LEGO Goes Out of the Box

LEGO’s low-tech, snap-together bricks have long nudged children toward play that is structured as much by imagination as by directions. But times and technologies change, as must toys. To update its system for the Internet age—and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its first building set, Town Plan—LEGO has introduced a new online site and tool that lets fans design their own creations—then custom-order them.

For no charge, visitors to the company’s new Factory web site may download LEGO Digital Designer, a three-dimensional, computer-aided design (CAD) program that allows users to create virtual models from a near endless supply of bricks in different shapes, sizes, and colors. For inspiration, the Factory site also features a gallery of examples, detailed instructions on how to construct the items, and building tips from other enthusiasts, such as how to erect an architecturally sound structure (“Reinforce your roof by angling your building inwards”) or realistically simulate an environment (“Try adding a tree or two”).

You can save your finished LDD design as a .jpeg, E-mail it to a friend, post it to the gallery, or purchase it. If you choose the latter, LEGO’s fulfillment center in Enfield, Connecticut will send you the necessary components to build the design and prepare step-by-step instructions (available online as a PDF or three-dimensional file); the pieces will arrive in a customized box with your name, a picture of the model, and a few extra bricks, just in case. The special-order option is currently only available in the U.S., although LEGO plans to introduce it in Europe in the near future.

Early interest in the LDD has been strong, with 700,000 people downloading the beta version of the software (the official version was released August 29) and posting nearly 32,000 models to the site.

LDD is not the first time LEGO has tinkered with its traditional product. Since 1998 the company has licensed several franchises and created themed sets, including a TIE fighter from Star Wars and Hogwarts Castle from the Harry Potter movies.

The company is betting that a broad market exists for customizable children’s toys, and that parents—and adult enthusiasts—will pay a premium for them. LDD made-to-order construction sets will cost more than standard versions, with pricing determined by the size of the model and the components used. LEGO expects the average custom set to be $15-$20 and up. Three LDD building systems—comprising winning designs from a Factory contest held earlier this year—are also available for $40-$130.

In another initiative linked to the anniversary, LEGO has partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation—which recently “landmarked” LEGO’s 1955 Town Plan building system—for the Brick to the Future: 2055 Building Challenge. The competition, which runs through September 16, asks children to design a town center as they envision it in 2055. The five finalists will fly in November to LEGOland Park in Carlsbad, California for a build-off; the winner will be dubbed the “Official LEGO Preservation Architect 2005” and receive the entire 2005 LEGO catalog, among other prizes.

Nathan Sawaya, a former LEGO Master Builder whose Statue of Liberty model is included in one of the three preset LDD collections—believes the virtual version of LEGOs will help attract more casual builders. “Learning to design with LEGO requires a lot of practice, time, and bricks to become proficient,” he says. “Now people can practice without necessarily having to purchase loads and loads of the product.”

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