LEGO: An Appreciation

I took Christmas Day off: no client work, no podcast editing, no writing. Instead, I spent the day playing with my kids. Mostly, we built LEGO sets.

Although I am not an AFOL, LEGO is an important part of my life. I use it in my systems class and have written about some lessons it holds for systems thinkers. More importantly, I love playing with LEGO. It’s my favorite toy — and has been since I was a child.

Yesterday, as I helped my daughter build set #10260, I reflected on why I love the bricks so much. It boils down to the following:

LEGO is a simple yet rich system.

For someone like myself, who loves well-structured systems that allow for emergent order, LEGO is a marvel of design. The stud-and-tube coupling framework, plus a careful selection of plastics, make for an extremely elegant system that offers many possibilities within a few simple constraints.

With a few exceptions, LEGO (the company) has been disciplined in its stewardship of this system over six decades. The result is a rich set of components that abide by an underlying structural framework. (If I’d kept any of the sets I played with as a child, they’d likely be compatible with my kids’ sets.)

Image: Brickset on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/brickset/39195349224/in/dateposted/
Image: Brickset on Flickr

LEGO is a three-dimensional puzzle.

You play with LEGO in one of two modalities: either following the manufacturer’s instructions to build a specific set (such as 10260 referenced above) or by making something new from your imagination. Both activities are puzzle-like.

The first modality is akin to building a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle: you know what the final result will look like, and know that you’ll have the pieces you need to complete it. (At least if you’re working with a new set.) The challenge is identifying the right parts and putting them in the correct locations. (The instructions that come with sets are a marvel of visual communication and beautiful examples of systemic design in their own right.)

The second modality — open-ended building — is also puzzle-like. But it’s different: the challenge is less about completing a known whole than it is watching a whole emerge from a limited set of parts; searching for the piece that will achieve whatever it is you’re making. Looking for — and finding — the right piece is a big part of the joy of open-ended LEGO play.

In either modality, playing with LEGO is relaxing and rewarding — much like building a jigsaw puzzle.

LEGO is a modeling and prototyping medium.

Speaking of open-ended LEGO play, one of the wonders of the system is that it allows you to make ideas tangible. A large collection of LEGO parts gives you the ability to model and prototype just about anything. In my household, we’ve built everything from a moose to a little dashboard we use to track which family member picked the last movie for family movie night.

The introduction of LEGO Technic pieces in the late 1970s greatly expanded the range of what the system can do. For inspiration, spend a few hours perusing YouTube for LEGO creations; some are astonishing:

LEGO is world-building as play.

As I said, open-ended LEGO play is different from building sets according to the manufacturer’s instructions. One of the pleasures of the latter is watching a little world emerge from a set of seemingly disparate parts. Much like Disney’s Imagineers, LEGO set designers are masters of world-building by reduction. The 1950s diner set my daughter and I are building includes detailed interiors that feature such details as flapjacks and bacon and a jukebox. Because they’re inside the buildings, most people won’t see these details. But as the person assembling the set, you know they’re there. It’s hard not to love the craft and care that goes into designing these abstractions of real (and imagined) worlds that you can build and hold in your hands.

LEGO is beautiful.

I leave my most subjective point last: I love the esthetics of LEGO. LEGO’s underlying structural framework imposes a rigorous coherence and consistency to things built with the system. But because pieces are colorful and have pleasing proportions, textures, curves, and angles, the overall effect is invariably cheerful. I find in LEGO many of the same esthetic joys I find in early 1980s video games like Pac Man and Donkey Kong: they make it possible to inhabit a cartoony, surreal, pixelated world that renders the real or imagined within a constrained framework — all in the name of fun.