Growing up, I could burn through an entire day playing with "Legos." It was as if building the baddest spaceships, tanks, cars, and fortresses filled a void I didn’t even know was there. I remember being about seven or eight and telling my mom that I’d never get into drinking or drugs in high school because my friends and I would still be "building Legos."

That ended up being totally true-ish. I've still got LEGO on the brain. Reading articles on branding and user interface, I often think of the deeply familiar and user-friendly experience building with them can be.

As I dig into new sets with my kids, it's remarkable to me how steadfastly LEGO maintains the upper hand in the face of numerous licensing agreements with other pop culture juggernauts.

After the holidays, as I was putting together the 717 pieces that make up Jabba's Palace, the simple tasks of mining the collection for the right bricks and clicking them together, again and again, resonated deeply on an emotional level. Plugging Jabba’s head into his body was a LEGO thrill, not a Star Wars jolt.

LEGO sells sets reimagining the official worlds of Marvel, DC, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Harry Potter, Toy Story, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Hobbit, and even Frank Lloyd Wright. I've built in almost every new genre, and each time it's LEGO that defines the experience.

I watch my kids free-build from two random nylon boxes swollen with loose pieces, and love that they don't see a reason for keeping sets segregated. Luke's head looks cool on Leonardo's body, and the hybrid Mini Figure can fly what remains of the Batwing. No matter what logos you paint on them or how you stack them, they always look, perform, and feel like a LEGO.

Like the very best user experiences, playing with LEGO toys is familiar and rewarding. Plenty of people also crave the experience, which is not surprising when you examine the interface.

The LEGO system is easy to learn to use and offers consistent and memorable results. Like Ikea furniture, you can follow wordless instructions and build exactly what's pictured on the box. You can also break everything apart and build something completely original using pieces pressed this year along with faded red and blue bricks from the '70s.

The Danish toy-makers have been at it for over 100 years (though they've only been making plastic bricks since the late 1940s), so they’ve had plenty of time to fine-tune (and burrow into our shared consciousness). Still, what they get right is the golden acorn: easy to use and useful by design, LEGO offers a near-perfect user experience. That their presence has a tactile familiarity that trumps any brand they associate with is equally impressive from a marketing perspective.

What can user-centered designers take away from all of this? Is there value in a digital interface that takes the basic elements at-hand and configures new ways to produce rapid, rewarding results that seem limitless, or is that a messy pile of bricks? What marketing lessons are there? If you create amazingly fluid and effective software, will it automatically imbue a brand with its core traits (for better or worse)?

Have you had similar ponderings on LEGO or other childhood playthings? Tell us all about them.


Another amazing article. This is so sick! Great usage of LEGO!

Just came across this article, and I completely agree with you about the power of LEGO. A couple of thoughts; first, I think LEGO entered a "dark ages" phase at some point (late 90s - aughts) when they moved their design to hyper-customized pieces that looked more like Playmobil (not that I'm opposed to Playmobil, but its a totally different UX). I got a free-to-me Harry Potter castle set that barely resembles LEGO. I think that in the last few years they have gone back to their roots, even with an increase in "partnerships" with branded content. But the shift back has allowed for your Leonardo Skywalker, which is awesome, and exactly what my 5 year old loves to build. Secondly, the temptation is there for LEGO to follow the likes of Minecraft in terms of software that emulates the LEGO experience, I'm not sure I'm with them as there is something tangible to the blocks that is different than virtual. Minecraft is about building within the landscape, and interacting/collaborating, so it makes sense. Most LEGO play is about building that awesome rocket-powered-police headquarters, flying it around and then rebuilding something new, Not sure that can be captured the same way in digital, I mean I guess you could just "reset" and start new, but I don't think its the same. Then there is the LEGO Minecraft collab (oy vey!). I think that there are two areas where LEGO and digital go great. One is in the creation of stop-motion movies, and when my kids get older, I plan to allow them to use tech to make their own movies (we limit tech pretty heavily right now). So things like the LEGO Movie, and LEGO movie-trailers are great, and inspirational, but to me they are about bringing in the element of storytelling. The second is in the Mindstorms/Robotics/Coding realm, which offers tremendous benefits for easing into that world. 

I absolutely agree with the author. Lego constantly challenges us, or rather we challenge ourselves!

This is amazing, thanks for great content!

The only UX detractor for LEGO bricks? The are really good at inflicting pain on unsuspecting feet. Good article by the way. LEGO is surprisingly timeless.

Regarding your question " Is there value in a digital interface that takes the basic elements at-hand and configures new ways to produce rapid, rewarding results that seem limitless?" I would point to a clearly successful example - Minecraft.

A powerful turtle, indeed, naz.

Thanks, Nathan. I was locked into the vernacular of childhood :)

Glad to have it all sorted out now.

@Josh - 'Legos', specifically, is an Americanism, as well as a colloquialism. The standard vernacular is simply 'Lego', with the correct phrasing being 'LEGO bricks'.

Ex LEGO employee, btw :)

Growing up I enjoyed playing with Logo, part of the reason was because I was easily able to build my imagination into a "wow moment" for my parents and friends- very rewarding.

Great insight, Chris. I can imagine that would be very useful.

Thanks for bringing this topic up! As an avid fan and user of LEGO as a kid in the '70s and as a dad in '10s, I always enjoy creating with the bricks. I like your thinking about LEGO as the perfect user experience. I'd go even further to say they are very inspirational for a web designer. I see a 1x1 brick as a pixel. I build websites with pixels like I build models with LEGO.

I used to play with legos when I was a kid also... Maybe it's time to open that old box again. :)

I actually have a LEGO brick tattoed on my wrist. Got it when I was finishing my degree in Architecture 5 years ago, and now in the UX/IxD world I am always learning more about it as a symbol.

Thanks, T.R. ... Legos!

Great insight! I think Legos are a great analogy for the current design and UX trends --- simple, colorful, and (perceived) familiarity.

p.s. I think it's spelled "perfect" ;)

Thanks, Nathan. I (perhaps unwisely) chose to go with the vernacular that was common growing up: we were always building "Legos," not "Lego" or Lego bricks."

And you're absolutely right, the company has had 100-plus years of experience refining toys, not bricks :)

Interesting read!

Incidentally Lego the company has been around 100+ years, but the bricks haven't. Also, the plural of Lego is Lego :)