by Drew Martin
I watched a short (20 minute) British documentary today about the turnaround success of Lego, and how it serves as a model/case study for reviving a troubled business. A decade ago it was in bad shape but more recently Lego has been experiencing double-digit growth. In 2013 its profits rose 24% and the company produced 55 billion elements, which breaks down to 105,000 pieces per minute. It is estimated that more than 600 billion pieces have been made since it the company's founding in 1932. There are at least 80 pieces of Lego for every human being on the planet. With more than 500 million tiny tires produced each year, it is also considered one of the largest tire makers.
Lego is a merging of the Danish words Leg and godt, which mean "play well." While the trademark element is the basic building block (originally referred to as automatic binding bricks) some of the sets require detailed instructions and enduring patience. The most complex packaged set is the Taj Mahal with 5,922 pieces. Adult enthusiasts for the toy have built much more elaborate creations, which incorporate computers and other hardware. Many of them belong to AFOL (Adult Fans of Lego) and participate in the Lego Mindstorms. But no matter how complex the sets or how sophisticated the projects, the real power of the possibility is in the block itself.
A young employee in the documentary explains that with two 2x4 pegged blocks, it is possible to position them in 24 different ways. With three blocks, there are 1,060 possibilities, and with six blocks there are 915,103,765 ways to combine them. The CEO says that they have a digital-like aspect (0 and 1 combinations) so they are endlessly creative, yet extremely logical.
I grew up with the old-school sets of Legos, in which the most complicated pieces might be hinged shutters or doors. The number of unique pieces being manufactured was once upward of 13,000 units, but the CEO insisted they cut that back to 7,000 in order to help revive the core business.
In my house thousands of Lego pieces sit in big bins, which resemble colorful trash heaps. My first two kids are too old to play with them and my youngest boy does not have a particular interest in them so they remain as detritus of their childhood. I have been trying to make sense of them as basic art materials.
Pictured top, is a Lego mural I have slowly built (whenever I find a stash or piece) for the past year. After a recent doubling in size, it is more than six feet wide. From the beginning, it was important for me to capture the creative magic of my childhood when the pieces were limited so I established some basic rules. For this mural I only used the very thin, solid pieces, without curved edges. Angled edges are included but only if they do not cut back and create a negative space. In terms of the process, I established that there could only be two layers throughout the entire piece, which means there are no stacking or layering of three or more pieces, which keeps the work very flat.
To sift through bins of Lego pieces in order to find the pieces for this mural is time consuming so the last time I did it, I started to also pull out several other types and sorted them accordingly so I could use them for additional projects. Pictured bottom, is another piece I did with only the skinniest pieces of Lego. They are standard height but are only one peg wide. Then I capped the top pieces with the smooth side Legos. My two younger sons joined me when they saw me working on it. This piece wraps around a support column in the center of our house. It is loose (and strong) enough to move up and down the column.