Back to basics

August 17, 2009 — 9 Comments

Lego reported a 23% rise in revenues and a 60% rise in profits for the first six months of 2009. What is the secret that causes a company that sells toys to buck the economic tsunami that has afflicted everyone else? One clue is that in particular parents have apparently turned to Lego’s classic products in the downturn. Does this mean that parents are realizing the value of a toy that can be used many times over and adapted to many purposes as superior to products that deliver an entirely predictable outcome?

I credit Lego with introducing me to the idea of design. In the early 70′s England suffered a series of miner’s strikes that led to power cuts. In an effort to help out my mother, I built a flashlight from a collection of light emitting bricks that my Lego collection contained at the time. With this prototype I hoped my mother would be able to see well enough to cook my dinner. Whether or not it made the difference to our evening repast I don’t recall, but it did make me realize that I could build things that were useful to other people. In other words that I could design. I talk about this in the prototyping chapter of Change By Design.

I hope that this resurgence of Lego introduces more young children to the power of prototyping and the opportunities that design holds.

Tim Brown

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9 comments on “Back to basics

  1. LEGO is, as a former employee has enlightened me, not merely a toy – rather it is a creative medium! No surprise that designers love them. But if LEGO were truly clever they’d design improved organization and storage devices for these wonderful, but seemingly infinitely reproducing bricks…

    They’re also a great illustration of the paradox that exacting standards (precision of the bricks’ manufacture) can result in enhanced creativity…

    …and I don’t doubt you can build just about anything out of LEGOs!

  2. I can’t agree more on the role of Lego in bringing out the creativity and the ability to think out of the box.

    I was exposed to Lego since the age of 4. Started off by laying piece by piece as per the manual and then trying to construct all the example printed at the back of the packaging box (no manual/ guide given as usual) and then trying to use the pieces I have on hand to build anythings I like to.

    Well as I grow older, the passion faded but whenever I see a showcase or exhibition of model built using Lego. I still amaze me and remind me of what it have lead me to.

    In fact there have been occasion I need to based some of the mechanism design in real life from what we learnt thru playing with Lego!!!

  3. I’m not sure I totally agree that LEGO’s are really a “basic” toy anymore. The coveted sets, such as many StarWars or Indiana Jones (among many that dominate the shelves), are not cheap, or nearly as simple to put together as my early 1970′s Lunar Lander set.
    I do agree they are a great toy, with many years of shelf life, to nurture self-directed play, and their success could be attributed to their creative medium status. But not convinced they’re so “basic” compared to playing catch, kicking a soccer ball, riding a bike, card games, drawing, swimming, hunting for bugs etc. etc.

  4. There are certainly a lot of involved “non-basic” sets out there, but Lego recently introduced an aptly named “Lego Basics” set, with an affordable price of $30 for 650 bricks.

    In my opinion, their resurgence has little to do with the simplicity of the toy, but more with genius marketing with the co-branded video games. As a parent of a 6 year old that owns Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones Wii video games, I can attest there was no demand for Legos prior to our owning the games. Now they are on the top of the birthday list.

  5. The Lego concept is not only relevant in this economy, it also promotes a culture of reuse/reconfigure/renew. It can help encourage Green responsibility in a new generation and I’m excited by that.

    As a child I played with Lego and Fischer Price toys. I had this FP village that opened up like a vertical suitcase where I could move the village people figures around and create village scenarios. Whenever the stories seemed to have run dry, I would make new environments with the Lego pieces. An airport, a city block, a garden plot…. I would transfer my FP figures to these new locales to start new stories. Lego gave my FP village people new lives, new adventures, and new relationships with each other.
    Lego gave me opportunities to create new circumstances for new stories.

  6. I wonder if there is also a more prosaic, demographic, element to the resurgence of Lego: that a cohort of adults now in their thirties, who grew up with Lego, are now returning to the market place on their children’s behalf, and their parents are now buying for their grandchildren?

    Robert

  7. A few months ago on a train I sat next to an engineer working for a prestigious think-tank, who at the time was seeking the secret code for innovation. He was thinking in terms of Eigen values, high-creative teams and conditions that spark innovation. After some common ground we diverged a single point. With examples such as the ISO thread, the shipping container, and the TCP/IP protocol I offered that many of the greatest innovations wouldn’t have been possible without standardization. He did not buy that argument. I told him, in your spare time think about what I have said, I’m confident you will find yourself later agreeing. LEGO is a great example.

  8. Growing up in Brazil I built my own toys from pieces of wood that we would collect in the produce market. Never owned a Lego set. Don’t think Legos are needed for innovative children really. I may start playing with them now to see what it feels like.

  9. A fine example of seeing a problem (power cuts) and then thinking of a solution to cook dinner.

    In fact, behind all innovative effort lies two great human skills: Observation and Empathy.

    An excellent article.

    Regards,
    Dibyendu De

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