LEGO BrickHeadz have received a mixed reception among AFOLs: you either love 'em or loathe 'em, it seems. However, I think we can all agree that they are an interesting product line, particularly given that they evolved from a personal project.
At the LEGO Fan Media Days at the start of the month we had a chance to talk to Austin Carlson, who came up with the original concept, and Marcos Bessa, who is now working on them, to find out how they came about and what the future holds for the series. We also discussed Austin's role as graphic designer and his input to the collectable minifig series.
Brickset: How did you get involved with Brickheadz?
Austin: Originally, Brickheadz was just a fun side-project for me. I made a gift for my co-worker, an elephant, and that was basically the start. I wanted to continue making them, and since the style was so simple to replicate I started making them for all my co-workers.
I would arrive in the morning and make a simple build of one of my coworkers and present it to them, and they slowly started spreading around the company.
Then, when I was sitting next to Matt Ashton one day he asked me to pitch the idea to the company, to see if they could be turned into a product.
A lot of people jumped in and contributed their ideas. I submitted the ones I had already designed, so we had around 90 or so at the presentation. It continued to carry on; we just started hammering them out, and we ended up with around 300 variations in the end.
The original elephant and BrickHeadz versions of Austin and Marcos.
Was it difficult to turn a personal project into a product? And to get people to buy into the idea?
Austin: The good thing was that Matt Ashton was the one that asked for it. He’s the Vice President for design in the company, so he was the one that really had the power to make it happen. The pitch was successful so we just started running with it and made it into a product.
Initially, I believe they were going to be sold in brand stores only, but they are now in quite a few shops in the UK now.
Austin: Yes, and I got to see them in quite a few US stores when I was visiting recently.
Marcos, how have you been involved?
Marcos: I wasn't involved at the early stages; I joined the project six months or so ago, when we started planning the products to come after the first series. I’ve now become the lead design on the product line. We've have been strategising on what’s coming next, and working on new characters. But my involvement is still very secret, because I can’t talk much about what I’ve worked on so far!
You’ve probably seen that there are many fan models based on the core Brickheadz design. What do you think of them? Have you seen any that you were impressed with?
Austin: Yes, a few; I don’t get involved in the fan community as much as much as I used to. Since joining the company, my satisfaction with getting as many bricks in my hands as I can has been met, so I don’t go on the fan communities often. But we do see the designs pop up, and the ones that I see are always hilarious, and I always enjoy seeing people do their own takes. So it’s very inspiring to see that continue on.
Did you have to change the 'core' of the BrickHeadz design from that of your original models?
Austin: In the earliest stages things did change around. If you look at the original elephant, you can see there is a lack of real hands, and the base was slightly different. Then we needed them to be able to hold accessories; we needed printed eyes, decoration, things like that. So there was an evolution of the design, and as it became more defined we developed a set style guide.
Specifically, it defined the height of the body, the legs, the arms. Where we start to play around a little bit is usually with accessories and the hair, what’s iconic to the character. The one that I keep referencing is Black Widow, because of the amount of detail in the hair. But it makes a silhouette of the character that’s easily recognisable; it’s the same thing with Batman and the pointy ears. So when it comes to head accessories and items, stuff like that, we need to make sure it’s included, but at the same time we still have to meet our own style guide, much like how every minifigure is designed.
Marcos: The more characters we create and bring to the family, the more questions it raises [about the core design]. There are characters that make an exception to what we created as a core, and then we have to figure out how we represent this thing, this detail. So it’s always interesting to have these challenges!
Generic BrickHeadz, including a sitting down variant, and a scaled-up version
I guess Belle is a good example of what you have achieved within that style guide: with frilly dress and shoulder pads and so on!
Austin: Yes! [Laughs]
Do you have a favourite character, one you’re particularly proud of?
Austin: Well, from the official releases the one I really like the most is Black Widow, because there were about three designers who worked all together to get that one done. It’s amazing how something so simple or cute looking involves so much work from three different people. But that’s probably the reason I love her the most, because it was a shared thing among the designers.
Austin, you mainly work as a graphic designer, right?
Austin: Yes. My involvement on Brickheadz has been completely handed over to Marcos now. I was originally hired as a graphic designer, that’s my job title, so for the first series of Brickheadz I was juggling building and doing graphic design at the same time. It was a difficult task because I had to balance them, but now all the responsibility for Brickheadz has been handed over, I can go back to focusing completely on the collectable minifigure series, and other graphic design related work.
Are you happy handing over your 'baby' then?
Austin: Yeah! I’m quite happy with it.
Marcos: We still check in every now and then on the critical questions, and we ask for the opinions of Austin and the other designers who have been heavily involved in the first series. They have the expertise level that is always appreciated to discuss these questions.
As a graphic designer, then, what is your role? What other lines are you working on?
Austin: For me, it’s mostly doing minifigure designs. I’m part of a team that’s responsible for anything decoration wise, such as decorated elements and stickers, but more importantly for all of us it’s the minifigure. So I’d say a lot of my job focuses on character design, and since I work on the collectable minifigures series, it’s always about getting the most iconic characters recognisable, and to express the best emotion through the minifigure.
Is graphic design just stickers and printing or do you also get involved with hairstyles, accessories and so on?
Austin: Well the sculptors are the ones heavily responsible when it comes to elements, accessories and hair. However, depending on the first take of the characters I’ll draw one out, then the sculptor will interpret how to sculpt the hair based on my designs. But it’s a very back and forth thing; sometimes, the sculptor will design an element and I’ll have to base a figure around that element instead, especially the mascot characters like the ‘Corn Cob’ character and the ‘Rocket Boy’.
On the subject of Series 17 of the Minifigures, have you been involved with any of those designs?
Austin: Yes. I’ve been doing all of the collectable series starting with the Disney lineup, so from the Disney series up to Series 17.
How far ahead are you working on those?
Austin: Quite far! I’m starting work on products to be released at the end of 2018 now, including some other minifigure related stuff that’s not part of the project.
It never ceases to amaze me that after 17 series we’re still seeing a lot of imaginative characters. Do you all sit around a room brainstorming, or do you already have a load in the pipeline?
Austin: It’s a combination of both. We do have a list that we rely on if we ever need one. Originally a lot of it came from Tara White, my Creative Lead, and Matt Ashton, who started the whole series. They were the ones who originally brainstormed what was going to be the next series. However, things have slightly changed, and now it’s more of a ‘brain trust’, where all of the designers that are on the series come together, pitch ideas, and then we select the ones out of those.
When I mentioned to our community that we were visiting here today and talking to designers, everyone says ‘can you ask them what’s coming next’, ‘are you doing this’, ‘are we going to see any more Disney characters’, but I know you’re not going to answer those so I won’t ask!
Marcos: We’d love to [laughs] but we would be in trouble if we did!
Austin: The next best thing we could give on that [turning to Marcos] since you’re the one taking over [Brickheadz] now and running it, I think you could share your feelings on what’s coming next.
Marcos: Well, I’m very excited about this project. I also very much like character design; even though I was hired as a model designer, and a lot of my work is heavily based on model design, Brickheadz is my chance to do some character design, and to be involved with a team that is developing the future of this line.
I can say that we’re all very, very excited about what’s coming; we’re very happy to see how well received the line has been, and how the buzz is growing and growing. It started as a D2C line, sold in LEGO brand stores in March but as you say it's now reaching mass retail from this month onwards, so I’m very excited to see how broad it can go, and how much more buzz it can create, and I’m hoping that what we’re planning to come after this will keep people excited.
Yes, it’s good that the Brickheadz line is carrying on. Can you say how frequently they'll be released?
Marcos: I can tell you that we will be more frequent in the future...but that’s as much as I can tell you!
For 2017 it has had a slower start, because we’re breaking ground with this product line. It’s very different from a lot of other LEGO products; in many ways, for The LEGO Group, this is a line that offers a lot of different challenges and a lot of different opportunities, and we are leveraging those. So it has had a slower start, but hopefully once we have a steadier ground then we can keep it alive and more frequent.
So in many ways you are testing the waters with this first batch, and now that you know that they have gone down well, you will produce more.
Marcos: Yes, it’s a good temperature!
Although, it is quite a big range to test the water with!
Marcos: Yes, we thought it would be important to have a presence on the shelf that would allow a whole bunch of different people to jump on board. Of course not necessarily everybody is a huge fan of all the characters in the same way, but if you have a good variety, more people will hopefully jump on board, and that has always been the goal. And I can tell you that the variety is growing; there will be a lot more coming up.
The core of the BrickHeadz is built around the new part 22885 (Brick 1X2X1 2/3 W/4 Knobs) . Without it, would they have been possible?
Austin: Well, the original one didn’t have it, and that was the reason why the core torso looks so chunky, because I had to figure out ways to build around that. That also dictated a lot of the style for the ones that came afterwards, which used that element. But it was such a funny story, when we started building these, because that element was quite new to us also. And we found that Brickheadz was such a perfect opportunity to use the element we started to incorporate it into the builds. Except our own personal stock, because we were building so many of these, kept depleting, and anytime any other project needed to use that element they were out of luck, because we kept taking it!
Marcos: And it’s still happening; as we continue to build new characters to explore, the stock is always running low. I have a special order put in through our stock management so that I can have parts in our project area, regardless of what is in the actual stock available for the others!
Even when we started planning 2018 products, my first request to our project manager was ‘please bear in mind we use 12 to 14 of these in each character, so the global production needs to really be prepared when this hits them’. So then he started pulling deliveries to make sure we have supply prepared, because for all other bricks you might use a few of them, but this one, it’s on average 12 to 14 on each character, so it puts on a lot of demand on the brick. I think it’s going to soon be one of our most produced bricks ever!
Finally, do you have a favourite LEGO element?
Marcos: My favourite LEGO element is the ‘jumper plate’. It has been, I think even before I started working at LEGO, when I was in the fan community and I used to build a lot. I think it’s because it allows you to jump off the grid, and just add that half a plate detail, it opens up a lot of opportunities. I used to build a lot of houses and buildings, and having that little detail sticking out under the window, to me was just such a nice little thing. So I think it has always been my favourite.
Austin: My favourite element is probably the minifigure head. Basically, it’s because I’m such a big minifigure fan; that’s why I was so drawn to work for LEGO, because I wanted to do character design for them. But for me, one of my favourite things, even outside of LEGO, is to do expressions for characters. To be able to do that for LEGO through the minifigure is probably why I love the minifigure head so much.
Austin, Marcos, thank you for your time today!
Marcos, left, and Austin.
Many thanks to Steve_J_OM for transcribing the interview, and Kim for facilitating the fan media days.
Want to know more?
Watch Zusammengebaut's video interview with the pair: