Interview with Jamie Berard, Creator Expert Designer (2)

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Jamie Berard, the Design Manager Specialist for Creator Expert, participated in an interview with Brickset earlier in the year. The first section of our discussion was focused upon 10261 Roller Coaster and part two encompasses the broader Creator Expert theme.

The unveiling of 10260 Downtown Diner inspired discussion about the minifigures. Why does the set include minifigures with expressive faces rather than the standard smile?

That topic has been slightly controversial within LEGO since the beginning of the Modular Buildings range because we have generally used more expressive faces. That is primarily because kids today do not really connect with that expression, instead believing that they look like zombies! However, the Modular Buildings received special dispensation to include the standard smiling faces.

On the other hand, the series has gradually become more about storytelling during the last few years. There was very little inside the first couple of buildings but recent models have included stories about smuggling cookies and robbing banks! At that point, we found that kids were not connecting as closely with the minifigures because of their anonymous faces.

However, 10255 Assembly Square was the fundamental turning point as we wanted to include a baby. You might not notice but the baby actually includes a white pupil within its eyes and there was a lot of discussion about whether or not we should create a classic smiling head for the baby.

Ultimately, the graphic designers were adamant that the new baby could not feature the famous smiley face. We struck a deal to use the baby on that occasion, representing the development of further story telling and more expressive faces across the Modular Buildings series. Of course, 10182 Café Corner actually contains a plain white torso but we have subsequently introduced far more decoration.

Personally, I still favour the classic smiley face. I love its flexibility and gender ambiguity and hopefully we will try to have a splendid mixture of characters that you may not see traditionally in our other lines, perhaps expressing a more diverse spectrum of humanity.

The broader response to 10260 Downtown Diner was divided. Why do you think that might be?

The model is obviously designed around a streamline moderne architectural style, although I do not believe that represents a terribly dramatic change from the rest of the street. In fact, I recall a similar reaction when 10197 Fire Brigade was released. Some people were genuinely offended! They were horrified by its American style and two floors, both of which violated their expectations for a Modular Building.

On that basis, it has been wonderful to see that 10197 has subsequently been embraced as one of the most popular buildings. Our sales clearly demonstrated its enormous popularity so I have become less concerned as much about the architectural style in recent years, The minifigure expressions were also a significant change which concerned some people and I think our decision to travel to the 1950s was rather sudden.

We simply felt the need to keep the Modular Buildings fresh and interesting. Thirteen buildings have already been produced and change will continue so I hope people will embrace that. Nevertheless, I have grown to appreciate that the initial response from adult fans does not always endure and views sometimes soften with time.

10260 Downtown Diner is also notable for resurrecting teal. How did that come about?

It was actually the Elves design team who originally suggested, rather passionately, that teal should return. We had to choose between creating an entirely new colour that would resemble teal or simply bring back an older colour and decided upon the latter. That would allow more seasoned adult fans to combine their existing collection of teal parts with some new elements.

When it was decided that teal should return, we proposed that Creator Expert herald its arrival. That was actually a special agreement because teal should have been launched in the second half of the year. Creating new colours, or resurrecting old ones, is difficult from the perspective of manufacture. There were strict limits concerning the number of teal elements that we could use but we felt compelled to ensure that it would return with 10260 Downtown Diner.

In addition, 10260 Downtown Diner contains a car. How do you decide which Modular Buildings should include an auxiliary model and which should not?

The pink convertible is so intrinsically connected with the 1950s that we decided it was an absolute necessity for 10260 Downtown Diner. It worked perfectly with the musical theme of the upper floors. We often think about the Creator 3-in-1 range and how those might be integrated with the Creator Expert sets so tried very hard to include that pink convertible somewhere across the range. Ultimately, it felt most at home with the actual Modular Building!

This is our final question on the subject of Modular Buildings. Why do you only produce one Modular Building each year?

I agree, we need more! This has been a subject of controversy since the start of the Modular Buildings series as we have always wanted to produce more. Unfortunately, the portfolio already contains a vast range of products and releasing another building would mean omitting something else. In fact, 10218 Pet Shop originated with some experimentation about producing smaller Modular Buildings but that was not possible, hence the inclusion of two separate structures which could be united.

Nevertheless, we have tried to alter the size and footprint of Modular Buildings in recent years. 10255 Assembly Square, for example, includes three separate buildings but is packaged as a single model. I think small changes like that are probably the best that we can achieve at the moment, until the entire design process has been updated.

The annual Creator Expert range has also included a large-scale vehicle during the last several years. How do you pick the subjects for these models?

It can be a challenge. Depending on how you define the series, we began with 10187 Volkswagen Beetle in 2008 but quickly discovered that such a large scale was not suitable for cars. The design looks very traditional and quite old-fashioned with quite so many exposed studs. Of course, we do make an effort to celebrate our studs but I think there can be too much of a good think, as exemplified by 10187!

We ventured into a new scale when designing 10220 Volkswagen T1 Camper Van and found that worked extremely well. However, there were no plans to continue producing an entire series of cars following the Camper Van. That only occurred because the set sold very well, inspiring us to continue constructing large scale vehicles. Perhaps we had not thought about that earlier because it seemed as though Racers, City and Creator were already covering cars fairly comprehensively at that time.

Ultimately, we are searching for icons. The likes of 10242 MINI Cooper MK VII and 10258 London Bus are perfectly suited to the range. The series is definitely continuing to evolve though. We have enjoyed experimenting with new subject matters and more ambitious designs so hope that the series will not be too predictable in future. In fact, fans correctly guessing what we are going to produce next would be a sign that we are doing something wrong.

On that subject, the biggest surprise of 2017 was probably the announcement of 10256 Taj Mahal. Why have you decided to re-release a classic model?

That was actually a surprise to us as well. We have often spoken about resurrecting retired sets in the past and I have asserted that such models would have to be released at the cost of brand new models so would not make sense for the LEGO brand. However, this was an unusual opportunity as the weight of demand was so great. There have been many thousands of consumer requests for 10189 Taj Mahal to return and we decided that the tenth anniversary of the original set would be a suitable occasion.

In addition, the 2008 set contained very few retired elements. Modular Buildings such as 10182 Café Corner and 10185 Green Grocer are also in high demand but those are more difficult as they include many parts which are no longer in production. Deciding whether or not to resurrect a classic element can be very difficult, especially when they are foundational components. Hair pieces, for example are much more flexible in that regard.

Producing 10256 Taj Mahal was definitely an experiment but the reception has been phenomenal. We were not sure how fans would react to a model with comparatively dated building techniques. A brand new rendition of the Taj Mahal would probably look very different, although the original model created by Henrik Andersen is spectacular. We need not have worried though as the set has been extremely popular, demonstrating that LEGO fans still appreciate classic LEGO design.

Have you found other re-releases to be similarly successful?

Absolutely. The unveiling of 10249 Winter Toy Shop disappointed many people but that sold very well. It is important to remember that new fans are constantly discovering, or rediscovering, LEGO so there is always demand for retired models to return. Striking the correct balance between producing entirely new sets and returning to some of our favourite past models can be challenging but I believe we are always improving.

Many thanks for speaking with us!


We hope you have enjoyed this interview with Jamie Berard. You can view the first part here.

Thanks to Alicee for transcribing this interview.

 

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43 comments on this article

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By in United Kingdom,

Do designers actually refer to set numbers verbatim as implied in the responses here, or is that added in? I've always wondered.

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By in United Kingdom,

Great stuff, and interesting about resurrecting retired sets.
So, with the 10th Anniversary coming up, is this the place to start a write-in campaign for the "10194 - EMERALD NIGHT" to be re-released but in a new DARK RED version?

(Jamie, we all know you'll be reading this - we're relying on you to make it happen ;-)

So come on Brickset readers, you know you want it, start emailing LEGO right now!!!

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By in United States,

I wouldn't want more than one modular building each year, its hard enough for my wallet to keep up as it is! :P

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By in New Zealand,

"It was actually the Elves design team who originally suggested, somewhat forcefully" :) :)
How much force was used..

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By in United States,

I am eternally grateful for the decision to rerelease the Winter Toy Shop! I adore it.

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By in United States,

I was playing with the classic smiling head and my brother was disgusted when he saw, saying that it was his least favorite head, even though it's one of my faves

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By in Switzerland,

So now you all know: #10182 and #10185 are not coming back. PERIOD! ...at least until their next bigger anniversary (for 20 years of modulars ??) - just my opinion btw :))

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By in United States,

"hopefully we will try to have a splendid mixture of characters that you may not see traditionally in our other lines"

This made me laugh because, as others have noted, the new Corner Garage does not contain a single new minifigure. I also think that the stories being told in modular buildings are one reason AFOLs believe the series is changing focus from adults to children. Smuggling cookies and robbing banks seem pretty juvenile to me.

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By in United States,

The fact that we get only one Modular per year is another thing pushing me to make my own modular.

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By in United Kingdom,

@BroomOwl - Most of the set numbers have been inserted but I have found that LEGO designers sometimes refer to well-known sets by their number during conversation. They presumably anticipate that fans will understand references to 10182 or 10179, for example.

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By in Norway,

“We often think about the Creator 3-in-1 range and how those might be integrated with the Creator Expert sets ”

Interesting nugget, for me at least, might have to try to spot some crossover references.
Can see Sweet Surprise fit into play with Diner, and Park Street does match up well for Assembly Sq.

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By in United States,

@mroper80: I think those sorts of storylines are aimed more at adults with a sense of humor.

(also how is robbing banks juvenile how many kids do you see robbing banks)

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By in United States,

Would that make a red Emerald Night into a Ruby Night? ?

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By in Sweden,

I'd love to see another Pet Shop-style modular, with two separate buildings you could keep together or squeeze in-between other modulars.

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By in United States,

I understand the idea of having expressive faces, but I feel like the execution across the line is less than impressive so far--there's already re-use of at least one head that really should be unique (the cook from Downtown Diner and the gas station attendant from Corner Garage). Repetition isn't such a big deal when it's less distinctive heads, but this one's combination of the sideburns and moustache really makes it stand out.

Modular buildings certainly aren't about the minifigures, but if they're going to increase the detail on the ones they include, I think that they should keep an eye out for repeating highly detailed heads. As it is, the lack of consistency is odd, almost like if they suddenly changed the streetlamp design or the sidewalk color.

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By in United States,

If every year we could get one new Modular as well as an updated classic Modular (from the first few years) that would be a dream come true for me! Anyway, thanks for this great interview Brickset! Jamie Berard has designed some of my all time favorite sets. I wish I was half the Master Builder he is.

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By in United Kingdom,

I hope they still keep producing the classic smiley faces, even if it's just in a few sets each year. It would be a shame for them to die out completely. This year they were in the Building Bigger Thinking sets which I still intend to pick up. : )

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By in Austria,

The classic smile - Nowadays there are minifigures everywhere, even in UCS models with a different scale. The first modular came out in 2007, back then there were big models & sculptures without minifigures and it took 4 more years till they included minifigures to creator sets. Creator houses were in minifigure scale but did not include any figures! Minifigures were almost exclusivly part of play themes like city and castle. It was special that they put minifigures at all into cafe corner, and it felt natural that they took the classic standard face, as they used quite standard, classic parts in all the models and less big specialised play theme-parts. Then it became an iconic move to stick with the classic smile (until last year).

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By in United States,

Interesting info on what is allowed and what is now in Modulars line. I'd love for some smaller buildings as now the whole 'block' is out of whack and $200 for that garage is just stupid silly.

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By in Australia,

I'd be really interested to know the details of "Creating new colours, or resurrecting old ones, is difficult from the perspective of manufacture". Ive heard similar things a lot from all over the place, but between teal this year and coral next year, with seemingly no colors being retired in their place, what's going on here?

@TeaWeevil I always felt that the lack of consistency with the Diner was somewhat deliberate, since the entire building doesn't really fit with the aesthetic of the other modulars anyway it makes sense to me as the place to change up some other traditions.

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By in United States,

@magmafrost: I was referring to the lack of consistency between minifigures in the two most recent modulars. There are so many heads they could have used for the attendant in the CG, so it seems poorly thought-out to repeat a head from the DD.

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By in United States,

@mroper295: The Corner Garage may not have unique minifigure prints, but the set combines them in new ways to represent a few different character archetypes that stand out from previous figures we've seen, including using those parts:
• The mechanics are in a more retro style than we generally see in City sets (for that matter, I'm not sure we've ever seen a female mechanic in City aside from the one from last year's LEGO City Jungle Explorers Bricktober pack).
• The biker girl has an edgy, gender nonconforming look that calls to mind a webcomic I just recently finished reading and highly recommend! (http://rockandriotcomic.com/)
• The veterinarian is (as far as I know) the first male LEGO character we've seen with that profession.

In previous sets you could make a similar case: the Detective's Office, for example, uses existing pieces to create a femme fatale in a red dress, a fedora-wearing private eye, a shady-looking pool player and dart player to populate the pool hall, and a policewoman who reuses Ma Cop's simple, slightly old-fashioned dress uniform.

In general, the modular buildings use new minifigure parts pretty sparingly, same as with new building elements — their more common tendency is to find new and creative uses for existing ones.

@Lordmoral: I'm sure the designers and lots of your fellow LEGO fans would love for more fans to do exactly that! One fun idea I keep circling back to is a bowling alley, but I have yet to come up with a design I'm quite happy with.

@TeaWeevil: Maybe they're brothers! Or maybe it's just a new fashion trend in this town?

But yeah, I agree it's sometimes weird and surprising to see the same prints appear in two modular buildings so close together. I felt the same way about the same red blouse AND the same wavy brown hair being used on two different minifigures in #10218-1 and #10232-1. Honestly, I think things feel a little BETTER now that there are more expressive face prints, in that at least figures have a little bit more to differentiate them even if they have one or two somewhat specific prints/molds in common!

@legoed: Well, for next year at least, we can rest assured that they're appearing in Benny's Space Squad! I also wouldn't be surprised to also continue seeing other "vintage" figures show up with that face from time to time, like some of the ones from the old Vintage Minifigure Packs, or the Police Officer from Minifigures Series 18.

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By in United States,

@magmafrost: Difficult doesn't mean impossible. It just mean that it involves a lot more work—you can sort of picture a little of the work that needs to be done on the design side when he talks about how the design teams for various themes had to coordinate how the return of Bright Bluish Green would be used. That doesn't even get into the logistics of how the color can be reliably formulated, tested, and stored.

I'm curious where people have gotten the idea that any color introduction is to be offset by a color retirement, since for the most part I don't remember that usually being the case—the only cases like that which come to mind are ones where a color is being replaced with a functionally similar one, like the replacements of Dark Grey Metallic with Titanium Metallic or Phosphorescent Green with White Glow. When colors have been introduced to fill a gap in the spectrum, by contrast, it usually doesn't accompany a functionally different color being retired. I don't remember any color being retired to make room for colors like Olive Green, Dark Azur, or Copper Metallic. At best, these colors occasionally replaced colors which had long since been retired, like the older Army Green or Copper. But it was only when a color was replacing another's function directly that that tended to happen simultaneously.

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By in United States,

Ok, great interview and all, but one thing he says really, really bugs me. I’ve been pretty vocal on how I don’t like the direction the modular series is going, the minifig faces in particular. He says kids can’t connect with them and think they’re “zombie” like. The modular series is meant to be for adults! Why should anyone care what kids think? Obviously there are kids that buy these, heck, I started with the cafe corner when I was a kid, but that doesn’t mean you should change it. The diner and the garage are hard to display because the faces of the minifigs don’t match the classic smiley faces of the others. Ever since the detectives office, this series has gone downhill, (assembly square is an exception) as they were focused more for kids. While I do admit that the diner has grown on me little bit, it still feels out of place, And the corner garage has got some interior problems. In one interview I read, Jamie said that fans of the modular series need change, and sometimes, that’s a good thing, but I think changing the series to be more focused for kids is a mistake. I’ll always buy the next modular, but I can’t help but be disappointed for where this beloved series is going.

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By in Malaysia,

I agree with ^Jman007... I was happy to know that the modular series was meant for adults and it had the classic smiley face that we grew up with... it does look weird now with the new face heads juxtaposed to the classic ones. But yeah changes are needed somewhat... maybe I think Lego wants to retire the classic smiley face... :(

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By in Russian Federation,

I didn't know that there are retired parts and colors.

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By in United States,

I intend to just replace the minifig faces in the Diner and the Garage with the classic smiley face anyway. That's the great thing about LEGO - it's inherently customizable! If you don't like the change in the faces, just change it to the way you like it :)

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By in United Kingdom,

If you don’t like the expressive faces just change the heads to neutral smiley faces? They’re very easy to get on bricklink. I just don’t understand the moaning.

No one owes you anything. The lack of gratitude is astounding.

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By in France,

interesting and inciteful article. Thanks Capn

Personally, 1 modular per year is enough. Keeps it special and space is a premium!!

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By in Germany,

Soo i made a Account here only to Point this out.
Do they Change the faces because childeren dont like the classic expressions. I thought this was a Adult theme. The last Star Wars USC have changed too, in the direction that it is more playable for childerens. That bothers me. I personally hate thoes changes. If they make the modular buildings more Kids-friendly, so what Lego-line is left for us.

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By in Germany,

^^^ I agree with your first point, but "gratitude"??? For what exactly? Of course they don't "owe" us anything -- which is why most of us mere mortals have to pay for their product with our hard-earned money; you do realize that, don't you?

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By in United States,

@GeoDav and @Celloguy
Obviously, yes we can swap faces, but they’re so rare it’s hard to get them. That’s part of why it made the series so special. I might end up bricklinking them though if I get desperate enough.

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By in Canada,

When do we get the next Mini-Modulars set a second one is long over due and were almost ready for a third.

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By in United States,

@jman007: Even with the Modular Buildings being mostly aimed at adults and teens, keep in mind that somebody who was a 7-year-old kid when the series started is now an adult themselves! In general, we’re reaching a point where the typical idea of what kinds of sets/figures AFOLs grew up with and are nostalgic for may be in need of an update. At this point, pretty much any adult between the ages of 18 and 30 entered the 5+ target age for most System themes at a time when the classic smiley face in those themes had already largely been supplanted by more detailed faces.

Never mind the many AFOLs who get into LEGO as adults less because of childhood nostalgia than because they discover or rediscover the joy of LEGO building as parents of LEGO-loving children. Those AFOLs might very easily be used to the elaborate, expressive printed faces from the sets and themes their kids enjoy, and thus associate generic faces less with childhood nostalgia than with cheapness/cost-cutting.

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By in United States,

@Lyichir- I see kids robbing banks and other loot caches nearly everyday at home, far more often than it happens in the "real world." What else are my kids supposed to do with their perennial city police sets? :)

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By in United States,

@Jman007 I have a huge bag of the classic smiley faces! I swap them out as soon as I build the modulars. I have found that I liked them fine as a kid, but as an adult I love the variety of expressions the new faces have.

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By in Ireland,

I love the classic smiley faces, because I agree with Jamie, there's more room to imagine who your figure is. The classic smiley face doesn't have a gender, they're just whoever you want them to be. It's such a shame that the one series to consistently have the classic faces is leaving them behind.

On the plus side, Benny's Space Squad will have 3 classic faces in it, so there's a way to stock up on them.

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By in United States,

Great point: 2007's KFOLs are becoming the next generation of AFOLs and they have nostalgia for what Lego looked like in 2007.

I don't think Cafe Corner and Green Grocer are coming back in their original form. However, an update, where the retired elements are replaced, is certainly possible.

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By in United States,

On the one hand, I do like the kind of imaginative freedom that comes from the lack of specificity of some older figures. On the other, even in real life, the way a person dresses and styles their hair tends to tell you as much or more about who they are and what sort of life they lead than their facial features. It’s not as though the color and shape of one’s eyebrows, whether or not they wear makeup or glasses, and their facial expression will give some unparalleled insight into a person’s identity.

Also, a number of figures in the modular buildings even before the switch to more detailed faces (in fact, from the very beginning) already broke away from the “blank slate” philosophy by using traits like molded facial hair, printed torso curves, and gender-coded outfits, which, if not strictly gender-specific, imply a gender to many people every bit as strongly as more detailed facial features would.

I can also only imagine the confusion and/or crappy transphobic jokes that might have resulted in AFOL fansites and discussion groups if a figure like the one in Downtown Diner with a shirtless muscular torso and a hairstyle originating from a female minifigure had shown up without a mustachioed face to really drive home the suggestion of manliness. If there’s one thing I most appreciate about printed minifigure parts with more gender-coded traits, it’s helping to dispel the assumption too often taken for granted in both LEGO and real life that some hairstyles are inherently male and some are inherently female.

After all, sometimes imaginative freedom is not so helpful when it gives people free license to interpret things in whatever way aligns with their prejudices rather than taking the opportunity to open their minds. That’s one of the reasons that it can be so harmful when racial or LGBT representation in media only shows up as subtext — the people who really need to hear the message that the world is bigger than their prejudices will take any opportunity they’re given to pretend that the worlds in stories they enjoy are just as small and homogeneous as they prefer to imagine them.

Finally, I think the “blank slate” idea is challenged a lot by the classic minifigure having an unmistakable smile. You’re certainly free to imagine a minifigure being sad or angry according to the situation you put them in. But things like Christopher Bartneck’s grim blog entry about his widely reported minifigure emotion study (http://www.bartneck.de/2013/06/13/reflection-minifigure-study/) or various people’s wistful reminiscing about back when those heavily-armed LEGO knights and spacemen lived idyllic, peaceful, happy-go-lucky lives and weren’t so mean or violent speaks to how for many fans, a vacant smile shared by the entire population of the LEGO world is every bit as prescriptive of positive, unflappable contentment as an angry or determined expression is of a life of persistent conflicts and challenges. Again, people seeing what they want to see becomes a bit fraught when it lets prejudice go unchallenged… in this case, prejudice against negative emotional expression, which has broader implications in the “tone policing” often employed against those who protest oppression or inequality.

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By in United States,

Excellent interview! Thanks for this!

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By in United States,

Meh. I always sell the minifigs anyway. I just want the buildings for something to look at once in awhile. Don't much care about the interiors, either. Cafe Corner was just right in both regards.

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By in United States,

@lippidp: To be honest, even just as a display piece I think Cafe Corner arguably was more in need of an interior than even some of the later buildings, since it had those huge glass windows on the ground floor that look in at the unfinished grass-covered floor of the empty cafe! At least many later buildings had smaller ground-floor windows and/or neutral-colored baseplates.

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By in United States,

@magmafrost I think the big thing with resurrecting colors is not the manufacture of the parts in a new or different color. The new dye injection systems make that insanely easy these days. It’s the back end logistics and inventory control that we out here don’t see. A few years back Legohad placed a hard cap on the number of colors precisely because if left unchecked the ever increasing color varieties would swamp their production warehouses and overwhelm their inventory controls. Remember for structural elements you really can’t just make one type of part in a new color. You need a minimal range of parts. And each color of each part needs separate storage and inventory control and management. And at every turn the pool of parts in inventory is expanded and increased etc. That’s why for awhile they had a color rule of “one in one out.” I suspect that 9 times out of 10 when a designer asks for a new or retired color, the VP of Inventory Management comes in and hits them with a chair.

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