Tuesday 26 August 2014

An Art or a Science ?

The Art of LEGO Design by Jordan Schwartz is the latest in a procession of adult-oriented LEGO-related books from No Starch Press to drop through my letterbox. The timing was perfect - it arrived just as I was casting around for some suitable holiday reading - so I gratefully shoe-horned it into my already overstuffed suitcase and took it away with me. The book's a further illustration of the astonishing diversity of LEGO-related print offerings available at present; previous Gimme LEGO book reviews have included a Technic reference manual, a coffee table LEGO art book, a couple of books crammed full of instructions for MOCs of vehicles (here and here) and a Neo-Classic Space BibleThe Art of LEGO Design occupies yet another sub-genre, dealing as it does with a study of building techniques rather than just showing off a selection of finished creations.

According to the press release which accompanied my review copy of the book, author Jordan Schwartz became one of LEGO's youngest-ever designers when he landed an internship in Billund at the age of 18. While working for LEGO he was part of the Creator/Creator Expert team and worked on the likes of Set 10232 Palace Cinema. The Art of LEGO Design is his first book, aiming to provide practical guidance to LEGO builders, cast some light upon the thought processes underpinning the design choices of expert builders, and provide inspiration for those of us looking to build our own LEGO creations.

The book is a hefty, soft cover affair containing around 270 pages in total. The binding is nice and sturdy and the book feels well put together. The simple front cover features the image of a Nepali Tata Truck, a model which is featured in the book; similar to the cover of the recently-reviewed LEGO Space book from the same publisher, the image is glossy and therefore 'pops' against the matt background. The back cover (above) contains a succinct but representative summary of the book's aims and contents, plus a close-up of the author's model of Rob Serling from The Twilight Zone, so you know that he's got good taste in TV at least. After some introductory words we're into the first of thirteen chapters, each of which is split into a number of subsections. The ordering of the chapters seems a little random at times, for instance the chapter which focuses on the use of LEGO figures (minifigures, Fabuland, Belville, Technic and hybrids of these) in builds preceeds the chapter addressing fundamentals of brick, plate and slope geometry; that having been said, there's a comprehensive 3-page list of contents, and that together with the detailed 8-page index means it's easy to find what you're looking for.

Ming the Merciless by Jordan Schwartz
So here's the thing: designing and building your own models from scratch is a very personal thing I reckon - while there may be certain common behaviours and approaches among builders, when it comes down to it we all do things our own way. Anybody approaching the book looking for a definitive guide to MOCing is therefore likely to be disappointed I think - there's no 'right' way to do it, and each builder eventually figures out a style and approach of their own. While reading the book I was struck by how differently Jordan Schwartz approaches the task compared with how I like to do things; I tend to design my MOCs using computer design tools like LDD and don't trouble myself with tape measures and sketch pads which the author deems "indispensable building tools". That being said, I did find it interesting to observe the design and building process through the eyes of another builder, particularly someone with such an impressive track record, not to mention a different building style to mine.

Battle of the Leviathans by Ryan Rubino
What struck me most when I initially dived into the book was the sheer variety of content; I guess some might perceive the choice of subjects covered as idiosyncratic or even incomplete, but in reality it's just a reflection of the author's own modus operandi and preferences and it once again highlights the subjective and individual nature of the design and building process. Having discussed "Inspiration and Preparation" in the first chapter, followed by the use of the various types of LEGO figures in chapter two and then basic brick, plate and slope geometry in chapter three, there's a lengthy section on planning, building and framing mosaics. This chapter features the first of a number of brief interludes where the author 'interviews' renowned builders who specialise in some of the techniques, styles and MOCs featured in that particular chapter. In this case there's a short Q & A with Katie Walker a.k.a. eilonwy77 on Flickr whose mosaics are I think among the best in the business. I like these digressions - they reinforce the point that there's no "right" way of doing things and provide insights into the way that a number of outstanding builders go about their business. After patterns the book moves on to textures, predominantly the use of fabric and rubber elements; while some of the techniques presented give rise to effects which perhaps don't look sufficiently 'LEGO' for my taste there's no doubting the fact that the techniques are ingenious and impressive. We then move on to ways of creating organic effects and stylised models; this was a particularly interesting chapter for me as I really struggle to create realistic curves in my designs. Battle of the Leviathans (above) is one of the examples presented to illustrate the use of bows, slopes and wedges to produce organic effects, and the chapter also addresses the use of flexible elements such as hoses to produce believable curves; to wrap up the chapter, Tyler Clites a.k.a. Legohaulic is interviewed about the distinctive style of his models (such as Mind If I Wet My Whistle below).

Mind If I Wet My Whistle by Tyler Clites
Subsequent chapters touch on the use of natural and artificial lighting, perspective and colour to create specific effects, after which the focus shifts to designing and building specific types of models - animals (both real and fantastical), trees and foliage, large-scale figures, cars and other vehicles, buildings (both exteriors and interiors), mechs, spaceships and dioramas - see, I told you the content was diverse ! Some of these chapters feature interviews with notable builders, including a couple of builders whose creations just so happen to be among my favourites; I was particularly pleased to read the interview with Luke Hutchinson a.k.a. Derfel Cadarn who is responsible for some of my favourite MOCs ever and whose work I've previously featured on Gimme LEGO. There's even a brief section on photographing, Photoshopping and sharing your work, although to be honest this is probably too high level to be of much value unless you're a complete novice.

Twilight of the Gods by Luke Hutchinson
As previously stated, anyone buying this book in the hope that it'll hold their hand and walk them step by step through the proces of designing and build their own models is likely to be disappointed - it's not a MOCing instruction manual. What it is is one experienced builder's account of where he finds inspiration for his builds. some of the things he considers when designing models, and a selection of building techniques, tips and tricks that he employs, rounded off by a showcase of MOCs which he uses to illustrate some of the points that he makes. This is supplemented by choice insights from other renowned builders. I definitely enjoyed reading it, and not just because I took it away with me on holiday and read it while sitting on the beach sipping cocktails.... Whether or not a particular reader will end up inspired and better equipped to design and build their own masterpieces is hard to say, though; I actually suspect that everybody will walk away with something slightly different. I took away some ideas for a few new MOCs of my own and learned a couple of new building techniques that I'll definitely try out; others might be blown away by one or more specific example MOCs in the book and try to reproduce them, while some folks might not find much at all that's new to them.
Woolly Mammoth by Jordan Schwartz
In summary, if you're an enthusiastic builder looking to develop your skills then you'll almost certainly find some content of interest regardless of your ability. If however you're hoping for a step-by-step guide to designing and building your own creations then this isnt't really it, and nor I suspect did the author ever intend it to be. You could argue that much of the building technique-related content can be found for free on the web, but the inclusion of interviews with renowned builders adds welcome value by bringing some different perspectives into the mix, and overall it's a decent read.

The Art of LEGO Design has an RRP of $24.95 US, although at time of writing it can be obtained for less than this from Amazon in the UK (click here to buy) and the US (click here to buy). My thanks to No Starch Press for sending me a copy of the book to review on Gimme LEGO.