The enduring appeal of LEGO: Northern Soul gets the inside track
I met Morgan Walker in the summer of 1995.
We became flat-mates without even meeting first. I was studying Film and Theatre at Glasgow University and had been in student halls with Allan (also at Glasgow Uni, studying Chemistry) and Martin (studying Product Design at Glasgow School of Art) and we needed a fourth to make up the numbers for a massive flat on the outskirts of Maryhill, Glasgow. Martin suggested a fellow design student, Morgan, and the rest is history.
The four of us shared two flats over the next two years. Britpop was in full swing and we had an absolute ball. Morgan has always been easily likeable, with a sharp Glaswegian wit, laidback demeanor and a quiet determination. He is the most imaginative person I know and we were always hatching plans and high concepts for film screenplays or TV sketches – usually over a beer or five in the Woodside Social or the Arlington Bar (the pub above which our second flat dangerously resided).
We spent many hours in the long hot summer of 1996 sitting in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens, hatching a plot around the idea that everyone in the park was talking about exactly the same thing: an event which had happened the previous night, involving a naked man. I’m still not sure why we decided he would be naked – maybe it added to a sense of confusion, or something. I don’t know. The film would take place over the course of a day and, finally, once everyone had finally left the park, the man (our hero?) would crawl out of the undergrowth. He’d scratch his head, wonder why he had no clothes on, and then start walking down Byres Road into the sunset. We sketched out camera moves, pans, character lists, even small scenes – everything except deciding what they were actually talking about, what had actually happened. Details. I’m pretty sure someone eventually made our film…
Morgan was always absolutely rooted in spontaneity, with an emphasis more on the experience rather than the consequence, the journey rather than the destination. When my son was born in 2010, I knew I wanted Morgan to be godfather. This was even before he had achieved the ultimate qualification for the job.
Chris Payne: So, how did you get your job as a designer at Lego?
Morgan Walker: Well, in that regard I have our good friend Allan to thank. I was between jobs in 2010 and found myself at Allan’s wedding sitting next to a Scottish design manager from what used to be called Concept Lab at LEGO. I guess it was one of those cases where you feel you have been match-made by the table planner – ‘those guys are designers who live abroad – they’ll get on’.
I was actually glad to be away from the job-hunt for the weekend but after a few drinks I realised I’d wake up in the morning and regret not hitting the guy up for a job. By sheer luck he was actually hiring. I did a month’s freelance design work for him in Edinburgh. He liked what he saw and offered me a full-time position.
CP: Did you have to do anything unusual at your interview?
MW: In many ways that was my interview. James (the guy who hired me) always said “Your real interview was your best man’s speech, I knew who you were after that” which was very nice. They are a lovely company, LEGO, and in Denmark generally great importance is placed on being able to get along with people in a team setting. The slightest whiff of over-ambitious, careerist back-biting is severely frowned upon.
CP: How do you decide what works as a LEGO set?
MW: A very broad question with many answers I’m afraid. It depends on the product. The boring answer is kid/retail appeal (i.e. demand) balanced with brand fit. The design answer would be that, at their heart, all sets are trying to inspire a certain kind of play. A Technic set is an engineering showcase that inspires that kind of mind. The Playtheme sets do their best to start ‘the inner movie’ – providing enough iconic details and story starters to fuel kids own role-play.
We put a lot of effort into the box fronts not just to sell the toy but to inspire the play. The action is normally framed to ignite questions about what could happen next. I think it’s a bit sad that older generations often lament these ‘special pieces’ as being the ruin of LEGO. ‘We had our imaginations and a box of generic bricks’ they say. Kids today are surrounded by movies, animation and video games. Today, LEGO allows them to remix all of that pop-culture they see around them rather than just being passive consumers. I think in a sense LEGO has evolved to become a creative media tool as well as a construction toy – both are big 21st century life skills. That said, ‘non-movie property’ LEGO also continues to be extremely important.
CP: I remember you saying once that in tests, if children look like they have been guided towards an educative outcome rather than ‘play’ then the set is rejected. Can you tell me a little bit more about the process of testing, and how important this is to the final product?
MW: You remembered half right – LEGO is very conscious about the values it upholds for play quality and learning. But what you’re referring to is the project that became Juniors (just launched). Four to six-year-olds struggle with ‘little LEGO’ so the product line was trying to help them with that. We did a lot of research in Europe and the US about what both parents and kids’ needs were. Generally speaking, parents in the US and to a lesser extent the UK are quite fixated on educational outcomes at ever earlier ages, whereas in Scandinavia and especially Germany they openly reject that, feeling strongly that this age is for play and socialising and scholastic learning comes later. Kids of course follow the fun, so we just made sure we inspired them as much as possible and lowered the barriers – the learning about constructing blocks then came as a side-effect of play that kids were actively engaged in.
Testing is extremely important both in measuring appeal (and therefore potential scale) and also to uphold our standards of play, the age appropriateness of the building experience and the stability (and therefore playability) of the finished models. We have kids who come into the design studios to play with in-development sets twice a week, all year round, plus more formal market researchy stuff like what I’m doing as I write.
CP: What’s your favourite part of your job?
MW: Fave part of the job is the testing, actually. By the time the products come out we’ve often moved on a bit mentally whereas the tests are the real ‘first look’. It’s a lovely feeling to see the kids getting so excited and playing with your work. You really get to see if your design instincts were right (or not!) – kids are brutally honest! This can sometimes bring you right back down to earth – though never without humour.
We just tested some stuff in Chicago last week and one kid was quoted as saying “My head is going to explode!”.
That’s a good result.
CP: Can you let us into any Lego secrets?
MW: Haha, probably not! I like my job.
CP: What’s your favourite Lego product?
MW: The one I’m working on now, of course. Again, it’s a new range of products but you’ll have to wait till next year to find out. A friend of mine designed the big VW 1968 Camper Van. That’s one of the few models I have on a shelf at home. Really cute. There’s even a little lava lamp inside it.
CP: Now a question from your godson: What is the biggest Lego model ever made?
MW: I actually know this one. It was the life-size X-wing [from Star Wars} we built in Times Square [in New York] last year – 5.3 million bricks, says Google.
CP: He’ll be happy with that answer – Thomas the Tank Engine has recently been dumped for LEGO Star Wars, much to my genuine delight.
And now, a question from my own god-daughter: How many Lego bricks have been made?
MW: More than 400 billion last I checked – again, Google.
CP: Lastly, what film would you like to see made out of Lego?
MW: I love some of the stop motion animation stuff people do on the Internet. Someone (hint, hint) (I think he means me) should do a little film festival of the best ones. I think Tremors would work really well as a LEGO movie…Oooh I need to Google that! A good way to spend a cold evening is to go online and try to find something that nobody has built out of LEGO. Type literally any word + LEGO and something comes up. I think that’s the coolest thing – it’s just an interlocking brick system (as Will Ferrell says at the end of the LEGO movie). But it’s LEGO’s ubiquity that highlights the insane wealth of human creativity so well.
Morgan answered these questions on a plane from Denmark to LA while on another product testing mission.
We’ve not seen enough of each other these past few years, but that’s understandable. He just doesn’t stop. And in the past year, Morgan has also moved house, got married and had a little boy of his own. Luckiest little boy in Denmark – Daddy works in the dream factory…
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