about LEGO and you can build and rebuild in a million different ways. So we really try for what we call commonality and overlap whenever we can and bring in the novelty only when it's bringing something really important to the build.”
When a new element is introduced, it’s usually tied to an intellectual property. Harry Potter’s wand or the Ghostbusters’ proton packs are a few examples. As Wike explains, “A lot of times the pieces we introduce are for the characters, because there’s a lot of role-playing with LEGO sets, and we want to make sure that if we’re representing somebody’s property, that we do it correctly. So we will invest in sculpting a new creature or a new head or some particular accessory that they need to have that everyone will say, ‘Oh, that’s that thing!’”
6. LEGO designers don't always decide what they make.
LEGO designers have a lot of creative freedom, but what they’re actually designing is usually someone else’s call. “One of the things that most people think I do is come up with the ideas for what we’re going to make,” Merriam says. “And that’s not the case most of the time. Some of the time it is, but a lot of the time it’s someone saying, ‘We want you to make a Volkswagen Beetle that’s going to cost $100,’ and you go ahead and do that.”
Usually, deciding which products get made is a collaborative process. “There are few instances when you can stand up and say, ‘Yes, that was my idea,’” Psiaki says. “There are consumer insights that are taken into account. There’s feedback from major retailers. We need to validate ideas with research, we need to validate them with sales numbers from previous products. We’re very integrated between product development and marketing.”
7. The building process of a LEGO is just as important as the final design.
Getting into LEGO as a fan is a great start toward making it a career, but there are some major differences between hobbyists and professional designers. After taking a job at LEGO, Merriam had to rethink his priorities as a designer.
“As a fan designer, you’re designing the end product, but as a LEGO designer, you’re designing the building experience and the end product,” he says. “We have building rules, we have testing rules, we have age marks. So if you’re building a set for 4-to-6-year-olds, there’s a lot of stuff you can’t do. I never had that experience building for myself before because whatever works works. There’s nobody checking in on it. And that can be a little frustrating, especially coming from the fan community and trying to build all these crazy things and just trying to make something look really hot.”
Those rules aren't always a bad thing, though. “I’ve grown to really enjoy the challenge of making things as a toy and as a building experience for kids because it’s a totally different thing,” Merriam says. “It’s all about making it easy to understand and fun to build and not take forever to put together.”
8. LEGO designers have to show every step of their work.
Coming up with the initial design is the fun part. After that, designers must go through the long process of presenting their creation to the people responsible for developing it into a buildable set.
“For our final proposal, we say, ‘OK, these are the exact bricks, in the exact quantity, and the order that we expect them to be built and the building instructions,’” Psiaki says. This step, called a final quality review, can take anywhere from a day to a week for larger sets. By the end of it, designers are exhausted. “So you say, ‘OK, we are now going to take the red 1-by-4 brick’—and you wait for everyone to find the red 1-by-4 brick—‘and we’re going to put it on the tail of the dragon.’ You sit there all day describing these things. It can be really tiring.”
9. LEGO designers have their own lingo.
The lingo of LEGO can feel like a foreign language—or multiple languages. “There are at least three different syntaxes,” Psiaki says. “There’s the LEGO fan community, then there’s the official LEGO names, but then there’s what we use internally in design, which is a totally [different] thing. So it’s like being multilingual.”
Many LEGO elements (the term for any and all parts in the company’s catalog) have boring names, like the “2-by-4 brick,” which just means a brick with two rows featuring four studs in each. But there are a few more colorful examples. One piece that’s shaped like a bicycle valve is called cykelventil—the Danish word for bicycle valve. “It’s not a bicycle valve, it’s never been used as a bicycle valve, but that’s what we call it,” Psiaki says. “For 63 years it’s been someone's job to name the elements. It obviously hasn’t been the same person for those 63 years, so there isn’t a great consistency in any of the bricks.”
10. LEGO designers love making fan ideas.
Many of the sets designers create are tied to intellectual properties like movies or pre-existing collections in the LEGO line, like the Creator Expert series. But the brand produces some wildly unique sets as well, and a lot of them come from LEGO Ideas.
LEGO Ideas is a platform that invites fans to submit proposals for new sets they want to see the company make. If an idea receives at least 10,000 votes from users, LEGO will consider turning it into a real product. For designers, LEGO Ideas creates an opportunity to design ambitious, creative sets they may never get to make otherwise. “It allows for this sort of—I don't want to say oddball, because they're really great—but these one-off things that maybe aren't a Star Wars thing where we're going to get all kinds of different sets from it,” Wike says.
She names three LEGO Ideas sets—Women of NASA, Voltron, and the NASA Apollo Saturn V—as some of her favorite projects she’s worked on at LEGO. Merriam and Psiaki were the lead designers on the Apollo Saturn V model, and they cite that as their favorite project as well.
“This one was specifically fun for us as LEGO fans, because I think it was the first time both of us got to go as crazy as we possibly wanted to go,” Psiaki says of the 3-foot-tall set. “We got to use [advanced] building techniques, some of them are ridiculous, but the point was to make it look as close as possible to the reference.”
11. LEGO sets are tested in surprising conditions.
A set that passes the final quality review still needs to go through a few tests before receiving the LEGO stamp of approval. These tests have less to do with the play experience than the quality of the physical model. According to Wike, “We have tests where we heat [the set] up and make sure it can sit on a window sill or sit in the back of a car and not fall apart if it gets too warm.”
Every LEGO product goes through a long journey from conception to market, but Wike says it's worth it in the end: “If it goes through all that, then we have this beautiful end product that we’re very proud of.”