LEGO is today 50 years old and it is a great design event. Innovation knows no boundaries and here in India too we need to celebrate the 50th birthday with an appropriate response that is fitting to the occasion. What could this be? I will get to that shortly.
What is LEGO? Why are we celebrating it?
To answer this is not a simple task since it is not one product but a multitude of things to a multitude of people and as a system of components that make up the whole it can be used and enjoyed by all ages and genders or almost by all ages and genders if we go by the age recommendations on the boxes and the instruction manuals that accompany each kit that has been sold in the market ever since it was introduced to the world in 1958 by its inventor designers. I quote here the Time magazine report on the toy and the company:
I Quote.. “.It was at 1:58 p.m. on January 28, 1958, that then-Lego head Godtfred Kirk Christiansen filed a patent for the iconic plastic brick with its stud-and-hole design. Since then, the company has made a staggering 400 billion Lego elements, or 62 bricks for every person on the planet. And if stacked on top of one another, the pieces would form 10 towers reaching all the way from the Earth to the Moon.” UnQuote
see the full story at the TIME website titled “Lego Celebrates 50 Years of Building”, By LEO CENDROWICZ Monday, Jan. 28, 2008 at this link here.
I have been fascinated by these kinds of modular construction kits and building blocks ever since my childhood when I had access to a variety of Meccano and the large Montessori blocks which incidentally were manufactured in my fathers toy factory in the 50’s and 60’s in Guindy at Madras (now Chennai). The factory was called Modern Agencies and made wooden toys and school furniture and teaching aids. The LEGO blocks however started appearing in India through product imports that slipped through the stringent import control Raj in India in 70’s and in larger measure in upmarket toy shops the early 90’s at the beginning of the era of economic liberalization in India. But for that hindrance we would perhaps have seen this product in India in my fathers toy shop as well in its hay days when it stocked over 3000 varieties of toys, dolls, games and teaching aids, all playthings that would make a child excited and fulfilled. My father’s business policy was to carry and sell only toys as playthings which had educational value and he used to frequently tell us – “my shop does not carry plastic buckets and toys, which was the format for most other toy stores in the city with the exception of the India’s Hobby Centre, which carried stocks of aircraft models and a large variety of toys. Unfortunately in the late 60’s through the mid 80’s when I had access to the shop located at the corner of General Patters Road and next to the now extinct Wellington Cinema as well as the right to take home any one that I liked, very privileged indeed, we did not have stocks of LEGO, my loss. However my daughter was more lucky since I was able to indulge my interest in the toy kit and obtain several sets of these multi-dimensional blocks with the excuse of educating my daughter when I returned home from my professional visits to Hong Kong, Singapore or Japan to further my interest in bamboo and design. Lucky girl. She still holds on to these sets although she has graduated from NID and is working as a designer in Bangalore these days. Perhaps LEGO was partly responsible for her choosing design as a profession besides the fact that she lived on campus at NID, which is the hothouse for design in India in any case.
In 1991 I had shared my daughter’s LEGO blocks with my students in the systems design class and used this as a case study of a great modular system that affords many insights into the making of good design. The blocks are well made with fine fits and tolerances and they are non-frustrating for the child since they work and provide hours of fun in imaginative play in a continued state of creative expression, wonderful. The assignments for our students that I now reflect on was set in that year as an analysis of an existing system so that we could through our study discover properties and principles that would help us in the design of our own system, in this case modular furniture systems, since the two students were from the Furniture Design discipline for whom the class was on offer. Aruna Venkatavaradan and Harkaran Singh Grewal were the students in question and both of them were assigned the task of carrying out the analysis that would lead up to the making of an informative and insightful document. Aruna’s document is thankfully available in the NID Resource Centre (now called the Knowledge Management Centre) titled Lego: Analysis of the toy as a System. Through her analysis she discovered the principles of modularity and inter-operability of the blocks on offer as well as looked at the multiple levels of organization that was used to make and offer variety and affordances to the child the ultimate user of the toy. She had categorized all the blocks using her own nomenclature and from this built her description of the toy as a system. Aruna discovered that the various block and their features could be classified and organized under a system and structure in the following manner.
The Geometric Module: Form, Dimension, Compatibility
The Functional Module: Hinges, Pins, Tubes, Features
The Marketing Module: Packaging, Economic Groups, Age Groups, Interest Groups
The Semantic Module: Form, Colour, Texture, Terminal Elements, Context
The Ergonomic Module: User Capability, Need, Age Matching, Complexity
The Economic Module: Production Features, Finished Product Configuration, Set Configuration etc.,
The geometric level was for instance provided by the shape and size of each block, the differentiation level was offered by the colour and symmetry and asymmetry of the blocks, the semantic level was offered by the cultural meanings of the terminal blocks such as hats, flowers and head types that permitted the assembly to carry different meanings for the child and so on. She used the process of sketching and drawing using isometric and orthographic views to analyse each block and then used language to sort and arrange the elements into a meaningful structure and this process revealed the inner structure of the toy and the potentials on offer by each kind of block. Great learning for her as well as for all of us involved in the discussions and debates that ensued.
What can we do in India with the LEGO legacy now that the patent that started ticking on that eventful day of 28th January 1958 when the patent application for this fascinating toy principle was filed by the son of the company founder with the new and improved principle on offer. Many me-too variations have been offered but design and imagination can make a huge difference to bring cultural relevance to the toy, which I believe is a significant one for the era of globalization, and unfortunate homogenization that we now see in all toy offerings around the world. Localisation could well be practiced and Indian themes can now appear from the stable of some enterprising Indian company who may come forward and offer the Mahabharata LEGO or the Warli Lego, to suggest only a few options here, where the semantic layer could be manipulated by the use of design imagination and explorations, particularly since the basic product is now off patent. LEGO International itself offers many Western themes but should these be the only ones that Indian kids have on offer? This is a call for design students in India and elsewhere to take up this challenge and show how the popular and effective toys (just as critical drugs and medicines could be developed from proven offerings) and these can be localized to meet extant conditions in India and other developing countries. I am not suggesting that totally new approaches cannot be attempted, do so by all means if possible, but the world of artifacts in any culture are made up of incremental innovations as well as design imagination and we must recognize this fact and invest our efforts to make the most of our resources and build quality offerings that can reach all our schools and homes.
Let us celebrate the 50th birthday of the wonderful LEGO blocks and kits and help reach these to stimulate the imagination of our children for many years to come. Let us make an Indian “LEGO” today.