Developing from a hobbyist model maker to Design Director of LEGO Star Wars is a seemingly impossible career path but that is excatly the route Jens has taken. Read on and drool with jealousy. #DreamJob
Probably a silly question but were you a fan of LEGO as a child?
As a kid I was a huge fan of LEGO. Even though I never thought about it as a place to work or that I would one day make a career. I loved LEGO as a toy, but was already fascinated about LEGO design as a kid. Often I wished for sets, just to get some new unique pieces, just to enjoy the design, and later to use them in my own LEGO creations.
Any particular set stand out in your memory?
The LEGO train set 116 from 1968 is probably the LEGO set that I have most memories of. I spent many many hours playing with that!
You’ve been working with Lego for close to 19 years but you studied to be a lithographer. Can you describe your creative professional route to your current position?
Well… Trying to make a long story short… I was educated as a lithographer, and spent 10 years in the graphic business. The career shift happened more or less as a coincidence! I have been a scale modeler my whole life (Plastic kits of mainly WW II subjects: Tanks, ships and planes, classic wooden ships, ships in bottles and many other things). I was contacted by LEGO at a model exhibition in Copenhagen. I was hired initially as freelance designer for making prototypes, but shortly after I got a permanent job as model designer. Over the years at LEGO, my job has developed more into a leadership role.
What does a day in the life for you look like? In Billund, where you are based, how visible is LEGO as a company in the community?
I live close to work during the weekdays. On the weekends I stay with my girlfriend in northern part of Jutland. To explain a typical day is not easy! However, I can say that no two days in the office are the same! And, yes, I do have a lot of interaction with other creatives, but that is mainly via colleagues here at work, but as you know, this is a huge organization, and there are a lot of creatives here at LEGO. LEGO means everything for the local community! Billund, where we are located, is a small city, so everything is more or less connected to LEGO!
What has been your favourite project to create and how has that informed the rest of your work?
Creating new models with new features and functions is always exciting. Also making new improved versions of models that have been done before is fun, and sometimes very challenging!
What has been the most challenging LEGO Star Wars product that you have worked on?
The most challenging project I have worked on was the 10179 UCS Millennium Falcon. It was the biggest LEGO set at the time it was launched.
What are the reasons for abandoning a project in development?
Abandoning a project can happen for several reasons. We do a lot of testing with kids, and if they do not like a model, it will most probably not make it as a product!
Are there rules in using custom pieces for sets. For instance how much customization are you allowed to use for a set?
We always try to make the models out of existing LEGO elements, as we want to stimulate creativity, and show that you can create almost anything with LEGO. Sometimes though, there are shapes that we cannot recreate (often clear cockpit canopies). They are then made as new elements. But when we do so, we make the element as generic as possible, so it can be used for much more than just that specific LEGO Star Wars model.
Please tell me each of the designers have their own mini-figure of themselves?
Some designers have made themselves as a minifigure, but I have not. With my hairstyle, it would be too easy! Just a standard minifigure showing the bare stud on the head!
How do you approach a new project? How has this working process changed since you began with advances in technology or does it always start with a pencil and paper? Are you still involved in designing now or are you more of a project manager?
Regarding model design, not much have changed over the years. As LEGO Star Wars is based on reference supplied by Lucasfilm / Disney, we normally start building with physical bricks. We can build digitally, but most designers prefer to work with physical bricks, as it is the only way they can check stability, or functionality on the model immediately. I am definitely still involved! Maybe a bit too much if you ask the designers! Most of it is ideas and feedback to them, but occasionally when I have the time, I am still developing models myself.
What’s it like to collaborate with Disney and Lucasfilm and how involved are they in the design process and decision-making?
We have been collaborating with Lucasfilm and Disney for many years now. We have a very good relationship because Lucas/ Disney have a very good understanding of LEGO and what makes a good LEGO product. All that we create has to be approved so they are involved a lot. Setting the assortments is done in close cooperation.
Have you or any of the design teams any involvement in the movies, video games and animated TV series? Is ‘Everything Is Awesome’ piped throughout the corridors of your studio?
As the movies, games, and TV series are so linked to the physical products, designers are very much involved in developing this kind of content. And yes! ‘Everything Is Awesome’ is a very popular song in our offices!
How soon are you talking to license holders such as Disney regarding new lines that might be coming out from movie that mightn’t be due out for a few years?
Usually we begin discussing a new product launch about a year and a half before the products appear on shelf.
I have seen call outs for designers to work at LEGO that go through various competitive rounds until you find someone. Is this the main way you recruit new designers or do you have a team scouring recent grad shows? Do they need specific software skills, curiosity, are logical yet creative and a love of the product? How often does this process happen? Are all designers based in Denmark or have you remote studios around the world?
We do go to grad shows, but typically we find potential new LEGO designers as they reply to open job positions with their resume and portfolio. Some are later invited to workshops in Billund. These workshops are a good way for us to select the right candidates for each position. We need different skills for different design positions, but love for LEGO and the LEGO products is of course essential! All product design and designers are based in Denmark.
How important are non-industry/work related influences on how you think and produce work? Can you give an example of an important non-industry influence for you?
Like most people, we get inspired by many other things than just work related stuff. It can be what we see, hear, personal interests, trends etc. But our main inspiration is children and how they think, act and play.
What is the reaction of people when you tell them you are a designer at LEGO? It must be like saying you’re one of Santa’s Elves!
You are absolutely right! But children often react like: “Design LEGO” You Can’t design LEGO?! LEGO is just there!
Are children or age specific non-employees involved in testing products? How important is considering the playability and build level to the design over say visual accuracy?
Playability and buildability means everything for us! Therefore, children are involved all the way throughout the design process, both via play and building tests.With the overall design, we always strive to make the best products balanced between visual design, buildability, and playability.
- 75060 Slave I. (I love that model)!
- Sideshow Collectibles General Grievous.
- All the secret plans of future LEGO/Star Wars stuff.
- My Lightsaber. (Also used by Darth Maul).
- My Mont Blanc pen and notebook.
- Sideshow Collectibles Nosferatu (Vampire from an awesome 1922 horror movie)!
- Gaston Lagaffe (because I love comics)!
- Homer Simpson devil angel.
- 75149 Resistance X-wing.
- Cigarettes (A very bad habit)!
- A watch magazine. (I LOVE mechanical wristwatches)!
- A can of “Crab Extra” from Tintin “The crab with the golden claws”).
- 75114 First Order Stormtrooper.
- A 3/1 scale prototype of the Queen Amidala minifigure.
- Picture of my girlfriend.
- Shelves with A LOT of different LEGO elements!