Samuel Thomas Johnson reveals how he got his dream job as a LEGO designer

As a child, Johnson sent LEGO a letter saying he wanted to work for them. Now, he is a senior LEGO designer working on The Legends of Chima. Here he lifts the lid on the day-to-day life of what for many is a dream job.
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How did you become a LEGO designer?

When I was a kid, I wrote a letter to LEGO saying ‘how do you become a LEGO designer? It’s my dream job.’ I was deciding what GCSEs to take and they sent me a reply with a list of qualifications that a generic designer has.

They couldn’t tell me exactly how because they couldn’t guarantee me a job ten years down the line. I did everything on the list and was then finishing a product design degree in Derby when I found out that LEGO would be scouting at an exhibition that my university was displaying at.

I was lucky enough to get chosen to display at that exhibition, which was the New Designers Exhibition held in London every year. I contacted LEGO to say ‘please come and find me, it’s my dream job, this is my story.’ I got an email saying ‘thank you for your persistence.’

Then these guys showed up on the stand and said can you tell about the thing you designed. So I showed them and told them this story about how I wanted to be a toy designer. They said “so you want to work for LEGO?” I think I said ‘I just want a job!’ Then the guy pulled his card out and it was yellow with the LEGO logo on. I was like ‘seriously?’

They wanted to see my portfolio and then I got invited for an interview and then I was lucky enough to get the job.

The interview takes two days. It’s building challenges, drawing challenges and communication challenges. They send you a LEGO box as homework and say bring something cool to the presentation. I kept building things, making documents and then taking them apart so I brought back a stack of paperwork basically saying ‘look at all the things I can make.’

I didn’t take the box back with me, thinking I got to keep it and then when I got to the interview in Billund, everyone else had brought their box. I had to run into LEGOLAND, buy a new box and build something that night to match the picture I had drawn. It was pretty funny. Then I was hired in October 2010.

What’s the day-to-day life of a LEGO designer?

It’s crazy. No two days are ever the same. You really have to be on your toes all the time.

When you have a theme like The Legends of Chima, which is a whole universe, if you’re not consistent, the kids will know. They are more involved than I will ever be. This is their life. They call us to say ‘there’s a mistake on the front of the box’. They know so much about the products.

I work, not only on building models, but also as a design consultant for the animated Chima series we do to make sure the vehicles in the show match the models, in a non-LEGO/LEGO kind of way.

How different is it working on the LEGO Chima models and then on the animated series?

There are a lot of similarities. We have the same feedback on both. I’m lucky to have a talented guy on my team who has been drawing LEGO models for years so I can give him a model and say ‘can you do me some concept art for that?’ and he’ll have it done in an hour.

We have a model, take tons of photos and videos, then do concept art; that’s our starting point. It helps because trying to explain how bat wings are supposed to work in text doesn’t make sense at all.

So the show and the products are closely aligned?

Yes, because the kids are so into the product, the characters have to match 100 per cent. They have to be spot on and the vehicles have to have the same functions. If they don’t, the fans will know.

How much creative freedom do you get at LEGO?

For me, the more constraints you have, the easier it is to be creative.

There are two different sides to LEGO. There’s the IP partners like Marvel, Disney and Warner Bros and these guys send concept art from the new movies. So designers working on that side can work from pictures or models. On my side with Legends of Chima, a lot of it starts with one instruction: build.

We make functions and try to fit them in with animals and what animals do. If a vehicle doesn’t have the traits of the animal it is meant to resemble, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So we may make a function and then feel it makes more sense for a crocodile than for a lion. They are crazy conversations to have. One guy said the other day: “Hey man, do you have small dragon feet?”

What else do you work on at LEGO?

I used to work on Ninjago. I designed a model called The Golden Dragon. I was only on Ninjago for a year and it was the year when Ninjago was supposed to fade out and then we would bring out our new big thing. But the model sold even better than it did the year before, so Ninjago was rebooted and we’ve added even more layers to that world.

The LEGO Movie was a massive hit and we have sequel, spin-offs and a Ninjago movie on the way. But the Movie had a very different look to something like the animated Chima series that you worked on. Why was that?

In Britain, there is a lot of rules with children’s TV and one of those rules is that it can’t just be an advert for your product. That’s why on a lot of animated shows with a toy attachment to it, they are animated in a different style.

So with Ninjago we came up with the idea that the Minifigures are in there still, but they built the machines out of real metal and springs and stuff. That helped it stay away from the rules but also helped add another layer of imagination for the kids. They could imagine pistons in the models so they weren’t just LEGO bricks.

With the Movie, we had a lot more freedom to do whatever we want.

Have you had many moments when one of your LEGO creations didn’t work and you had to scrap it completely?

Sometimes we get to a point where you’ve built a model and then you test it with kids and as soon as they get it in their hands, it just crumbles. That’s why we test it with kids, so we can avoid these pitfalls.

Also, sometimes we have too many models to fit into a product line so some have to be cut or postponed. The good thing about LEGO is that if something doesn’t work for Chima, we can paint it black and see if it suits Batman better! We can take a mechanism and build something else on top of it.

Is there much crossover between the different design teams?

There are quite a lot of teams, one for every brand, but there is lots of collaboration with things like brick colours and new bricks. There are conversations like “if I make this, can you use it?” There’s lots of trade offs between the teams and it’s all about sharing the bricks.

Everything has to work with everything, so if we make a new brick, it has to work with everything.

Logistically, how does a team work together when creating one product?

It depends on the amount of products you’re making. If you’re just making one product, you may only need one guy. Because we make so many different products on Chima, over the year we have between six and nine different designers working on the products.

Whenever we start a product, everyone has to build it. Everyone has to create a version. I made an eagle and we had ten different versions of how an eagle can be mixed with a fire power. Crazy problems to have.

Can you reveal what you are working on now?

Right now, I’m working on next year’s Legends of Chima line and future sets which are still very much under wraps. But it’s very exciting.

Do you have much to do with LEGO Ideas, the scheme that allows fans to submit ideas for LEGO sets which has resulted in the likes of LEGO Back to the Future making it to retail?

I’m actually working on a possible upcoming Ideas model now. When someone’s idea gets to 10,000 votes, they are given a designer to help them through the Review process.

We help to make sure that we can actually make the product out of bricks. There is then a collaboration between a designer and the creator of the idea.

It’s an interesting process that is different from anything else we do. You’re working as a consultant to try and make things a real product.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a LEGO designer?

Having good communication skills is key to working at The LEGO Group. You have to be able to communicate in LEGO bricks. You need to be able to build an idea and expect others to understand what you are talking about.

Drawing isn’t the number one skill. There are lots of famous designers that can’t draw. You see their sketchbooks and you’re like ‘is that supposed to be a chair?’

Are the majority of your colleagues like you in that they were big LEGO fans before joining the company?

It’s a nice mix. Some people come from a design education background and others have come via the fan community. I was both. My hobby was building LEGO and I did a design degree. But some saw their hobby become their work. People see them at exhibitions and get scouted or people can apply via the website and send in their portfolios.

When I went for my interview, I shared a room with a guy called Fred whose whole portfolio was LEGO models. I had one page with my hobbies that featured a couple of LEGO models that I made. His whole portfolio was full of amazing spaceships. He also got hired. His spaceship love got him hired onto LEGO Star Wars, while my interest in pre-school toys got me hired into LEGO City.

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