The perils of modern lego

01Jan13

Update 26 Nov 2014 – I’m very pleased that this post has been referenced by Justin Parkinson’s piece on the BBC News site ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?‘, but I fear he may have misunderstood (or misrepresented) what I say about instructions.

The blogger Chris Swan argues that instructions marked the start of a decline.[1]

Read on for the full skinny…

TL;DR  – instructions aren’t the problem,  they’re a good and necessary part of all sets beyond basic boxes of bricks, the problem is sets that only make one thing (like a dragon or something licensed from a movie).


Back to the original post…

I must have got my first Lego when I was about 3 or 4. It was pretty basic stuff – mostly 4×2 blocks and a handful of 2×2 blocks. I remember building a house out of it, and being shown by my mum to overlap the bricks to make a strong wall rather than building straight towers that would easily fall.

My Lego house didn’t look this slick. CC licensed by Atsushi Tadokoro

I’ve remained a Lego fan all of my life, buying some of the earliest ‘Technical Lego’ (now Technic) sets, and getting the first Mindstorms set shortly after launch. Even though the Technical sets came with detailed instructions to make various cars and other vehicles the real joy was always in modifying things and creating new stuff from scratch. Bringing multiple sets together meant more variety and bigger projects[2], and when Mindstorms came along I gave myself the challenge of making stuff that could be controlled over the web, blending physical construction with software engineering.

More like Airfix

I also loved making scale models (mostly of planes and warships) when I was a kid. At one stage there was a promotion run by Tudor Crisps (which I think was a local brand in the North East of England) to collect vouchers to send in for Airfix kits – my dad bought them by the box load at the local cash and carry so we could collect all of the sets. Modern Lego is I think more like Airfix for two reasons:

  1. Each set only makes one thing – whether that’s a spaceship or monster or whatever.
  2. You don’t break it. I wasn’t the kind of kid who’d destroy their Airfix creations with pellet guns. The finished models were cherished, and I’d get very cross if anybody (usually my brother) damaged them. Some of my models still grace various nooks and crannies of my grandma’s house.

I’ve read criticism elsewhere relating to the single outcome issue – that it harms creativity because kids have to colour in between the lines rather than making their own lines.

I’m just starting to see the damage of the second issue. I passed on my Technical Lego and Mindstorms sets to my son, and also bought an extension kit for the Mindstorms to make fairground rides (which seemed like a good mix of the old and new approaches). The first ride was a big hit with both of my kids, and they enjoyed reprogramming it to spin at different speeds etc. But it hasn’t been taken apart to make one of the other rides. I think it’s now clear to me why nothing much emerged from the Technical sets (the instructions are still intact, but hidden away in the boxes, and all of the parts got mixed up years ago and sorted by size/colour rather than which set they came from).

Why did this happen?

It’s pretty clear that Lego needed to do something about the impending expiry of its key patent around the bricks, and the licensing arrangements for hot properties like Star Wars give it a lot of stickiness with fans young and old. They’ve also had some (mixed) success with their own new brands.

Single purpose sets also drive a lot more purchases than sets that get rebuilt into different configurations. I considered myself quite a Lego fan, but only had one giant box of regular Lego, and three Technical sets. My own kids must have been bought at least an order of magnitude more.

What can be done?

I was chuffed to see some photos of Lego towers built out of some Duplo I got for my Nephew last year, and I think part of the answer is to start out with generic sets so that creativity can develop alongside of construction.

I’m not sure whether this means that generic sets should be preferred over single model sets, but I certainly think time should be dedicated to creative construction (and destruction).

I also suspect that Technic is somewhat overlooked these days, but with sets suitable for 8 year olds it’s probably good to have some alongside the other (sub)brands.

Conclusion

Lego for me was always about creativity, remaking and improving on existing designs. Those things don’t happen with sets that are designed to build a model of a single thing. But that’s not the only problem – Lego taught me the art of creative destruction – the need to break something in order to make something better. Single outcome sets encourage preservation rather than destruction, and sadly that makes them less useful, less educational (and in my opinion less fun). Good old generic Lego (and the more sophisticated Technic sets), with endless possibilities on offer, haven’t gone away, they’ve just been drowned in a sea of marketing for other brands.

Notes

[1] The original text called me a ‘design blogger’.
[2] The same could also be said for Mechano, though that too seems to have gone down the same path of single purpose sets.



19 Responses to “The perils of modern lego”

  1. I just came across a paper about the ‘IKEA effect‘, which might have some relevance here (it does reference Lego [even if it does use the awful plural ‘Legos’]).

  2. 2 Luigi Vampa

    Just found this blog through the BBC website and I think you’re spot on. I’m 36 and I’ve played with Lego for 30 years. My collection of Lego has been passed around the family as me and my siblings have all had children and it has been added to consistently. It’s been a grumble of mine since it came back to me that a lot of the newer pieces are only fit for the original build and not much else. I have the Star Wars speeder bike that appears in Jedi and the back 50% of the bike is a single moulded piece. It will only ever make the back of a bike!
    Me and my daughter quite regularly play with the Lego and we do still build whatever we feel like yet I can’t help but notice that most of the builds she makes contain mostly old Lego blocks as the new sets do get more limiting in their ability to be used. Sure, if you up the scale of the models you can make more interesting builds but with the sickening cost of Lego these days this is only possible because we have a 30 year old collection that’s quite large.
    I feel sorry for younger children as an older kit you could get many different builds from but now you need to buy several kits to still get the same level of creativity from it.

  3. 4 BMag

    Although I would be of the view that Lego have perhaps made too many different parts (in recent years!) and agree that this reduces the need for an imaginative use of parts, a multitude of fan websites exist such as minifigtimes.com which demonstrate how pieces that seem apparently to be of single-purpose can be used in quite new and “unofficial” ways. Interestingly it can be hard to find any official sets.

    Now the question I have is whether such creatively is confined to the older generation of Lego fans who would have grown up with a more limited array of parts. Perhaps we must wait for time to pass before we can say whether creativity is being curtailed in the newer generation of fans in this regard.

    An alternative reasoning for reduced creativity by children today could simply be the need to break-up and create different sets may have been reduced. You don’t need to break up a siege tower to make a wagon if you have both a siege tower set and a wagon set, The simple fact may be that in many countries, although Lego remains expensive, it is proportionally less so in real-terms than it was in the past.

    As such I see kids with much larger collections of Lego nowadays than kids in the past.

  4. 5 David R.

    I came here from the BBC article, too (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29992974 — politics? buh?). Actually, they completely misrepresent what you say here: they say, “The blogger Chris Swan argues that instructions marked the start of a decline.” I was glad to see you didn’t actually argue that, since you don’t look any older than me and almost all the Lego I had as a child came with instructions. You might want to fill in the contact form at the bottom of that page.

  5. 7 Dave Boshton

    Personally I think the sets with instructions empower people to build better things quicker. You get the instructions, you learn how to create a certain shape from them, or a steering mechanism, a differential, or a certain technique and then you can apply that and make even better things. That’s what’s happened with me (age 33) and is what is now happening with my kids. They build the instructed item (or items, as a set now usually contains a few instructions) and then rip it apart and build something totally different whilst using some of the structural ideas they’ve learnt. Rather than asphyxiating creativity, new parts and instructions open it up in my opinion.

    I agree that there are a very few parts like the motorbike shells that are too single use, but almost all of the other parts can be used outside of their original purpose to create great things, and that’s generally how my kids play with it.

  6. 8 Duncan McKean

    On this issue: “…the single outcome issue – that it harms creativity because kids have to colour in between the lines rather than making their own lines.”

    I think it depends very much what you want from a set. While I agree that base creativity may be hindered by single outcome sets, they also hold a great deal of value. I clearly remember that the famous Lego Technics car chassis – very much a single outcome set (though it did also have instructions for a drag racer) – gave me my first instructional understanding of internal combustion engines, radial velocity, gearboxes and rear differential gearing. And I was 10 years old.

    And I “destroyed” it afterwards – to create something else. (I think I attempted a model of the ‘Guns of Navarone’ – using those lovely long ‘girders’ from the chassis). Creativity is in the mind’s eye, not in the instructions, and so I don’t believe instructions hinder creativity. They guide it.

    • 9 David R.

      The fact that you took your car chassis apart and then built something else out of the pieces clearly shows that this is *not* a single-outcome set. A single-outcome set is one that (I exaggerate slightly) has one brick for the front half of a spaceship and one brick for the back half and all you can do is stick them together to make that spaceship.

  7. Hi Chris, Damien Murtagh here, architect and creator of Arckit, the new advanced architectural model building design tool that enables you to physically bring your projects to life. I developed it for architects yet with an assembly that opens up the possibility for everyone to create precision architectural models. It’s just about as fast to build as you imagine an idea and it is continuously reusable. Arckit is for life.Arckit has just gone on sale at Harrods and is also available in stores such as The National Building Museum Washington, RIBA Bookshop and Chicago Architecture Foundation.
    I’d be delighted to discuss. Kind regards Damien.

  8. 11 Mike C.

    An interesting article but I have to disagree to an extent. I’m 38 and been messing with Lego since I was about 5. Single outcome sets have been around for as far as I can remember whether technical or some theme, Space Lego springs to mind. The difference being that I can’t remember any curved bits so it was all right or 45 degree angles. Now I have an 8 year old son who has more Lego than I care to remember, most of it was Star Wars theme though a good sprinkling of Lego City and Chima thrown in. Like most people all his kits have been broken apart ended up in one big box and now he makes some amazing models (with a little help from his old man). The technical sets coming out now often have an additional option to make something else, though cynically some of them require you to buy an additional set to combine parts. My issue with Lego is the affordability. I understand the movie tie-ins are expensive due to a licensing fee to be paid, but Lego’s in house themes, they used to be cheaper but not so much now. On the issue of instructions, my son had learning difficulties, and in this respect the instructions taught him how to follow things through in a logical manner, also I would ask him to explain to me what needed to be done in each step. If made learning and pushing through his problem fun.

    • 12 Carlos Gottsfritz

      Before talking about something you really don’t understand, take a good look on what the LEGO community is doing around the web to see where is the creativity.
      Thousands of people around the world are building wonderfull things with LEGO. Just search and you’ll see where are the creativity is, because it is in the builders head independent of which parts are on the LEGO box.

      • If you think I’m saying that people are no longer creative with Lego then you’ve entirely missed my point. I’m well aware of the awesome stuff that people make with Lego. I even see parts from the single use sets put to amazing uses that they were never intended for; but that’s the exception rather than the rule. The most breathtaking projects tend to be made from the most ordinary bricks


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