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The Column icon The Column: Issue 19

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Lego Building: Art and Design
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Lego Man Montage

Some view designers as somehow less than artists, others think it's the other way round. What's the true difference between art and design? Taking Lego as the creative medium it's easy to see how the boundaries blur...

Building Bonds

When you play with Lego are you designing a model or creating art? I guess the answer's the same for most questions: it depends.

I've played with Lego since I was a small boy and now Lego has become the most loved pastime of my six year old son. One of the most powerful qualities Lego encourages is play. There's often no plan or intent as we sit on the floor clicking parts together. Gradually something emerges that sparks the imagination.
We've done this ever since my son first pushed Lego bricks together at the tender age of a year and a half. We started out with Primo (big Lego bricks), then progressed to Duplo, great bricks for making buildings which we continue to use for that purpose. Standard Lego bricks are great for detailed models, but too small to create anything of any large scale in a short time.

What I've always been very struck by is how my son has counted me as playing with him when often the two of us sit quietly, each working on our own creations. In his eyes, the act of sharing in the creative activity is enough to cement our shared status. Of course there are times when we glance across at the other for inspiration, but most of the time he prefers to surprise me with his finished model. After that he wants to use our models in an imaginative game.

On reflection a lot of play's like that. The fact that someone's enjoying the same activity is a bonding experience in itself. I guess that's why a trip to the cinema will continue to prove as popular in the future even if we've all got floor to ceiling LCD screens at home.

A Brief History of Lego

From producing a few simple rectangular blocks, Lego now makes a vast array of complex interlocking pieces. Remote controls, motors, and software further extend its potential to manipulate and animate real world and virtual models. Different contexts have also emerged to promote and further our thirst for building and creating with Lego. Legoland theme parks offer children opportunities to ride giant Lego models and experience the adventures of the Lego characters first hand, and the Lego website delivers great online games including the groundbreaking Junkbot.

In 1932 Ole Kirk Christiansen, a master carpenter and joiner from the Danish village of Billund, established a small company producing toys. By 1934 the name Lego was decided upon as the company name from the Danish words 'LEg GOdt' or 'play well' - in Latin the word means 'I study' or 'I put together'.

In 1947 the company invested in a plastic molding machine and made the first 'Automatic Binding Bricks' available only in Denmark. By 1951 the bricks were rebranded as 'LEGO Mursten' or 'LEGO Bricks', and in 1967 LEGO released the DUPLO brand. Today you'll find Lego Primo, Bionicle, Technic, Designer, Creator, Racers, and other distinct targeted brands.

There are some who feel Lego has lost its way by offering so many choices, but the old Lego bricks are still there for those who want them. The Lego world is just a whole lot bigger.

But Is It Art?

So, is creating a Lego model art or design? If you're simply following the well illustrated instructions from the pack then it's neither. Perhaps there are some that do this, but they'll not buy a lot of Lego, nor get that much out of it. If however you start building something new out of the scattered bricks, then you've moved into the field of creativity.

Design often entails working out the form or structure of something by creating plans. It's unusual to create formal plans for an original Lego model, but there's no doubt at least an immediate plan of action is required to make a model that's satisfying. What pieces will I need? What colour? How long might this take? It's all in the head.

Art is concerned with the creation of something beautiful or significant in some way. To the hundreds of thousands of Lego builders using actual and virtual bricks, that definition marries with what they do. Indeed Eric Harshbarger, the developer of Brix, makes his living from creating large Lego artworks.

Building a Lego model is instinctive by nature. If there is an end product, it used to be the case that it was rarely seen by others, but over the last ten years that's changed. Lego's website encourages it's members to share their creations and ideas. Apart from Lego's own superb Flash content and programs, freeware dedicated to creating Lego like LeoCad and MLCad (part of the outstanding core CAD freeware collection LDraw), has emerged to further stimulate creativity with Lego as the medium.

Brix, developed by Eric Harshbarger allows you to create Lego-like models online using over thirty five different pieces. You can have a go right now. You tell me, are you designing or creating art when you move the blocks around? Play Brix (opens new window).

The Creative Experience

Despite a huge community of Lego enthusiasts, Lego is not seriously thought of as a creative medium, after all, it's a toy, right? For me however the medium is irrelevant. Whether it's a pen and paper, software, a plastic brick, no matter. Art's not about the medium, it's about what's experienced.

I think it's a positive advantage that creating Lego models isn't generally viewed of as an artistic activity, but more as creative play. Perhaps that's the very reason kids aren't intimidated or 'culturally discouraged' by using it in the first place. It's interesting that we only buy Lego for our kids. As we grow older we sometimes miss out on the most fun...


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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