The LEGO brick has been named the "Toy of the Century" twice, and has delighted children for generations. What is it about this simple design that gives it such universal appeal?
If you grew up in the last fifty years, it's likely that your childhood took place to the soundtrack of LEGO bricks. That distinctive clatter as a small hand rummages through a box of LEGO, seeking out the perfect piece to complete their vision, has been a feature of family life for many years. The story of how LEGO began, and how far it has come, can help to shed some light on why it remains so successful.
The LEGO Group was founded by Ole Kirk Kristiansen in 1932, when it began as a small carpenter's workshop making simple toys for children. Since then the business has been passed down through the family and is now run by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, grandchild of the founder. “LEGO" is an abbreviation of the Danish phrase “leg godt" which means “play well", and the company has kept this concept at the heart of its vision as the product has evolved over the years.
Building a design classic
In 1958, after more than 25 years spent establishing LEGO as a trusted brand, the LEGO brick as we know it was born. The patented “stud-and-tube" coupling system made the bricks stable and easy to combine, and offered more possibilities than ever. In fact, it has been calculated that six eight-stud bricks can be combined in 915,103,765 different ways.
LEGO is a child's ability to imagine and build
At the heart of LEGO's success is the simplicity of its product. A child's imagination is limitless; they see shapes in the wallpaper and understand stories before they can read. Give a child a handful of LEGO bricks in a few different colours and they can come up with weird and wonderful creations that would never occur to an adult.
At the heart of LEGO's success is the simplicity of its product
Instead of placing restrictions on creativity by giving children a set of instructions or a diagram to follow, LEGO simply offers them the means to bring their imaginary creations into the physical world – then smash it all up and start again.
Moving with the times and sticking to your roots
Of course, these days there is far more to LEGO than the basic brick. As well as offering a whole range of different shaped bricks, windows, wheels and other building materials, the LEGO universe has expanded beyond the physical. There are now countless LEGO video games, and last year The LEGO Movie grossed over $468 million worldwide.
Yet, even though The LEGO Movie isn't something a child can touch, fit together and smash apart, it is still unmistakeably LEGO. Everything in the movie is made of individual bricks, and the film's major plot twist hangs on an awareness that the most important thing about LEGO is a child's ability to imagine and build. The brick, and what it represents, give this film its emotional impact and makes it relatable.
The fact that the brand has been able to successfully branch out far beyond its original niche is proof that, if your basic product is good, consumers will follow you into different markets. Simply put: children love LEGO and will consume it in virtually any form.
Breaking the mould
To discover what truly sets the LEGO brand apart from any other toy manufacturer, we must return once again to the humble brick. If you're a child and your LEGO bricks were produced this year, you can combine them with the bricks your parents had in the 1950s and they will still fit together.
This doesn't sound all that ground-breaking, until you consider the approach of virtually every other toy manufacturer. What's the one factor that guarantees parents will fork out for the latest games console at Christmas? Or the newest version of a toy their child already has? Built-in obsolescence.
Other companies bring out upgrades and design changes which force parents to pay out every few years for their child to continue enjoying the product. It's a model which puts profit ahead of the needs of the consumer, and one which LEGO has rejected.
By keeping their basic design the same, LEGO allows children to build up a vast collection of different bricks which can be combined in infinite ways, enjoyed for years and then perhaps passed on to the next generation. This simple decision has fostered a trust and loyalty from consumers that other toy manufacturers can only dream of.
Children will always have the desire to play, build and create stories – but the tools they use to do so are evolving. LEGO has proven that with the right design, it's possible to keep pace with our changing world and still retain your fundamental values as a brand: simplicity, creativity and fun. "Play well".