Build Your Own Lifestyle: Lego 70 years On
cabinet- maker called Ole Kirk Christiansen in a small village in
Denmark developed it in 1932. Today it is a toy known in almost
every country, has over 8000 employees worldwide, reels in $150
Million annually and has just recently opened its fourth theme park
in South Germany. The short little noseless yellow men and the classic
brick have certainly come far. But how does the Toy of the Century
compete in this technological age of Nintendos, Segas and
computers? And in doing so has it lost touch with its core basics,
its simplicity from which it has built its success?
Derrick reports on the Legonisation of childhood
girl with blonde hair and freckles in the front row nods her head subconsciously.
Her hair is tied back neatly in pigtail plaits but wisps of hair have
escaped the clips and now fall in front of her face; A typical bi-product
of the numerous rides and activities already completed in her day at
Legoland. She is just about to go for her first driving license. As
she watches a video of Toby, the baseball cap wearing, eight-year-old
Lego man, other 10 year olds in the room, tap toes and jiggle knees
in anticipation. They cannot wait until the practical component of their
driving exam. Outside in their very own Lego mobiles they get to test
out their driving knowledge. Their faces are poised in seriousness as
they negotiate difficult turns and give way at the round abouts. As
a Legoland photo-driving license is on the line, this is serious stuff.
You can find it at any doctors surgery, toy stores have
aisles of its products and ask anyone and they will tell you they were
a Lego kid as well. But now they are no longer just a brick; they have
computer games, global popularity, and four theme parks, all in different
"The benefit of Lego is the philosophy, which is very consumer
friendly. People and children are always in the middle of what Lego
does. The philosophy is vital and valued by all the owners and employees
of Lego," said Legoland PR Officer Annette Uhlmann.
The philosophy of Learning and development through play
is apparent in the newly opened Deutschland Legoland themepark. When
kids are not on any of the 40 Lego rides they are entertained and taught
in the Lego learning attractions.
"Legoland is not just about making the kids consume. It is a mixture
of entertainment and learning. We call it hands on minds on, we try
to activate the children and the visitors to think, to use their brain,
to learn and at the same time to use their bodies to be in the action"
You definitely have to think at the Mindstorm Centre. Outside a three
metre high sculpture of the master of intelligence and scientific hero,
Einstein, made from 350,000 Lego bricks, marks the entrance.
Inside the centre kids work with computers, building Lego robots, then
programming them to get through the tricky maze that is situated on
a huge table in the middle of the room.
In the Lego Fabrik (factory) kids can see how Lego is made and watch
the six permanent Lego modellers work, (or is it play?) making, repairing
and creating all the numerous Lego sculptures in the park.
At the Build and Test Centre minds are also challenged. Visitors have
to build a tower that can resist the earthquake mat that shakes. And
build a car out of Lego that can be raced and timed on the nearby track.
Adjustments then must be made to make it faster. Do I add more Lego,
give it bigger wheels, or simply make it only with red bricks to make
it go faster?
When their mouths arent stretched from ear to ear in a huge smile,
they are opened wide, chin scraping the ground in absolute awe at the
skill and precision of all Lego sculptures in the park.
Miniland is the most intriguing. Built with over 25 million commercial
Lego bricks you feel like a Giant walking through replicated models
of German towns. There is everything, from a replica of the "Love
Parade" in Berlin to the newly built, 300,000 Lego bricked castle
"If one single person was to build all the Minilands in the four
themeparks he would need 69 years" marvels Uhlmann.
But from this kaleidescope of bright colours and abundance of plastic
within a Disneyland atmosphere, one must wonder how Lego has managed
for over 70 years to skip the onset of a toy generation gap.
It has definitely grown from the days of the small one-man furniture
store in Denmark. In 1961 the company made a success just by the introduction
of the wheel to its childrens toys. Today Lego products include
complicated constructions of electronic cars, boats, buildings, robots,
But Trene Nissen from the Lego Company in Billund, Denmark insists that
the growing complexity of Lego and its development of computer games
is not moving the beloved brick away from its core basic philosophy.
"It (the introduction of computer games) is an attempt to follow
the children of today
we do not believe that selling computer games
in it self make us a bad company"
But the hands on minds on philosophy in Legoland is not
as obvious in Legos new computer games. The games move beyond
the basic brick, some retaining the building bricks principle. But most
take on the adventure and sports themes as any other computer game.
But only with little noseless yellow men instead.
The Racer series games from Lego provide the player with a choice of
circuit and car to be played out in similar fashion to most car racing
games on the market. And the Bionicle computer game was established
following the success of its building series. But here, no building
is completed, just adventure level after level as the Bionicle robot
fights his way to computer game victory. The games are available on
Gameboy, PC, X-Box and Playstation.
"The world of imagination can take place anywhere, even on a computer
screen," insists Nissen
Claire Vick, child psychiatrist for the Ashurst Hospital in South Hampton
supports the use of Lego, but remains sceptical of its development of
"Lego is just probably getting on the money band-wagon".
Vick uses Lego with the children she works with, believing it play an
important role for a childs imagination, motor skills and concentrative
development. But agrees that computer games have their negative effects.
"Its a two-sided coin really, while computer games can help
children to sit and concentrate, it reduces the one on one interaction
with parents and their children that traditional Lego provides"
"This interaction is incredibly important for a child"
And most mothers agree.
On the mothers chat room Coffeeclub, the topic was raised and
most mothers believed without the same effects of the traditional building
sets, Lego should stick to the bricks.
"Kids need more than a game to keep them occupied they need teaching
and structure as well. I would say my boys learned so much from building
Lego's and that they enjoyed doing it. If the game teaches the same
concept it would be fine, but if not then maybe the company should just
stick with the building blocks instead," wrote Julie Kiy
"I feel that kinetics (hands on) is more important since it helps
the development of a child and how they learn later on in life"
wrote Ally Marstoff
And Dragonmom agreed "I prefer the hands on, children play too
many computer games as it is".
It is difficult to stay one step ahead of the competition, when the
competition is the new generation with computers, electronics, and Sega
playstations. Despite this, over the last decade Lego sales figures
show that its popularity remains universal.
"Looking at the past five years the market for video games and
consoles have taken market shares from the classical toy industry. Nevertheless
from 1997- 2002 Lego Company has had an annual average market share
increase of 8.6 percentages," said Nissen.
So how does the British Association of Toy Retailers Toy of the
Century retain its success for over 70 years? Through developments
other than computer games that do retain the simple philosophy from
which Ole Kirk Christiansen built his success.
""We (Lego) provide a variety of experiences based on the
same underlying philosophy; learning and development -through play.
And this philosophy is at the very centre of how we do things at Lego
"Our Vision Lab is constantly spotting trends and tendencies around
the world. This should make certain that we will continue to create
products that are characteristic of our time and which have the right
learning features," said Nissen
Only recently has Lego founded the Learning Institute. Here professionals,
researchers, parents and Lego employees, discuss, research and lead
forums on the latest learning initiatives for children. Trends are identified
through direct involvement with children; their needs are then relayed
to the Lego developers.
"We still believe that it is extremely important to know in what
direction the world is moving and therefore last year we founded the
Lego Learning Institute" said Nissen
But you dont have to be a kid to learn through play
with Lego. In 2002, Lego launched its Serious Play Range, a package
especially designed to assist companies and organisations develop effective
"It's amazing what happens when executives build a 3-D model of
their business, which they can take apart, change, and physically walk
around and discuss. They begin to see possibilities that never would
have occurred to them with traditional approaches", says Dr. Johan
Roos, now Director at the Imagination Lab Foundation, which conducted
the research leading to Lego Serious Play.
This is more than just suits sitting around a boardroom table, reliving
their childhood by playing with Lego toys. Businesses construct different
models of the business and the surrounding landscape (its suppliers,
competitors etc). These models can be used to explore different scenarios,
and provides a tangible prototype with which to develop a strategy.
And big businesses are taking the Lego serious play range seriously.
"It's fast, it's fun, it's effective," says Cliff Dennet,
Head of Strategic Alignment, Orange Telecommunications Plc
And back at Legoland, parent Kurt Surber too takes his Lego seriously
as he occupies his time in the Build and Test Centre with the spare
Lego bricks. "I built that," said Surber pointing to a strange
looking tower, about 50cm high with many big and small Lego bricks protruding
from the structure at different and strange angles. "Its
a duck," explains Surber
Anastasia has almost completed every activity at the park but is
still bubbling with energy.
"Lego is cool. It is just amazing because all these things
are made out of Lego and I think it would be very hard to do
but I think I could do it too"
Lego has grown. In many of Legos new ventures, the hands on
minds on, learning through play philosophy is evident. But whether
the new computer games really retain this philosophy when the only
play occurs through a mouse and keyboard is negotiable. In its rush
to keep up with trends, it has here sacrificed its philosophy.
To play Lego one building brick connects with another until an object
or structure is formed. This structure could be complete, but with
the connection of another brick a more complicated and often better
structure can be formed. The original bricks and the meaning for
building in the first place remains as its foundations. As Lego
moves through generations, and is forced to compete with growing
technological trends, its company should continue to mirror its
© Samantha Derrick October 2003 (Update May 27th 2004)
Samantha is an Australian student now studying in Germany.
all rights reserved