This is a reposting of my interview from 2015 with Bjarne Tveskov the legendary former LEGO designer and creator of several of the most-loved of the 1980s space sets. We discussed spaceship building, Minecraft, digital technology and life as a professional LEGO designer. (This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4)
Three years ago I was just starting to discover how welcoming the LEGO community is. Not just the fellow fans, who quickly became friends, but also the talented individuals who have and still work professionally for LEGO. Without expecting too much I dropped a speculative email to the LEGO designer Bjarne Tveskov, probably best known for his work on a number of the iconic eighties space ranges, including the Blacktron and Futuron themes. A warm reply came back: yes he’d love to chat with me about the smaller pocket money sets he created. And with this began my involvement in writing about LEGO.
Back to the present, and this summer Bjarne and I struck up conversation once more, after I posted a collection of my classic space LEGO creations online. And as things often do, we soon found ourselves talking about design process, how LEGO is developing as a cultural phenomenon and the links between LEGO and digital creativity. As before, when I suggested this might be the basis for an interview, he didn’t need much persuading.
Starting at the very beginning Bjarne took me back to the mid-eighties when he began working for LEGO.
“It happened pretty much by chance. I was reading a local Sunday paper where I lived, and there was an advert in there, that I still have, where LEGO were looking for designers for LEGO Space and LEGO DUPLO. And it didn’t make a lot of formal demands on your background… It asked something like: if you had done experiments with science fiction models, or if you could draw or paint and had a good sense of shape and colour, that was about it. And I thought well that could be me somehow, so why not try. So I made an application, probably the first I ever wrote for a job. I thought maybe it could be a freelance thing. I was 17 years old and still in school at the time, so it didn’t seem a realistic option as a full-time job. I just had this vague concept that there would be people designing LEGO sets, and that it would be cool do to this, but what this black box of LEGO design was, I had no way of knowing at the time.
As well as LEGO I was also into the early home computer scene at the time, especially a lot of the stuff that came from the UK back then, the Sinclair ZX81, the Spectrum and suchlike. So I put this in the application too. I think it was one of the reasons why I was called in for an interview, because LEGO was already starting to look into computers. The first generation of video games were starting to get big in the mid-eighties, and my boss Jens Nygaard Knudsen could also see that this could be important for the company’s future.
LEGO was already collaborating with the Media Lab from Boston, which were one of the earliest sponsors of research into technology related to play and education. So I think an enthusiasm for computers was my hook into the system, not that we were directly doing anything with it when I first started. The work was still exclusively taking place in the company’s educational Department, where they were making these control products which could manipulate simple robots. But there was a sense that these digital developments could one day become a core part of the LEGO business. But sometimes my computer skills came in handy; I was working at creating alternate monorail layouts for the 6921 Monorail Accessory Track set. It was pretty tedious trying out many different combinations, so I made a piece of software for the Sinclair QL computer which enabled me to ‘build’ a lot of tracks on a screen instead of building on the floor. In 1990 I got to change my job from designing models to combining LEGO and computers. I became a concept person, one of the first to look at how to combine LEGO models and digital experiences for the consumer market.”
Despite Bjarne’s interest in computers and love of LEGO there was something else that proved to be of even greater value to the company in the early days.
“I had a good interest in science fiction, the whole Star Wars thing and a TV show called Space:1999. It was a big thing for me at the time to try to construct the weapons from these films, and the Eagle spaceships from Space 1999 especially.”
To land his job with LEGO, Bjarne had been sent a package of bricks and asked to build a space model to accompany his application.
“The model I built for my application was almost like an Eagle from Space 1999. And this brings up a theme I think I’ll continue to touch on, how designers absorb ideas from other creations and recombine them, taking aspects from different areas and applying them to new ones. Which really is a LEGO thing, but also my thing I would guess.”
I wanted to know what it was like working for LEGO at this time. How did the role of designing toys for the company differ from the model building he’d previously undertaken?
“It was a learning curve, but not as steep as I feared. I jumped in and started doing things pretty quickly. It was very much a culture of building and building and building. And most of it of course was pretty useless, but it was still a process, where I tried to absorb some of the LEGO designers’ principles and get feedback on what I’d done. I started by building some twenty spaceships, and I plastered them all with tiles because I thought it would be a cool look, but I learned it wasn’t really the way to go.
I started to pick up more by looking at the other guys who had been there for years, and the results they were getting. And I tried to just imitate design tricks and techniques they used, I think this is also a great way to learn. But you could never get all the way there when you tried to copy something, there still had to be some twist you added.
The other skill I learnt was the craft of building something that didn’t fall apart when you handled it. You would take some models to a kids’ testing session, to see how seven year-olds put something together. That was the biggest culture shock, realising that you were not building for yourself or other designers or marketing; you were building for someone else with different skills and abilities. Children follow this development curve, where you can do certain things at certain ages. Things like symmetry are kind of mind-blowing, if you are five or six you cannot really comprehend this. This is a constant that is not changed, evolution maybe. As you grow as a designer you get that much more skilled, but the kids you are building for remain on the same level. And every year there is a new generation of seven year olds.
As designers we have this craving for creating new things, and new design themes, but normally in a five-year span you gain a completely new audience who doesn’t know or care about what went before. As a result this craving for doing the new stuff is accompanied by a process of doing the same thing over and over. If you look at some of the space models from back then you can see the same themes are conceptually present today. What a child can play with and how they build are not so different. Which is also something nice, LEGO as a product changes but stays the same over the ages. It is still amazing to me that it has been thirty years since I started, and I am still working with LEGO, although as a freelancer now, on products like Nexo Knights that will appeal to both new five year olds and at the same time reference older themes that adult fans will recognise.”
It seemed from Bjarne’s description that the design environment at LEGO was very free and open to creative experimentation. I asked him how design briefs were established at LEGO. Did the designers produce them through experimentation, or did the company develop specific themes or narratives, or stipulate the use of certain elements?
“The biggest limitation was price range and the need for us to replace sets at certain price points. Beyond that there wasn’t a lot of pre-established story, in fact we tended not to talk that much about the back-story, which I also think was a strength. This openness is one of the keys to the longevity of those early space ranges, in that you put your narrative on top of the sets. Of course fans will speculate and deduct a lot of stuff on how it was meant to be, and there are some elements that you can pick out, but the overall story was very broad. That was until we introduced Blacktron and Space Police and so on, where you had more defined roles. In the beginning it was just engineers in space exploring, and there wasn’t a lot of briefing about what that model was doing; it was a lot more about the functionality and the look and design of the model.”
This affirmed for me something I’d instinctively felt about the early spaces sets, that the designs implied pragmatic use but in an oblique way that resisted any implied intention. These explorers and engineers were exploring or detecting something, but what and why remained a mystery. The success here had always seemed linked to specialised pieces and their use. I asked Bjarne about this, who designed the pieces, and was it the designers or wider company policy that decided on which elements were introduced with each range?
“It is a push/pull thing with the design of new pieces. A lot of the design was driven by the introduction of new pieces: this quest for newness or a new twist being generated by these new elements. In the earlier years there were grey space models and blue space models and white space models. It started to get more uniformed when I came in, in the mid eighties, when we started running more themed series with the launch of Futuron and the Blacktron ranges. But the pieces these sets deployed very much came from my boss Jens Nygaard Knudsen, who was a great influence. There was normally a budget for some new pieces to create some novelty every year, and he was driving forward all the time by proposing a lot different pieces.
Very often we would build around new pieces, as was the case with my first model (6884 Aero-Module). It has this big blue piece specific to the Futuron range, and is basically this piece with wings so that it can fly. These new pieces gave the designers the possibility of doing very different things to what had gone before. As a LEGO designer you are driven by how to really utilise these pieces and how far you can push them. I was never content with putting pieces in an ordinary orientation, and always looked to twist them and make interesting shapes.”
I suggested that the same principle applied to fan builders who revisit these themes. In my own case I often look at the palette of pieces that the designers used at the time, and see if I can see things they didn’t do, or find new angles through the use of pieces that weren’t available at the time. Bjarne expanded on this line of argument.
“I think this is unique to LEGO, that you can simply work with existing pieces. I’ve always been somewhat envious of the guys who design the pieces, because it seems a higher level of design somehow. On the other hand it is quite an art to put together existing things in a way that is new. Basically you could do a whole year of new models without any new pieces, it is probably harder but it is possible.”
This love of new pieces, I suggested, was something that both fans and designers shared. As a child I’d actually used the argument that a slightly larger set had more new pieces to persuade my mother to increase my pocket money allowance.
“I think that still works, you see the fans going through the new sets and seeing all the new uses for the new pieces. This attitude says something more about this idea I mentioned before of combining things that already exist. Although I have never really designed any new pieces, a lot of the newness I created happened by combing things that were already there.”
I reminded Bjarne of the example he had given me in his previous interview, that he often looked for elements in other ranges, and transplanted them into space builds in new colours or deployed in new orientations.
“This was a humorous thing, taking some castle pieces and putting them into space. I always wanted to use a baguette piece in space somehow. It would have been awesome. I tried but I never managed to get that through to an actual set. I think that is part of what I enjoy seeing in other peoples’ creations, where they are using really unusual pieces in new contexts.”
Perhaps I suggested this ability to find connections and mix uses of pieces defines the LEGO design process. And I wondered if he noticed this in the development of LEGO design. Is there so much of a distinction today between the builders using the product in the wild and the way designers working for LEGO combine themes.
“Information technology has become a thousand times more complex and multi-faceted because of the Internet. Now you can look at many more creations online, which has amplified and crystallised the capabilities of the builders. As a result there is a much bigger awareness of LEGO as a medium, and as a great creative palette.
To be honest we didn’t have a lot of contact with the outside world in the eighties, apart form the building sessions where children tested the products. But on the other hand, it is a bit false to think of an inside and outside with LEGO, because all the people coming in are fans and have already taken ownership of the product. It is very hard to say what is inside and outside; of course you can eat in the canteen and you get a paycheck, but on a broader level it is so much more blurred, with a lot of the new designers coming in being super-fans who in many cases already know more about LEGO than those of us on the inside.”
I noted that there is something wonderfully democratic about LEGO, anyone can pick it up and use it intuitively, but also that it is not constrained by any specific design principles provided by the LEGO group.
“ I don’t think LEGO in any way would want to constrain its product’s use. It is so much bigger as an idea than the company. The LEGO group take care of the product, but everyone who uses it somehow owns it.”
LEGO seemed to me to be aware that beyond the production of toys it could be used in other contexts, as seen in the development of Modulex. And then there are the cases of LEGO being used to solve real problems such as the Braigo Braille machine. It could even be seen as widely experienced education that now influences many designers who played with the product as children.
“Well there are several ways you could discuss this. I could say that of course I have been influenced by LEGO for a very long time. I had my education through LEGO if you will. It influences everything I do outside LEGO. The basic principle of trying to do quality stuff, to do something that works well, that is just ingrained into LEGO. I think that the modular way of thinking as an approach to designing is also learnt a lot through LEGO.
LEGO also lets you take your time. In the early days there was a lot of time given to us to get stuff right. Of course there was time pressure, but there was also time to develop things. I think now things are much more compressed. Back then there was a three-year cycle. There is not so much times these days. I recently worked on the first little micro scale Minecraft sets. The whole thing was so fast, it was something like six months from idea to product.
As for the broader impact of LEGO onto design, or the more specialised niche ways of using LEGO, of course these applications happen, but I’ve never really been so much into using LEGO directly in other contexts. About ten years ago I was into creative process facilitation, but I didn’t really use LEGO so much. I also tried Serious Play (LEGO’s methodology designed to enhance creativity in business), but it never really worked so well for me. It’s really more about the general LEGO idea and the values behind the product.”
I was interested in the ides of the speed of thinking that Bjarne had suggested LEGO offered as well as it being a way of training us in new modular ways of being creative.
“Yes, it is kind of like you have been marinated in this LEGO way of thinking, rather than using LEGO as such. A lot has been said about LEGO’s influence on software design. And interface design with the whole modular pixelated thing. As well as thinking about object orientated software. The canadian author Douglas Coupland had all these theories about this in the nineties that we were quite inspired by. In his 1995 novel “Microserf” he describes a software called Oop! which is very similar to what you can do today with Minecraft or LEGO Worlds
I worked mostly with the combination of digital and physical products in the nineties. And there was a sense then that LEGO could work as the operating system for a lot of this digital thinking, but the idea was probably a bit too early then. You can a see a lot of it now coming back in a more mature way in the digital worlds where LEGO has found its place in games. There is still a long way to go though in combining LEGO with digital technology at a deeper level beyond branding or IP rights.”
For me, I suggested, the link between video games and LEGO has always been a difficult one to square. Video games begin from a position of immersion, whereas LEGO tends to begin from a point of creating a world. Perhaps the modular coding techniques found in introductory programme systems such as Scratch might be closer to the LEGO experience?
“Totally. The thinking is quite similar, and was what the collaboration with the Media Lab has been all about. The intelligent brick which turned into Mindstorms, the programming language for kids called ‘Scratch’ as you know came out of the Media Lab too. LEGO is such a basic invention somehow, that it will probably exist in one form or another no matter what. Back in late nineties LEGO lost the belief in putting models together; would kids still want to do that, or are they into instant gratification and video games and these other fast moving experiences. But boy was that wrong. It seems like such a big and encouraging thing that children still want to put together that police station out of 500 small individual pieces.
I think the brilliance of what Minecraft got totally right, that we at LEGO hadn’t managed, was to put the ‘why’ into why you want to build on a screen. Like the early space stuff, there was not a lot of story in Minecraft, but just enough that you could start doing something. It has this, low threshold high ceiling, ideology we talked a lot about at LEGO, in that you can basically go on forever; there is always more to do.”
I suggested that you could see LEGO as an established way of playing that was joining with these new modular experiences such as Scratch and Minecraft and informing future generation’s creativity.
“You can also ask is LEGO a nostalgic thing or is it the future, I think it is both. A lot of the territory we are moving into now is more fragmented, with more modular technology being established. On the one hand we have a future orientated convergence where everything goes into the mobile phone, but then again we have this tinkering and maker culture emerging that harks back to something else. I think here LEGO can and will play a part, in both convergence and in tinkering.
I guess it is a bit like the Back to the Future film trilogy. What is fun about that movie and makes it timeless is its future nostalgia; that we now live in that story’s future – back to the future in that context is now the past. In a way LEGO space is timeless in a similar way. If you look at the stuff it still is somehow futuristic and somehow nostalgic and somehow out of time, in a way other sets might not be.”
I expanded on Bjarne’s theme, that the space sets represented a dream of a future that never was, in the way they referenced the optimism of NASA’s space exploration programme.
“There is a lot of NASA DNA in LEGO Space definitively. You also start to see some of this ideology coming back in films like The Martian. I’m hoping for a new era of ambitious space exploration.”
With the tantalising idea of a new era of LEGO space sets I asked Bjarne if he saw any influence of his own work, or potentially even this future nostalgia, in other designers’ work
“Sometimes I get to talk to some of these people, and I quite often get people saying they used to play with my models as kids, which makes me feel very old, but is also very nice. I can’t point out design cues, if you like, in their work though. In terms of hearing that people appreciate those old designs, and that it meant something to them, that is a very deep thing. We are all literally and figuratively building upon each others ideas. Kids, fans, designers, all sharing and adding to the same vast pool of creativity and knowledge. The LEGO system is both the ultimate concrete example and the best metaphor of how new ideas are born and developed.
I also wanted to note that the toys that you never got are a big influence for grown ups and a different sort of nostalgia – these have a big impact on what you build now. I know that there were big sets that I didn’t have but that I looked at in the catalogue. The LEGO catalogue is a great inspirator for kids both back then and now. There is a whole research project to be done into what your toys do to you as a grown up.”
As well as the catalogues, I suggested that the alternative models that LEGO produced for the box reverses also provided tantalising inspiration.
“It is coming back again, this focus on more open-ended creativity rather than only building from instructions. And you can also do that more now that we have digital ways of communicating and sharing creations online. A lot that is very interesting for the future of LEGO comes from the question of how to open this up.”
With this focus on a positive future for LEGO, that combines both a traditional understanding of the joy of building with bricks with the bright new world of digital expansion, we ended our conversation. And if I had been in any doubt before as to the importance of Bjarne’s work in the development of LEGO, his thoughtful observations only went to further convince me that he would have as important a part to play in its future.