Exploring Lego as a construction kit

Construction kits like Lego are quick and easy to build physical models with. They’re fun, engaging and bring out the playful side in people of all ages. But where do they fall down when it comes to designing objects people would actually want to use? We had a go at building a variety of things with Lego to explore these issues. Six engineers from the University of Bristol sat down with a mega box of various Legos to construct a cup, a 4×4 vehicle, and a recreation of an office layout (the one we were building in).

First up, the cup. Lego bricks are designed so that when they’re assembled in a row there is still a small clearance between them (0.2mm). So whilst none of these cups would be water tight its pretty clear what the models are trying to represent.

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Lego doesn’t have to be constructed entirely orthogonally but it does make models a bit more fragile when only one stud is used (see above left).

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Some of the builds use colour coordination to add additional aesthetic and significance to model parts. Conclusion: colour is an important attribute to keep in a construction kit! Notice how the builder of the green yellow and white espresso style cup (above right) has distorted the link between the build plane and use orientation. In other words, he’s flipped his model 90 degrees after building it.

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Specialised Lego bricks (not your standard 2×2, 2x4s etc) can take a design in a totally different direction (above left). In the cup on the right the builder has approximated a bevel edge by using angled Lego bricks.

So how good is Lego for building cups? It depends on how much imagination you have in considering the final models as complete! The models did give a sense of weight and handling but the orthogonal bricks limit the variety of what can be built.

Next up, 4×4 vehicles.

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The vehicle models were dependent on using more specialised Lego bricks, like the wheels and windshield parts. As soon as these specialised bricks were used it had an effect of constraining the scale of the rest of the model. Conclusion: custom bricks constrain the development of a model.

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Colour coordination was important for some of the builders, others took a more playful approach! During construction there was also a lot of trading and negotiating for certain bricks. You could imagine artificially constraining the elements of a construction kit to represent manufacturing capabilities of a company. Or introduce a cost to bricks to make designers price conscious from the earliest stages of concept generation.

Finally, the room layout.

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With all six of the builders taking part it took about 20 minutes to create a rough scale model of the office we occupy. Colour was integral to denoting meaning and the builders quickly agreed a scheme. Blue for exterior walls, orange for desks, red for computers, black for sofas. The scale of the model is fairly accurate, probably around 80%. What was interesting is that for people who weren’t involved in the building of the model they got it straight away. So while scale is really important for some models (like the 4×4 vehicle and the cups) its not critical to having a useful representation of our office. The problem with the model is that as soon as someone tried to pick up a sub-assembly, like the sofas, the multi-brick construction disintegrated. Colour could be used in this instance to scan the model and 3D print a new sofa. Over successive generations of the model more sub-assemblies could be isolated.

Want to see us build something different? Make a suggestion in the comments below.