Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Not Rocket Science....?

Have you ever watched an adult build a LEGO set ? I don't mean an AFOL, who's been building LEGO for decades, I mean an adult who has never previously built a LEGO set. You should try - it's fascinating !

I recently bought LEGO sets as cheeky presents for a couple of people I know well, and I was present when they built them. It was, to be honest, an eye-opener. Both sets were pretty small and simple, with only a couple of pieces to be added at each building step, no Technic elements and no issues of colour discrimination in the instruction leaflets. And yet they found it surprisingly difficult. I constantly had to fight the urge to intervene. Just to be clear, neither individual is in any way intellectually challenged, nor especially clumsy, which made their struggles all the more surprising.

                Set 7634 Tractor - clearly not as simple as it looks....

This experience really drove home to me the extent to which experienced LEGO builders develop skills which they take for granted, but which apparently don't exactly come naturally and which evolve with 'practice'. Key is the ability to quickly recognise pieces, predominantly by sight, but also to some extent by touch. Watching the uninitiated struggle to identify pieces which I would consider to be pretty basic and 'obvious' was initially a bit shocking, but on reflection, why should the non-LEGO builder easily recognise them ? It's different for me - I've spent decades looking at pieces of LEGO from every imaginable angle. I also must have held some of these pieces in my hands literally tens of thousands of times and can probably now identify the vast majority by touch alone. But for the inexperienced builder, some LEGO pieces must be akin to alien objects, never before seen, and only very subtly different to scores of other pieces. It's really no wonder they struggled.

And then there's the act of actually fitting the pieces together. Again, I would have assumed that anyone with all their faculties intact could immediately do this with their eyes shut, but clearly not. There was some very real confusion evident with respect to how the pieces should align with each other. Closely related to this was a surprising degree of difficulty in following what looked to my AFOL eyes like very straightforward instructions. On more than one occasion, getting a piece in the right position was seemingly a process of trial and error, rather than the intuitive act of an experienced builder. Following the building instructions in a LEGO set can occasionally be a bit of a nightmare due to poor colour discrimination between black, dark grey and light grey pieces in instruction some booklets, but otherwise I've generally considered LEGO instruction booklets to be a masterpiece of clarity and intelligent design. There were however times when my adult guinea pigs looked at the instructions with the kind of bemusement that I more would have expected if I'd offered them an ancient Sanskrit scroll or a tablet covered with hieroglyphics and asked them to translate.....

LEGO hieroglyphics - care to translate ?
Finally there was a degree of confusion at the discovery of unused pieces when the model was eventually complete; this I could certainly understand, having myself wondered at times whether I'd absent-mindedly missed one or more building steps when faced with a smattering of unused parts at the end of a build. I've come to know, however,  that if the unused pieces are small (i.e. 1x1 round plates, cheese slopes, technic pins or other tiny elements) they're just a gift from the LEGO company in case we lose any of the little bits....

So what became of these newbie builders ? Well, I'm delighted to report that their faltering first steps didn't put them off the joys of LEGO - they've both since aquired further LEGO sets and successfully built them, with more to come I suspect. In fact, given that I've now recruited a couple more potential LEGO addicts, perhaps the company should pay me commission.... In LEGO, of course.


  1. Y'know, I never put much thought into the cognitive approach of LEGO building...

    I was turned onto them from a young age, although I can't quite remember what my first set was. I could identify what some of my favorite sets were (always the space oriented sets), but there was a point I reached where after having deconstructed, reconstructed, and created from my own head hundreds of spaceships... those suggested age ranges applied to me no more. I found by the time I got to double-digit years, if a friend or family member had got me a LEGO set as a gift (which was often the case) for whatever occasion, I'd often times have it built before the party was even over.

    And so between the ages of 18 and 28, I didn't touch a single LEGO. And there I was, ten years later... I was browsing through the toy store one day and spotted the LEGO Ferrari F1, set 8157, and thought I"d give it a go.

    And it was great. Took me a week to put together, following each and every diagram to build that thing.

    That's what I wanted again. But there seems to be so few out there for the more adult oriented crowd, and paying $100 per set when you only get a weeks build time out of it doesn't seem like the wisest of investments... although, now that I'm looking this set up, I see it on Amazon for over $150, and I paid maybe $80 for it in the store. I look at them more as a puzzle, even though you use the answer key to help construct it. It keeps the mind sharp, I feel.

    Not sure where I'm going with this... but, LEGO should be paying you commission. :)

  2. Thanks for your comments, Daniel.

    I'd challenge your statement that there seems to be little out there for the adult LEGO crowd; my perception is exactly the opposite. We have the magnificent range of modular buildings such as Green Grocer and Grand Emporium, the huge landmark exclusive sets such as Tower Bridge and Taj Mahal, complex LEGO Technic sets if that's your thing, as well as cracking sets like Shuttle Adventure, some excellent LEGO trains, the Architecture theme and others.

    I think that this is somewhat of a 'golden age' for the AFOL, and when I compare the range of sets we have now with the dearth of decent sets in the 90's, for instance, I think we're well provided for considering that we're really not LEGO's target demographic. The main problem is how to afford all these sets without needing a second mortgage, but that's another discussion....

    So check out the current range, particularly the Exclusives if you haven't recently done so - you might be pleasantly surprised....

  3. I may have to do that... I'll admit, most of what I've seen recently of LEGO's has been in the toy stores, so there's probably a grip that I'm missing. There's a LEGO store about 2 hours north of here I just might make a special trip for in the upcoming weeks...

  4. Go for it - you may be amazed at some of the sets you find ! Alternatively, visit the LEGO website ( to check out the current range.