6 things Lego can teach you about design and innovation



How does Lego develop new products? John-Henry Harris, product designer at Lego, recently gave a talk for software developers at YOW! Australia about the design and innovation process at Lego. Interestingly, the innovation process of Lego seems to be built around constraints.

1. You can only use white bricks in the design phase

This forces Lego developers to focus on the essentials, because you can’t camouflage weak spots in the design with flashy colors or other ‘special effects’.

2. You can’t use new, custom bricks

You have to use bricks from the existing Lego library. Developing moulds for custom bricks is expensive, but also: dreaming up new bricks that perform a specific function is just too easy. It’s a shortcut, and it’s lazy.

Again, for Lego, in der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister. Using only existing bricks, designers are forced to come up with innovative (and cheap) solutions to hard problems. In a word: try harder.

3. Nothing beats A/B tests

Harris explained that the Lego design team once made two versions of a bulldozer: a smaller version that was motorized. And another, larger model with more features but without the motor. The team felt sure that the test audience would go for the bigger bulldozer with more features. Wrong: the motor won hands down.

In the same vein, marketing and design are involved in the product development from day 1.

4. Put gloves on

Four year olds don’t do motorics as well as adults.

To see how they experience the world, Lego designers are forced to wear gloves or build stuff with their left hand – that gives them an idea of whether their design is feasible for their customers.

This reminds me of an article I recently read, about designer Brian Collins, who was asked to design the Hershey shop in Times Square. He forced his designers to walk around Times Square – on their knees. The architect wanted his team to remember what it feels like to be a small kid that is dragged through a busy place full of grownups, and of course: to see how they should design the toy shop to attract the attention of the small ones.

5. Reuse is mandatory

Similar to the “no new bricks rule”, some products in the Lego range force designers to develop 3 different models within a set theme, using the same basic set of bricks. The goal is to have as few left over bricks for every model as possible. It’s not the kind of design problem you start your Monday morning with, I imagine.

6. Designing a product to stay within budget is a badge of honor

It’s easy to think that you could do more if you had more budget, and it might be tempting to start a round of corporate politics  - but your inventiveness is better used creating something that stays within the budget.

John-Henry Harris did a TEDx talk in 2010, which you can see here:

Read more on lunatractor / Photo: Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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