Meet the guys who design Lego sets for adult fans of the iconic toy bricks

During a trip to Lego HQ in Billund, Denmark, we met Lego designers Mike Psiaki (right) and Milan Madge to find out the difference between designing Lego sets for kids and adults. – Photos: Lego Group

Lego celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, so it is no surprise that it has a massive number of adult fans, many of whom grew up playing those iconic toy bricks over the years.

And chances are, these adult fans of Lego (AFOL for short) also played with some of Lego’s most classic sets as well, including those from the Castle and Space themes from the 1970s and 1980s.

Well, if you're one of those who did, then rejoice, for Lego has decided to treat us AFOLs with a healthy dose of nostalgia by releasing two sets that are basically updated ‘reboots’ of two of the most classic sets of all time – the Lion Knights’ Castle and the Galaxy Explorer, both under its Lego Icons range.

During the recent Lego 90 Years Of Play media event at the toy company’s headquarters in Billund, Denmark, we spoke to Mike Psiaki and Milan Madge, the designers of the two Lego Icons sets, to get some insights into what it is like designing Lego sets for adults versus children.

The ‘design master’ behind the Galaxy Explorer, Mike Psiaki has been with Lego since 2012, and is currently working in Product Development, focusing on developing new building experiences for experienced Lego builders.

Psiaki has designed a wide range of products for Lego, scaling from a small steam engine built from 56 elements to the 9,090 piece Lego Titanic. His most recent creations were the Orchid from the Botanical collection, a mini Vespa, the Porsche 911, and the Ghostbusters Ecto One.

The Lion Knight Castle is a huge 4514-piece set that will appeal to kids and adults alike.The Lion Knight Castle is a huge 4514-piece set that will appeal to kids and adults alike.

Milan Madge, who created the Lion Castle set, is a designer who focuses on developing new creative building experiences for the Lego Art line as well as other products developed for more experienced builders.

Before he started working on designing sets for AFOLs, however, his early work focused on designing products for toddlers to introduce them to creative building.

His most recent work includes designing the Lego Ideas Central Perk set, the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery, the Santiago Bernabeu football stadium, the Pirates of Barracuda Bay set, and even one of the castles for the licensed Disney Princesses line.

Kids vs adults

The two designers obviously have a lot of experience building sets for different themes and ages. So is it very different designing for kids and designing for adults?

“It's not so different, really. Whoever the audience for one of these products is, we still want to make sure we're making a really fun building experience,” Psiaki said.

“The things that kids find fun and the things that adults find fun are not quite the same, but the principles are very similar, in terms of what makes it fun to build. Like, how much time do you have to spend searching for a brick? How hard is it to look at the instructions and figure out what piece you're supposed to put where?

The Lego Orchid set is one of those sets that have drawn in non-Lego fans.The Lego Orchid set is one of those sets that have drawn in non-Lego fans.“The kids' models are always focused on that experience of building, in the end it's something that you play with. With the adult models ... I mean, you don't play so much with Titanic. It's a little big, it doesn't fit in your bag, and you can’t pick it up! So it's not so much about playing with it."

Madge said that traditionally, Lego has already been making these adult products for adult fans of Lego, but many of the current sets are reaching other people now.

“Look at models like the orchid or flower bouquet, for example – adults who hadn't bought Lego in 30 years or something are now buying that!" he said.

"In that way, that design is actually closer to what we would do for a kid, as it is not super, super complicated (like those) for adults. We try and try and make it understandable for someone that's kind of coming to Lego fresh.”

“Also, with very young age marks like four or five year olds, it differs again completely. It's very funny watching a four year old building a Lego model from instructions – when they get like two or three pages in, 'that's it I'm bored now',” Madge said with a laugh.

“To keep their attention span, you have to design things in a really interesting way, where they get to play with it throughout the building process. So they don’t just build something and then play with it at the end – they want to build a tiny bit and play with it, build a tiny bit more and play with it. Otherwise, they would just lose focus.”

The upcoming Galaxy Explorer is an update of a set launched in 1979.The upcoming Galaxy Explorer is an update of a set launched in 1979.

One example of this is how some of the Disney Princes castles tend to be separate into different modules that can be completed individually and played with without having to complete the entire castle first.

“It's to keep them engaged throughout the whole thing. If you just told them to build something that's going to take them an hour, they're going to want to play with it (halfway through)," Madge said. "If it doesn't fit into their short attention span, they're likely to just take whatever they have, like maybe they've got the wheels on the car, and they're going to play with that instead,

“At some point, we actually found when we're testing stuff, you'd build this nice, fancy model for them, expecting them to maybe want to build this castle, and they're going to play coming through the gates and all this.

“But in the end, what they'll do is they'll just take the bricks and build their own things out of them, which is great. That's exactly what Legos are for!”

Sets designed for kids, like the recently announced Disney Princesses Ultimate Adventure Castle, focus on the play as you build quality of the sets.Sets designed for kids, like the recently announced Disney Princesses Ultimate Adventure Castle, focus on the play as you build quality of the sets.

Nostalgia overload

With the newly announced Galaxy Explorer and Castle 90th anniversary sets, however, the approach is different, as these are reimagined sets from Lego’s history that will appeal to both kids and adults.

The Lion Knight's Castle is an updated version of a classic set from the 1980s, and comes complete with a working drawbridge and portcullis, hidden passageways, dungeon escape routes and spinning waterwheels, and an impressive 21 mini figures.

The Galaxy Explorer, on the other hand, retains all the joy of the classic 1979 Galaxy Explorer model but on a bigger scale, and with added features like a retractable landing legs, sliding doors and a retractable ramp to deploy the rover.

According to Psiaki, these two models, which were voted for by Lego fans around the world, are really focused on the 'play' part of the set.

"Part of that is because we're looking back at the nostalgia and the stories. We want people to feel like kids again,” he said.

“A lot of our adult models still try to focus on that play outside of just the building experience. Even if we're not expecting people to go wild and spend all day playing with it. Maybe they are just going to end up putting it on a shelf and look at it, but we want to have that feeling that it still is a toy, it is light hearted and fun, and made of Lego bricks!”

Leaving a legacy

Ultimately, both designers hope to be able to add to the legacy of Lego with everything that they design.

“I don't know that the models we make ourselves are necessarily going to be remembered 40 years from now, but I hope the building experiences themselves will be remembered – those moments of joy that people have when they put these things together,” Psiaki said.

“We had an intern in our team a couple of years ago, and he was inspired by some of the stuff I had made when I very first started working at the Lego Group,” he said.

“So to get to work with someone that was inspired by my work as a child that was super cool, especially to see him growing up as a designer and starting to make his own things. So I hopeI will be able to inspire not just adults, but also kids to just build and be creative with the bricks.”

For Madge, it is also about seeing where these various designs go in the future. “Every time we make a new element or something, I wonder, ‘How is that element going to be used by kids or by other designers in the coming years?’” he said.

“Maybe a technique that we've used inspires someone to do it in another way. Maybe the angle on the front of this spaceship turns out to be incredibly useful for making some futuristic car. Seeing that evolution of the Lego system is, for me, going to be more exciting than what either of us do.”

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Lego , toys


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