On Lego

It’s hard to say who is more obsessed with Lego bricks – my kids, or their parents!  My partner and I both feel that our childhoods were poorer for not having had our own Lego toys.  We’ve made up for it by having more Legos in the house than we could possibly ever play with!  The kids received small Lego kits for Christmas and Easter, and I am always stepping on some half constructed piece or part.  For Christmas the boys also received an annual pass to Legoland, which is not far from us.  I took my oldest during his Spring break (see picture taken in the lobby, above).  He was smitten from the moment he arrived!

In an era where computerized everything seems to prevail, Lego continues to achieve remarkable success.  In fact, an article in Businessweek explains how researchers on staff were able to transfer relevant insights from gaming:

Lego saw it had drawn the wrong lessons from computer games. Instead of focusing on their immediacy, the company now noticed how kids responded to the scoring, ranking, and levels of play—opportunities to demonstrate mastery.

All I know that those little bricks are magic … my kids are so focused and quiet when they are digging through bins and assembling their latest inventions.  I didn’t play with Lego toys much when I was a kid because they really seemed like toys for boys – and apparently I’m not the only one who felt that way.   Research has shown that both boys and girls play with Duplo (the larger blocks), but then something shifts.  The article in Businessweek described the role of researchers in shaping the future of Lego for girls.  The company realized that they were missing 50% of the market, and that they were going have to understand girls’ preferences before they could expect to get their attention.  It’s quite a long article, but here are some of my favorite excerpts:

Lego won’t say how much it spent on its anthropology, but research went on for months and shattered many of the assumptions that had led the company astray.

Encouraged by what it had learned about boys, Lego sent its team back out to scrutinize girls, starting in 2007. The company was surprised to learn that in their eyes, Lego suffered from an aesthetic deficit. “The greatest concern for girls really was beauty,” says Hanne Groth, Lego’s market research manager. Beauty, on the face of it, is an unsurprising virtue for a girl-friendly toy, but based on the ways girls played, Groth says, it came, as “mastery” had for boys, to stand for fairly specific needs: harmony (a pleasing, everything-in-its-right-place sense of order); friendlier colors; and a high level of detail.

The key difference between girls and the ladyfig and boys and the minifig was that many more girls projected themselves onto the ladyfig—she became an avatar. Boys tend to play with minifigs in the third person. “The girls needed a figure they could identify with, that looks like them,” says Rosario Costa, a Lego design director. The Lego team knew they were on to something when girls told them, “I want to shrink down and be there.”

The team did express some concern about reinforcing stereotypes about how girls play, color preferences, and so on.   But at the same time, Lego is confident enough in this new direction and the potential to make inroads into playtime with girls that they opted to wait until after the 2012 Christmas holiday to launch their new line.

More recently, there was an article in Fast Company Design about how General Motors is using LEGO bricks as a data visualization tool for their production problems.  And when I shared that article via Twitter, one of my former colleagues from SAP responded with another article about how one software developer keeps track of where his time is spent using LEGO bricks.  Nowhere near as fun as researching girls at play alongside other anthropologists … but still pretty cool that this highly tactile, visual way of looking at data has value in the work environment too!

And finally, as I was pulling the material for this post together, I came across another blog post referencing Lego.   The article is called Want To Be More Creative?  Get Bored.  The author conducted research for Lego in the 1990s, during a time when the company was concerned about the tendency of computerized toys to switch children into a “passive-interactive mode”.   During some observational exercises with children, the network broke down and the children engaged much more actively with the Lego bricks during the downtime, and even after the computer came back online.  The author cautions against our lack of downtime and boredom, because that lack of structure can provide the ideal conditions for imagination and creativity.

And finally, if you haven’t heard the buzz, there is a new kid on the block in this genre of toys.  They are called Nanoblocks, and they are in a tiny little niche that Lego hasn’t claimed.  Nanoblock are extremely tiny blocks, and they provide kits to reproduce famous landmarks and little animals.  I’ve been working on one for weeks at the office (the Neuschwanstein, which also comes in a deluxe 6000 piece version) – it requires a lot of concentration, and I just can’t find the uninterrupted time to get it done.  The pieces are small but well made, and the finished pieces  have a wonderful amount of detailing.  I know, because although mine is still mostly sitting in a ziplock, many of the guys on my floor have finished the different kits.  So if you haven’t already, check them out!

Last but not least, I came across a fun post the other day entitled Famous Cartoon Characters in Minimalist LEGO Form.  Since I’m not all that knowledgeable about popular culture, some of these elude me.  But since I am raising two young boys at the moment, this one hit me over the head, and I thought you might enjoy it too:


Amazing, isn’t it?!

3 Comments on “On Lego”

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