LEGO: Having a Moment

June 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Image Source: Design Taxi

Image Source: Pinterest via Design Taxi

I don’t know about you, but I grew up with LEGO.  My brother was a huge fan – there is a photo of him that immediately comes to mind, that of him proudly displaying a massive aircraft carrier that he’d built using the primary-colored bricks.  And, he’s still a fan today  – his lego pieces made their way from our childhood home to his, thus enabling my three nieces to develop their passion for and ability to build with the tiny blocks.

The LEGO brick in its present form was launched in 1958 by privately-held company, Danish company The LEGO Group, and quickly became its most popular product (“lego” is an abbreviation of two Danish words, “leg” and “godt,” and means “play well”).  Sales grew steadily, and in the 1970’s the company launched two initiatives that would drive continuous revenue increases over the next decade-and-a-half: mini figures and fantasy sets (complex kits requiring skill and mastery).  But then, in 1993, the years of 14% annual growth come to an end due to a confluence of market factors.  In order to combat the slowdown, the company embarked an an aggressive plan of innovation, following the prescribed rules of the day: create an innovation culture; find blue ocean markets; hire diverse and creative people.  It didn’t work.  What was textbook innovation for innovation’s sake turned a profitable company with a solid brand into one poised on the edge of bankruptcy by 2003.  They needed a new model of innovation and they needed to design it themselves: researching their market; questioning who plays with LEGO bricks and why; and creating a culture in which every member fo their team was truly part of the process.

Fast-forward ten years.  “Today, it is the fastest growing firm in the toys industry, with sales growing by 24 per cent per year and profits 41 per cent per year, despite competition from video games.”  The decline and comeback of LEGO is detailed in David Robertson’s just-published book, “Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry.”  You can watch Mr. Robertson tell the first part of the story here.

But I want to go back to my nieces for a moment.

At the end of 2011, LEGO introduced sets designed expressly for girls aged 5-8, LEGO Friends.  The sets featured characters Mia, Emma, Andrea, Stephanie and Olivia in various settings: the City Park Cafe; Olivia’s Tree House; the Heartlake Pet Salon.  The stated goal was to get girls building.  When the new product family was announced, there followed a consumer backlash that played out in the media for months.  It went like this – how dare the folks at LEGO be so sexist to create building sets in pretty colors and in girlie settings.  In “Lego is for Girls,” (December 2011) Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported, when it came to products for boys:

To compete with the plug-and-play quality of computer games, Lego had been dumbing down its building sets, aiming for faster “builds” and instant gratification. From the German skateboarder onward, 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.

However, for girls, they debated the best way to go:

The Lego Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others. “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains,” says Lise Eliot.

In spite of (or perhaps because of heightened awareness created by) the feminist backlash, by September of 2012, the company reported that the percentage of LEGO sets purchased for girls in the U.S. had tripled from 9% to 27% of the total.

I admit it, I contributed to this increase.  I bought them as birthday presents.  I recognized the simplicity of the task – the minimal effort required to assemble them – but my nieces were already creating their own designs using my brother’s original LEGO set, and further, I’d seen with my own eyes that they had mastered the art of play when it came to more the girlish games of “beauty salon” and “store” and “mommy.”  A LEGO set, one way or the other, would not change that.

No doubt, Freinds was LEGO’s way of increasing sales by expanding into an as-of-yet largely untapped market.  But isn’t that the point?  And a good point at that?  Girls have traditionally not played with LEGO.  They’ve not used their imaginations and ability to build and make real what’s in their minds.

So now it’s June 2013, and LEGO has just reported solid revenue and profit growth.  A book has just been published detailing the company’s tale of innovation.  In honor of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, LEGO has created five Tube maps made from their bricks.  Nathan Saway, the Brick Artist who makes art out of LEGO and he does this in a big way, has just opened “The Art of the Brick, Museum Exhibit” in Times Square here in New York.

And via @designtaxi, I learned about Japanese balloon artist Rei Hosokai, who shifted media and created a wedding dress made entirely of LEGO bricks.  “Made for Tokyo’s “Piece of Peace” charity at the Parco museum, the dress is shaped and contoured like one of Hokosai’s “balloon” dresses.  By using LEGO pieces, Hosokai seeks to explore the theme of reconstruction in her work, using the blocks as basic elements to create what she calls ‘extensions of knowledge’.”

I end on this – a wedding dress.  Girl stuff, maybe.  But herein lies is the heart of the story –  innovation, creativity, mastery – and the art of possibility.

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