On last week's episode of The Campfire Project, Chris and I jumped back nearly a century into the workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter from Denmark. Following the Great Depression, Christensen began building and selling children's toys to earn some income. After a few false starts, he and his family eventually found success selling sets of colourful plastic bricks to children. The new company was called Lego.
The Lego story is a fascinating one for two reasons. First, and most obviously, Lego was and remains a tremendous success story. Born from a single idea in the wake of the worst economic disaster of modern time, the fact that Lego has not only survived but thrived for nearly one hundred years is a story worth telling.
But there's more. Lego has always positioned itself as a toy that fosters creativity, using play to bring out a child's own expression through their unique composition of those colourful bricks. This was true even when Christiansen's son, Godtfred, resolved to introduce a "system" into play by creating models arranged by following a set of steps, eliminating complete freedom in favour of a "correct" was to assemble the pieces. Today, the story is the same, despite the models becoming increasing more complex, and often tied into other mega media franchises.
The Lego kits of today are less like toys to be played with than models to be admired. And the extended universes of supporting media, including books, video games, and a blockbuster film, all seem to elevate Lego way beyond the humbleness of those bricks. Instead, the Lego of today is more akin to Disney: a company with exceptionally high-quality products that pushes a public perception of creativity rather than truly instil it in its audience.
I experienced this first hand when recently visiting a Lego Store, coincidentally enough at Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida. There, the juxtaposition between classic children's play and the power of the Lego system made itself immediately apparnet. At every turn, everyone, from small children to parents, were playing with the open tubs of Lego bricks. Constructing, destroying and rearranging them into all types of combinations. But despite having nearly unlimited resources, the end products were all rudimentary and simplistic creations. Adorning the nearby shelves, however, were lush Lego playsets of varying complexity, all big, bright and begging to be put together — for a price. The Lego system trumped individual creativity, hands down. And the life-size models of famous heroes, like Buzz Lightyear and Woody and the Incredible Hulk? They were on hand as mascots, proof that, unlike open play, the Lego system yields expert results.
The concluding paragraph from "Legoland Lost," in discussing the recently released The Lego Movie, bears repeating,
"I remember how my original set of Legos was augmented over the years by newer, bigger, more complex sets. Eventually, my room was filled not with toys, but with decorations, models for me to look at and pat myself on the back for how well I followed the instructions. The dust grew thick as I rarely touched what I had built for fear of breaking it and not knowing how to put it back together. That’s not the style of play, filled with curiosity and exploration, unafraid to break bricks and find better ways they fit together, that Emmett was fighting for."
The Lego story is no doubt a compelling one, but the story Lego tells us is just as powerful, albeit for different reasons. More style than substance, instead what the Lego Group has demonstrate is the power of story to sway our own values, that for all our uniqueness and creativity and untapped potential, we would still much rather follow the instructions, brick by brick.