Lego and Adaptive Design

Creative types (artists, designers, programmers) often proudly state that their favourite toy as kids was Lego, as it allowed them to build something without any restrictions and nurtured their imagination. Now there are huge adult hobbyist and hacker communities based around building crazy things with Lego.

The nature of Lego has always been geared towards adaptability - you are literally provided with the building blocks, and allowed to create anything you want. It’s probably the most open-ended toy you can buy. (Some newer lego box sets provide you with the pieces and instructions to create an exact replica of what’s on the box - boo to that!)

I guess the people at Lego appreciate the fact that a lot of their customers are basically hackers; when their 3D digital Lego designer software was modified by fans recently, they encouraged the development, even though the changes to the software allowed users to order only the bricks they needed for their own designs, as opposed to predefined collections.

All it took was being open-minded enough to see that their biggest fans weren’t trying to rip them off; they were trying to improve Lego’s products in a way that, just maybe, the company’s own designers hadn’t thought of.

A couple of years ago when Mindstorms, Lego’s electronic and robotics kits, was being hacked by home users, they opened up the propriatary programming source code, and spawned a whole community, which in turn improved the product.

This is a pretty adaptive design-friendly approach to running a business, and it’s cool to see Lego still empowering their fans to use their toys in the way they want by remaining true to their product’s values.

Anyway, all of this popped into my head when John showed me an animation he’d made for his presentation at TechCamp this weekend. He used LDRAW, a Lego digital modelling program, to create a storyboard explaining the Semantic Web using little Lego men in an office scenario. Step aside, Powerpoint.

What is it about those bright little bricks that brings out the hacker in people?

— 11 Oct 2005