Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

Image source, EPA

The Brick 2014 show for Lego enthusiasts is about to take place in London, but critics say the toy has become less creative, with too many specialised pieces and instruction manuals. Is this true?

Lego was simple once, the critics complain. Using just a few blocks, usually square or rectangular, you could make anything. Lack of imagination was the only restraint on creativity.

But these days around 3,000 different pieces exist across the company's range. These include a wizard's hat, a vampire's cape, a croissant, even a pterodactyl's wing. Instruction leaflets added to sets take users through a step-by-step building process.

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto argues that British-designed Meccano, which involves putting nuts and bolts together, is of greater educational value because it mimics real-life engineering. "There is no comparison," he says. "Children should start with Lego, which is basically a toy, and its basic units are bricks. We do not build cars and other machines out of bricks." He adds that children should "graduate" to Meccano.

Millions of Lego-lovers disagree with Kroto's analysis. But occasionally single items of Lego cause resentment - such as a windscreen/roof block made for the cab of a pick-up truck released in 2003. The orange piece, which appeared in just one set, was just one example of Lego becoming over-simplified, while the truck was "an abomination", Big Sal's Brick Blog says.

Traditionalists favour conventional blocks, like the standard "2x4" rectangle, issued with almost 2,000 sets, according to the Bricklink cataloguing site. The Brick 2014 show, taking place at east London's ExCel centre from Thursday until Sunday, demonstrates the extreme creations possible using simple pieces. A model of St Pancras Station and a giant mosaic built by exhibition visitors are among them.

Image source, other

Lego spokesman Roar Rude Trangbaek says it "isn't true" that the toy has become less creative. "Children still get bricks and they can combine them," he adds. "The bricks will probably end up in big boxes in homes and that acts like a pool of creativity."

The brick count on the larger sets has risen in recent years. Top of Bricklink's list is the model of the Taj Mahal, released in 2008, with 5,922 parts. This took over from a limited-edition Star Wars/M&Ms mosaic, sold in 2005, which had 5,462. The Star Wars Millennium Falcon of 2007 required the assembly of 5,174 pieces.

The idea of Lego selling kits with a specific purpose is not new. Since 1964 Lego has sold model sets with instruction booklets, while continuing to offer boxes and tubs of basic bricks.

The blogger Chris Swan argues that instructions marked the start of a decline. "Lego taught me the art of creative destruction - the need to break something in order to make something better," he writes. "Single-outcome sets encourage preservation rather than destruction, and sadly that makes them less useful, less educational (and, in my opinion, less fun)."

Lego's business model, offering both mixed bricks and sets with specific instructions, persisted for decades, with new lines added gradually. The company developed age-specific sets such as Duplo for toddlers and Technic for older users. Commercial spin-offs involving Star Wars and the Harry Potter films did well. These still relied on the basic idea of assembling bricks.

How Lego was built

Image source, Lego
  • Danish company which originally made wooden toys, founded in 1916
  • It adopted its name, a shortened version of the Danish phrase "leg godt", meaning "play well", in 1934 - later it was realised the word conveniently also meant "I put together" in Latin
  • The company patented a locking system for plastic bricks in 1958 and expanded its operation overseas

But in the early 2000s Lego moved away from its core audience in an attempt to appeal to children more interested in computer games and action figures. It devised lines based on its own characters - action adventurer Jack Stone, sold from 2001, and Galidor, featuring the adventures of teenager-turned-galactic warrior Nick Bluetooth, released in 2002.

Neither involved much building. The Jack Stone Super Glider only had seven pieces. Of the four types of part making up the Galidor TDN Module, three were unique to the set.

"It was based on a market research study that I've never managed to find, saying that most kids don't like construction," says David Robertson, author of Brick by Brick, which explains the firm's success in recent years. "So Lego made a construction kit that didn't have any construction at all. These sets were made up of about a dozen pieces.

"It was a financial disaster. The company came to see in retrospect that, if you don't like construction, you won't buy any Lego toys. Conversely, if you buy Lego, you won't be happy with a toy that's got no real construction involved in it."

The cost of creating a new Lego brick, mainly setting up moulds and production processes, is usually about $50,000 (£32,000), says Robertson. Galidor and Jack Stone sets, involving more bespoke components than usual, were expensive to manufacture. Another problem was that, particularly in the case of Galidor, it didn't look or feel much like Lego anymore.

By 2003 the company had suffered financially. Around this time it decided that any developments now had to be in keeping with its established ethos of creativity through construction. It dropped Galidor and Jack Stone but continued and developed licensed link-ups with Star Wars, Harry Potter and Marvel Comics, among others. These contained many basic bricks.

Image source, ALAMY

"It's nonsense to say that Lego sets are now made up of specialised pieces," says David Gauntlett, professor of media, art and design at the University of Westminster. "It is commercial madness to make specific parts that can't be used for other things. As a business Lego has no desire to be doing that at all. I know people like to say that it's not what it was, but it's false nostalgia. I find it really irritating.

"It was sort of true about 12 years ago, when the company almost went bankrupt and the products were less popular. Since then the company has had a major turnaround based on embracing the core of the Lego concept and not doing stupid things like that."

Lego's operating profit in the first half of this year, helped by the huge success of The Lego Movie, was 3.63bn Danish Krone (£386m). It now vies with Mattel to be the biggest toy company in the world.

"What we do today is all about building," says Trangbaek. Lego no longer offers "instant gratification" sets, he adds. "We actually know what children around the world want."

Image source, Getty Images

There will not be a return to the instruction-less days of the late 1950s. But Lego Fusion, launched earlier this year, allows users to photograph their own productions via an app and upload them to a virtual space, where they remain once the toy itself is broken up.

This means they are preserved digitally and can be combined online to create towns, holiday resorts, car races or castles. Lego says children will move between computers and playing with actual bricks to prevent "zombie gaze", or an excess of screen-watching.

The company adds that, unlike its earlier attempt to capitalise on the burgeoning computer games market, this will enhance the use of bricks, encouraging children's imaginative role-playing games and freestyle building.

Lego leaves it to other companies to make the computer games and the films. "It's important that we focus on the physical bricks," says Trangbaek.

More from the Magazine

Image source, Lego

Lego's range - Research Institute - contained three new female figures: a palaeontologist, an astronomer and a chemist. But why does the toymaker's portrayal of women provoke such controversy, asks Tom de Castella.

A container filled with millions of Lego pieces fell into the sea off Cornwall in 1997. But instead of remaining at the bottom of the ocean, they are still washing up on Cornish beaches today - offering an insight into the mysterious world of oceans and tides, says Mario Cacciottolo.

Here is a selection of your comments on Facebook.

Too simple?! It took my husband 2 hours to build a batman plane (6-12) for my son! My son was delighted by it, then took it all apart to build a space ship. . .

Charlotte Hunter

The introduction of too many specialist pieces/sets to create one thing look realistic could be an issue.

There was nothing wrong with making a blocky super car, space ship or boat, it doesn't need to be exact. Imagination played it's part, maybe that's why it's less 'creative' now.

Matt Ley

My 3 are hoping for (& getting) a box of "normal" bricks from Santa, to compliment the massive box that their grandad had kept.

They're aged 5, 4 & 3 so not able to follow instructions & love building, destroying & building again .... Just like we did.

Vickie de Vries

My son loves to follow the instructions, great for spatial learning. Once he's played with it enough he dismantles and creates his own stuff.

Sarah Smith

Just a little sign of how dumbing down works, were now even Lego now cannot let you think you must build what they say. In my day I had a bucket full and built my own x wing, shuttle, castle or anything I wanted. Now you build what's on the box and don't you dare think for yourself and get creative you might grow up to be a thinker, to many of those and we may have to answer some serious questions.

Graeme Gofton

What has disappeared from Lego is affordability.

Sami Bouhafes

Most Lego play sets are pretty much already built. There's nothing wrong with sets with instructions, like I used to have a huge ship play set I had to build. But in most of these newer, smaller sets there's not much building to be done.

Laura Williams

Some of the sets are a pain to build. Beyond my son doing unaided.

Joanne Chaplin

My kids have been bought many lego sets, which I would dearly love them to keep in one piece. Thus does not happen, it lasts days before its destroyed to create a spaceship or a car.

They have also been bought massive amounts of second hand Lego in huge tubs.

Eventually everything ends up in there, as single bricks all mixed up.

Lego is the same now as it's always been. With the addition of cool sets for grownups.

Karl Roberts

Imagination went when Lego hooked up with film/TV franchises instead of leaving matters to the individual.This in turn has lead to the product becoming more overly expensive.

Maggy James

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