When Lego launched its minifigures 30 years ago they were an instant success, with film tie-ins including Star Wars and Harry Potter ensuring their continued popularity. Pamela Buxton traces the importance of standard components in toy design
Harrison Ford has won many accolades but there’s one he can be really proud of – he’s the only actor to have been immortalised as a Lego minifigure twice, first as Han Solo and then Indiana Jones.
It’s quite an honour. The minifigure, which this month celebrates its 30th anniversary, can now claim to be something of a design icon. No fewer than four billion figures have been produced in 121 different designs, with the basic character adaptable enough to take on the guise of everyone from Darth Vader to Harry Potter. A quick trawl of the Internet throws up blogs given over to mock-ups of unlikely celebrity minifigures (anyone for a Jack the Ripper play set?) and, even more preposterously, Lego porn.
It’s the integration of the play figure within a construction set that makes the Lego minifigure stand out from rivals such as Playmobil, according to Catherine Howell, collections officer at the Museum of Childhood in London, which has some of the early generic figures, as well as space and Hogwarts sets.
‘The beauty of Lego is that everything fits with everything else and you can create these amazing hybrid worlds. Even when children have figures that aren’t generic they will make up their own stories [with them],’ she says.
The figures themselves appeal to children’s love of imaginative play, she adds, and follow a long tradition of children’s mass-produced play figures dating back to 19th century wooden boxed sets of figures from Germany, and Noah’s ark toys.
Lego’s first seven minifigures were created in 1978 by Danish designer Jens Nygaard Knudsen on the themes of town, space and castle.
He initially worked by carving Lego bricks into figures, creating 50 prototypes before he eventually came up with a figure three bricks high with eight movable parts. These provide ample scope for adaptation, especially the hollow head, which can accommodate various accessories such as different hairstyles and hats.
The minifigure’s key asset is that it fits all Lego systems, either sitting or standing. It can also hold a Lego brick in its hand. Initially the figures had yellow faces with happy or neutral expressions, but in 1989 expressions were introduced to denote good or bad characters, and in 1999 the first specific characters – Star Wars – were introduced. By 2003 minifigures had authentic skin colour. Throughout, the basic design is unchanged.
‘One of the things that is so good about the minifigure is that just by giving them a new hat, say, and decoration, you can give him, or her, a completely new personality,’ says Matthew Ashton, Lego creative director of play themes.
He works with a team of five graphic designers and five sculptors/part designers to come up with accessories and adaptations to give the basic figure new identities. For a childhood fan of Lego figures and enthusiastic collector, it’s something of a dream job. Attention to detail is a high priority, says Ashton, especially on IP characters such as Batman. For the new Indiana Jones figure with trademark whip and hat, Ashton even went to a script reading with Indiana Jones film director Steven Spielberg as part of his research for the new set. The range is currently Lego’s top seller and is racing off the shelves, according to Hamleys.
The play figures, especially the IP tie-ins, have enabled Lego to constantly update its iconic product – essential with rivals such as Mega Bloks, which linked up with Pirates of the Caribbean to produce its own play sets and figures.
‘We have seen growth in the past three years because we’ve worked so hard on getting the product right and on joining up with third parties such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars,’ says Fiona Wright, UK marketing director of Lego. ‘We’re very much out there on our own with the quality of the product and the role play we can offer.’
Rivals are inevitable. But the minifigures’ adaptable design and inherent suitability for imaginative play should stand them in good stead for easily another 30 years as a childhood staple. •