Lego: A Solid History to Build Upon

Claire Greenhouse takes a look at good old fashioned Lego.  Why do we have such a fascination for a post war toy so simple in concept, and yet so brilliantly executed in terms of both design and marketing?

The chances are you or a friend had a set or two as a child, played with it at school, or had had the misfortune to tread on a rogue piece first thing in the morning if your small children have a set or three themselves. If you want to know more about this wonder toy, read on.

 

Introduction

There are a reported 600 billion tiny plastic Lego bricks in the world! As the Lego building blocks celebrate their 60th anniversary, we are surrounded by the plethora of bricks and accessories that represents the Lego evolution over this long period of time. The traditional rectangular and square blocks have been joined by increasing complex and specialised pieces. The creative sets have diversified to include Lego Technic, Lego Creator Sets, Lego Ninjago, Lego Super Heroes, and Lego Friends and the Architectural Series, amongst many others. This article seeks to answer the following question about the Iconic Lego brand; What is the secret to its longevity, and how Lego is taking the brand into the future?

A short history of Lego

Lego is a contraction of the two Danish words “Leg Godt” meaning “play well”. This remains at the heart of the company’s ethos to this day. The Lego group was set up in 1932 by carpenter and master joiner, Ole Kirk Kristiansen, who established his workshop in Billund, Denmark. The Lego HQ remains in Billund. The business started producing wooden toys, then over time, brought plastic elements into their toy designs.

Eventually in 1958, after many years of development, the Lego brick as we know it today was created and patented. Known as the ‘stud and tube coupling system’, this design allowed the models built with Lego to have greater stability. It was the creation of this block system that is being celebrated this year in the 60th Anniversary Special Edition building kits. Lego expanded into France, the UK, Belgium and Sweden in 1959. The business has grown to around 17,000 employees globally.

A toy for all ages

Plastics have a very long life span, particularly when moulded from plastic granulate into a stable piece. This short video explains how the blocks are moulded, with the impressive preciseness ensuring all Lego parts fit together.

There is also a psychological element to the longevity of the brand. When people have fond memories of playing with Lego as a child, they are likely to keep the blocks for the next generation of their families, who then pass it on again. The traditional brand, durability and personal sentimentality ensure the toys can be easily passed on, helping to keep the ‘cycle of Lego going’.

The scope of things that can be done with Lego is huge. It can be tailored to suit a simple model made by a very young child, to the fully functioning crane models. The ‘Legomasters’ TV competitions are a testament to a Lego world where everything is a possibility and the only boundaries are your imagination. Children’s imaginations are further fuelled by the animated TV programmes (Lego City and Ninjago to name but a few), and there are films and merchandise based on the global Lego brand.

There is an older fan base too, known as the AFOL’s – the ‘Adult fans of Lego’. The increasingly complex and more decorative models are built with vigour and to an engineering level of precision by AFOL enthusiasts all over the world. The design details are carefully planned for aesthetics and to ensure that these models last as long as needed with complete functionality. There are even companies dedicated to building Lego models for commercial purposes, and Lego itself has job positions within the company such as Lego Equipment Engineers, moulding trainees and countless design engineers.

In 2018, there will be two ‘Bricklive‘ exhibitions later this year in Glasgow and Birmingham, both in the UK where thousands upon thousands of grown up fans indulge in their hobby in the most extreme sense. The exhibitions this year include the hands on areas of mythical beasts, Star Wars, race ramps, a gaming zone and a Minecraft area. The collaboration of Lego and Minecraft, Star Wars and Avengers/Lego Heroes is a clever move to keep everything relevant and up to date.

How are we capitalising on the benefits of Lego in education?

The kinaesthetic learning styles lend themselves to using Lego in the classroom. They can be used in Science and technology classes to demonstrate scientific concepts, such as building bridges to experiment with structural design. Now schools are waking up to the fact that Lego and coding are powerful tools when used together. Play is essential at all ages and helps children and adults develop mindfulness and concentration skills. Lego is a good clean fun way to do this.

As mentioned earlier, there is another area in which Lego is being used and encouraged to be used even more. The Lego EV3 kit is a programmable robot kit (now in its third generation – the first programmable Lego bot was developed in 1998), which enables children to build one of 17 types of robots with the pieces, then program the robot to carry out actions by coding through something Lego call an intelligent brick. The children can code the robot via a home PC or tablet.

The Future of Lego?

One of the main criticisms that can be levelled at the Lego pieces is their effect on the environment, because of these being made of plastic granulates. It can be argued that they have a long portion of their life cycle in use – however it is still the use of a non-renewable resource and in 2014 alone, 60 billion Lego elements were manufactured. Lego has made a commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, and environmental-friendly alternatives to build the pieces are being researched by the Lego Sustainable Materials Centre.

Because the pieces are durable, many Lego bricks and parts are circulated through friends and family or sold on, So the demand is likely to fall unless there is a constant stream of new products. Lego are building on the educational elements of their brand, particularly coding, and in a world where we are becoming more reliant on IT, this is helping to plug a skills gap and could be considered a way to future -proof the company.

Claire Greenhouse

Women in Engineering

Useful Links

The Official Lego Website

Bricklive – Birmingham Event

Bricklive – Glasgow Event

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