The life of LEGO designers with Justin Ramsden and Crystal Fontan

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View image at flickr

Brickset attended the Fan Media Days in Billund during the summer and had the opportunity to interview some designers. Justin Ramsden and Crystal Fontan were available to discuss 75810 The Upside Down.

However, having already spoken about that, we instead decided to discuss becoming LEGO product or graphic designers!

Brickset: Justin, what happened after your appearance on the UK Channel 4 documentary?

Justin: I cannot recall exactly when the show ended but think I mentioned looking forward to my first sets coming out. That eventually turned out to be SDCC2015-1 Throne of Ultron which was available at San Diego Comic-Con and I have been on an absolute wild ride since then! It has been more than four and a half years since I started working at LEGO and more than five years since that documentary was filmed. My feet have not touched the ground.

The latest set that Crystal and I have worked on, 75810 The Upside Down, is probably my favourite yet. It is wonderful that I have had an opportunity to work on so many themes which are among my favourite things. For example, when I heard that LEGO was going to do 21306 The Beatles Yellow Submarine, so LEGO and The Beatles were teaming up together, that was fantastic and I enjoyed working with its fan designer, Kevin Szeto.

I have subsequently designed 71043 Hogwarts Castle, the second largest set ever produced and Toy of the Year for 2018. People came to queue up for the Stranger Things set at 3am recently and they had not even seen the set. My life has just become completely crazy and I love every minute of it. Of course, that does limit my time building as a fan but now I am finding new avenues to express creativity, be that through LEGO television commercials which I sometimes help with or on the Inside Tours. I particularly enjoy those because that is how I found my love of LEGO and how I discovered that you could work here.

Until then, I had not really given much thought to where LEGO came from so it was only the Inside Tour that gave a face to the people. I met designers like Andy Woodman and realised that these are human beings who live in Billund and actually create the toys which I know and love! Crystal has an entirely different story though.

Crystal: Yes, my story is quite different. I was not a LEGO fan, I was just a graphic designer trying to do something different in my life. There was an interesting coincidence, actually, as I came across an application to work for LEGO online on the same the day that I complained about LEGO Star Wars spoiling Star Wars: The Force Awakens on one of my social media pages! It seemed like destiny.

I already knew a model designer named Wes Talbott through our art and he recommended that I should apply. On that basis, I applied for fun, not really thinking about it, but less than two weeks later I got an email saying that LEGO was very interested in me and my portfolio. My advice for anyone who hopes to become a graphic designer at LEGO is to certainly build up your portfolio as you do not necessarily need to be a LEGO fan.

Having viewed my portfolio, LEGO brought me over to Billund for a workshop and then they hired me! Now I am definitely a LEGO fan but I think that is because I love the projects that I am working on. I was working with the DUPLO team for eighteen months before moving to Harry Potter. That was very exciting because I am a big Harry Potter fan and I saw concept models for the enormous Hogwarts Castle so became involved with that. I think that Justin and I have good chemistry working together.

Justin: Absolutely. When 75810 The Upside Down came about it was obvious that I should ask for Crystal to assist again because she loves the television series, much like me.

Did you ask to work on 75810 The Upside Down or were you asked to design it?

Justin: Both! I had time in my calendar after finishing 70840 Welcome to Apocalypseburg! for The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part and this became available. We heard rumours of LEGO Stranger Things and that afternoon Jamie Berard gathered some designers to discuss what the set could be. From there I hit the ground running because I was still finishing Apocalypseburg when this fantastic project arrived.

View image at flickr

What is your favourite thing about being a LEGO designer?

Crystal: I have two favourite things which are integrally linked. The first is working with so many talented people who share my passions. We often have moments geeking out together! Also, creating products which are going to be enjoyed by so many people is absolutely amazing. We try to gather as many ideas as possible and funnel them into the products. In fact, working at LEGO has really helped me grow as a person and an artist.

Justin: I would certainly second Crystal's comments. We work with people from different backgrounds all over the world and we can all help one another. For example, I can go and see Mike Psiaki if I have an issue with angles while building or I can visit Adam Grabowski if I have problem while creating cars. Of course, there are designers who published models on Brickshelf and elsewhere that I idolised while growing up. Now I am sat next to some of them!

Before applying, I watched as many designer videos as I could find and I became really impressed with Marcos Bessa's creations. When I joined the company, Marcos became my manager on one project so that was absolutely brilliant. Of course, products arriving on the shelves and seeing the reviews and comments online is really enjoyable too. Brickset definitely gives good feedback and to see that directly from LEGO fans feels incredibly gratifying.

Crystal: Also, we are really inspiring the builders and LEGO designers of tomorrow!

Justin: I think we can all remember particular sets that we grew up with and appreciated. They are not always the largest or even the most objectively appealing sets but they exert an enormous effect on us all. Our designs are providing sparks of inspiration for people all over the world, hopefully.

View image at flickr

Everybody has certain sets that they enjoyed playing with as children. Have you encountered any of the designers of those sets while working for LEGO?

Justin: Definitely. Tracking those people down in an incredible experience! I mentioned 6279 Skull Island being one of my favourite childhood sets during the documentary and I met its designer so to approach him, shake his hand and thank him for his role in my life was thrilling. He probably thought that was weird but now people have spoken to me in the same way and that feels humbling.

Moving to the opposite end of the spectrum, what is your least favourite thing about being a LEGO designer?

Justin: That is difficult. I suppose my least favourite thing is that we never have enough LEGO! We always need plenty of bricks available when creating new sets and there is never enough.

Your least favourite thing is the inadequate supply of LEGO from LEGO?

Justin: That sounds really bad! Perhaps my biggest complaint would be that there is never enough time in the day. It is funny how life repeats itself as I have encountered situations where I am working on a project but am told that it needs to be completed, reminding me of exactly the same things which happened when building as a child. Knowing that our playtime has to end because we are actually working for a company and people are relying on us can be difficult, although that is equally very interesting and I would not change anything!

Have you found it interesting or difficult to live and work in Denmark?

Justin: Absolutely. It is completely different to the UK, where I am from.

Crystal: My biggest and most specific issue has certainly been parking tickets! They seem to love handing out parking tickets in Denmark which I do not appreciate. I am originally from New York so Billund is completely different and there are some obstacles. Those are only minor issues though and Denmark is a great country.

Justin: I think anybody would face similar issues when working abroad. These places are never going to be the same as wherever you are from and becoming accustomed to the different pace of life can be difficult for some people. However, I am here for one reason and that is to work at LEGO. They could place me wherever they wanted in the world but working in Billund is great, where I am surrounded by lovely colleagues, friends and bricks! Perhaps that novelty would wear off for some people but I remain an AFOL so am always excited to arrive in the morning and see what everybody is working on.

On that subject, what are some of your favourite modern sets which neither of you have been involved with?

Crystal: My instant reaction would be 21309 NASA Apollo Saturn V. I had no involvement in that but wish that I did.

Justin: 21309 NASA Apollo Saturn V undoubtedly looks impressive. There have been lots of superb recent sets which spring to mind. 10265 Ford Mustang is really good and I adore 10262 James Bond Aston Martin DB5 for its functionality, especially without involving that many Technic pieces.

Crystal: I love the Scooby-Doo range. That was designed before I arrived but it was available when I was hired and those sets are really fun.

Justin: Adam Grabowski’s 21310 Old Fishing Store was an outstanding set and Cesar's new 21318 Treehouse is stunning. Of course, anything designed by Gemma Anderson [Justin's girlfriend] would have to be mentioned too! Gemma has finished working on Trolls recently so I look forward to seeing where that goes.

What are some of your favourite sets which you have worked on?

Justin: There are so many and I am proud of everything that I have designed. Products like 21306 The Beatles Yellow Submarine, 76081 The Milano vs. The Abilisk and 70905 The Batmobile would all be in contention for my favourites. Honestly, we switch between creating so many different things that it can be surprisingly difficult to catch your breath and look back on your LEGO portfolio. 75810 The Upside Down was another incredible project, particularly as an enormous fan of Stranger Things.

Crystal: When we began working on 71043 Hogwarts Castle, I thought I had peaked. Then we moved on to 75810 The Upside Down and I feel as though I have peaked again! I am also on the LEGO Ideas team and discovering what might come from there keeps me excited because the range is packed with fantastic innovation.

Of course, the ultimate question is how do you get a job at LEGO?

Justin: I realise this sounds like an absolute cliché but I would just recommend applying and seeing where that process takes you. People come from all kinds of divergent backgrounds, as long as you have strong art and design skills, along with a portfolio which demonstrates that, you are certainly in with a chance!

Many thanks for speaking with us!

26 comments on this article

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By in United States,

First comment! Also, is he just casually holding a large set with one hand?

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By in United States,

^It is a surprisingly stable set! Good luck holding a modular building or something like that!

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By in United States,

NASA and Hogwarts and LEGO, oh my!

Neat interview. A LEGO designer says that they never have enough LEGO? That's new.

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By in United States,

My biggest takeaway is that there are people who were designing sets in 1995 that are still with Lego. That somewhat surprises me, with how little those sets resemble today's. Maybe they're all in non-designer roles now...

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By in Sweden,

@phi13 Maybe they have grown with the product, like AFOLs have. In 1995 I was building according to the standards of that time and using those parts; nowadays it's rather a different story. People can learn, develop and adapt, you know.

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By in France,

Always like and find interesting to have a look inside designers work and processes. How many of us have dream to be part of the Lego design team? And how many would be chosen if they applied. But none of us if we ever try. But building for one's own fancy and hobby, with the only limit being the budget one can use for this passion, or working with strict time limits and harsh budget or commercial requirement specifications is another thing. It must be an interesting experience and challenge for sure, but sometimes frustrating too.

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By in United States,

For a brief second when Justin referenced Trolls I did a double take until I remembered that news from a few months back

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By in Japan,

My dream job... I apply every time, almost every year, but never got it... :(

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By in United States,

Thanks for posting this interview! Set designer interviews are probably the most interesting articles ever posted on Brickset.

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By in Canada,

Thanks for the great interview! I just might build up a good portfolio, apply and see where that takes me, as Justin Ramsden said!

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By in United States,

@phi13:
But back in the 90's, those designers were really limited to just their own coworkers in terms of where they could go to draw inspiration. Since then, they've discovered the internet, and a world full of AFOLs who have been sharing techniques, asking advice, and scouring each others' photos for inspiration. Then they started hiring some of those AFOLs to work with them. Funny thing about being exposed to new ideas is that you might learn from them. I know AFOLs who love building with that 80's-90's design aesthetic because that's the era that holds a special place in their hearts, but I can't see being able to survive this long as a set designer without learning how to up your game.

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By in Germany,

Fascinating interview.

I agree that back in the 90s there were many limits to what could be designed. But I think lack of inspiration isn't one of the reasons, because even without the internet there were AFOLs who met and shared ideas, building techniques etc.
The main limiting factor in those days was simply the lack of available part designs. When I think back how we built MOCs back in the day, it was often so frustrating to think what could have been achieved had certain parts been available. Nowadays we have the luxury of almost too many part designs, because there are many that aren't even necessary as their function could be replicated by a combination of other parts, yet LEGO produces them anyway.

Fun fact, Justin didn't remember or didn't want to admit that Hogwarts Castle is actually only the third largest set ever produced :-)
Granted, "The ultimate battle for CHIMA" was a one-off, but it is an official set, so there you go.

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By in United Kingdom,

Fascinating interview. My dream job

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By in United Kingdom,

I have met people who have spent 39, 37 years at Lego - there is a huge amount of knowledge that is invaluable to a company in those minds. Also it is a great example to anyone as they have managed to stick around in good times and bad - a very rare feat.

Justin is a great guy, wishing them all the success in the future, thanks for the interview

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By in United States,

Why does it seem like it's always the same 4 to 5 Lego designers that are interviewed? There must be more than 100 designers for Lego. But we see interviews with same 4 to 5 people. Not just on Brickset, but across all the Lego-related sites and media outlets.

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By in United Kingdom,

@woosterlegos, one reason is that they have to undergo media training before we are let loose on them and because that incurs a cost, not all of them do it/have done it yet.

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By in United States,

@Huw - very interesting to know! Thanks!

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By in Germany,

@woosterlegos: I think in addition to what Huw has said the answer is also the sad fact that the majority of designers at LEGO are those that are responsible for all the boring and uninspired sets that fill the bloated lineup. There have to be many who are tasked with designing stuff like the new Frozen II sets or all the small filler type of sets or all the forgettable larger ones that don't get a designer video.

I mean, back in the old days the catalogue (and there was only one per year) was less than a quarter of the pages and sets we have nowadays. And imho opinion at least, I would gladly lose two thirds of the sets TLG releases every year if that meant getting only the best of the best like those designed by Justin and those other designers that get interviewed or featured in the designer videos. Sets that make people who see them get a sudden urge to get out there and buy them. Not too many of those in the current lineup.

When I see stuff like this

https://www.bluebrixx.com/de/bluebrixxspecials/fire_rescue

https://www.bluebrixx.com/de/bluebrixxspecials/motor_vehicle

https://www.bluebrixx.com/de/bluebrixxspecials/trains

I wonder why there are no designers at TLG who can come up with something similar.
I've recently bought and built some of the above sets and finally it felt like the building techniques of today had met the Legoland Town and Trains world/design language of when I was a kid, meaning mainly European stuff one can actually recognize from everyday life, not almost everything based on American TV show style life.

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By in United Kingdom,

@AustinPowers - let me know when bluebrixx gets to TLG's size and we can do a comparison.

Also there is life on Earth beyond Europe (and the US) and toy companies do not necessarily focus on a small entitled group of kids.
Look beyond the toy industry, movies / clothes / food everything is global with major conglomerates driving taste and as a result - MONEY.

Now back to the article - designers are just like ordinary people (yes I know...) some of them are fit for talking to media and participating fan events, some prefer to work behind the scenes.
I really started to appreciate Brickset's filtering capabilities after getting to meet certain designers, now I can hunt for their sets - albeit everyone has their highs and lows and there is a big difference when you work on a project connected to an IP or Ideas or a more traditional theme.
there are limits, sadly.

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By in Luxembourg,

Thank you very much for a great interview.

@csiramokus you have a point with some designers being more open to that public scrutiny. Having met Justin in June during the Lego Inside Tour I can honestly say that he is as outgoing and frankly slightly crazy, as he sounds and comes across. Which was great. Actually many of the designers we met were.

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By in Belgium,

Great interview, thanks a lot!

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By in United States,

@AustinPowers:
Yes, it's true that available parts did limit designs back in the 90's. I once determined that 2004 is the first year that my car collection became possible, as too many key elements (like cheese wedges) simply didn't exist before then. But, as I just said, at that time there was not a lot of connection to the outside world when it came to LEGO set design (there's a great video by former LEGO Direct employee Jake McKee that does a fantastic job of explaining this). AFOLs were really just starting to coalesce into an online community, but once that got going it just snowballed. Even so, it wasn't until probably the very late 90's to early 00's that the set designers really started to pay attention to us.

@Huw:
Some of them may be using that as a convenient excuse. MichLUG has around 40-50 members now, and yet almost nobody jumps up to volunteer when someone wants to do a televised interview. I don't think even ten members have interviews under our belts, and a couple of those have only done them when they were specifically requested based on the models they were displaying. I think I've only done one myself, and I may have been the only member in the building at the time. So, throw in a required training course, and it becomes a very easy way to duck being put on camera.

@csiramokus:
Indeed, North America's fan outreach department basically got gutted a few years ago in the push to develop the Asian market, with heavy focus on China. Europe probably only avoided the same treatment because it's home turf.

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By in Germany,

Great insights guys.

Block 'n' Roll :o)

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By in United States,

@AustinPowers: Just had a quick browse through those custom designs you shared, and they're OK I guess, but not super remarkable either by set or MOC standards. It's fine if you'd like to see more official sets depicting that type of subject matter, but the lack of such sets isn't because the designers of current sets somehow aren't capable of this level of design… after all, most of the techniques on display in those models are not unlike those we've been seeing in Brickshelf galleries and LEGOLAND park display models for decades at this point.

If you don't believe me, look at some of the designers who had a highly accomplished reputation as MOCists even before getting hired as official designers:

Adam Grabowski: http://www.brickshelf.com/cgi-bin/gallery.cgi?m=misterzumbi
Mark Stafford: http://www.brickshelf.com/cgi-bin/gallery.cgi?m=Nabii
Joel Baker: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joel_baker/
Mike Psiaki: http://www.brickshelf.com/cgi-bin/gallery.cgi?m=mikepsiaki
Nick Vas: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brickthing/
Pierre Normandin: http://www.brickshelf.com/cgi-bin/gallery.cgi?m=pnorm

You can compare these against the BrickLists of these designers at https://brickset.com/bricklists/featured and see that even many designers who created the types of modern sets you turn up your nose at have demonstrated great aptitude at building the types of "traditional" subject matter at the level of detail in some of those custom examples you linked to.

Overall, it's valid for you to feel frustrated or let down by stuff you find lacking in the current LEGO product range, but please don't think that's reason to disparage the skill level or creativity of LEGO's product designers!

After all, in a lot of cases, considerations like optimizing sets for particular price points or tailoring them to a particular age group requires even harder work and greater creativity and problem-solving skills from designers than anything that MOCists ever have to deal with. If it were just about designing for looks, that would be a very different matter!

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By in United States,

@Aanchir:
One of the biggest hurdles that AFOLs-turned-designers have to deal with is that the sort of things they can get away with on MOCs simply won't fly in official sets. I remember reading an interview where someone from the community was discussing what it was like guest-designing for one wave of sets, and pretty much every model he came up with got shot down for being too impractical to adapt into a marketable set.

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