Tuesday, February 22, 2011

TBs TechTalk 05 - with Nathanaël Kuipers (Part I)

[Part II]

TBs has arranged an interview with one of the most known Technic builders and former LEGO Technic designer – Nathanaël Kuipers, aka Industrial Designer.

Hi Nathanaël,

Thanks for accepting to do this interview for TBs!
In short this is what we already know about you: 31 years old, born and graduated as Industrial Designer in the Netherlands, now living and working as Product Developer in Sweden. Once you become a LEGO Designer (a dream made true), but after 3 years you decided to give a try to other professional experiences.
One of your interests is to build alternates from a LEGO set, something you keep doing occasionally.
Since 2003/04 your Technic Supercar models set a reference for many Technic builders out there, who follow your work with attention. But you still do, being the Concept and Concept 4x4 your latest references in the subject.

NK: Thank you TBs for the invitation. It's a privilege to be asked for such a well known and respected website. You seem to have done your homework, because all the information is correct. Not sure though if my Technic Supercars set a reference, but if you say so...

TBs: Before becoming a LEGO Designer and as most of us, you certainly have played with LEGO bricks in your childhood. Which memories do you have from your first LEGO set? At which age did you get it? Can you still remember which set it was?

NK: To be honest I can't remember getting my first set, probably because I was too young at just 4 of age. Luckily when I was a bit older my parents could tell me that it was my aunt who had the première of giving me set 625 as my first official LEGO set. Apparently this was very well received, which soon led to an expanded collection. Not much else to say about my first set, except that the excavator arm was a weak part of which several broke. Sorry that I can not mention something a bit more positive, but this is what I can still remember of this set today.

TBs: Once you became a LEGO Designer, you developed several models for the Creator and Technic themes. Can you tell us a bit of your experience there? The joy, the excitements, the frustrations and difficulties, etc…

NK: Of course when TLG contacted me if I was interested to work freelance for them, I was so excited, because it was like a dream coming true. Soon after I started this period they offered me a position, and the first year as an official LEGO designer I was just with my heads in the clouds, so nothing could really bother me.
Yes, sometimes there were situations which were a bit disappointing like a colleague who had to finish a model that I started in a period that I was absent, and afterwards discover that certain design elements were left out, which I thought characterised the model. Something my colleague couldn't have known, nothing we could change, so you accept it and move on.

It's a bit of a different story though when you work for about half a year on a model and then the biggest retailers of the market refuse to put it on the shelves, because they are worried it cannibalizes on another model that is launched that same year. Everyone was a bit disillusioned, me in particular, putting my almost fully developed 'baby' on indefinite hold. Soon afterwards it was completely cancelled...

Opposite scenarios are also possible. This happened for example when some colleagues from Creator had presented their conceptual models as alternates for set 4993 Cool Convertible. The idea of a skid loader was so well received that the retailers insisted to have this as a set alternative. The problem however was that this model was shown in a very conceptual state in which certain essential elements were added to give the model its functionality. Because of a very tight budget for this model it was impossible in the end to add these special parts in the set. In a very limited time frame I was asked to come up with a solution that would:
   a. Have a working lifting function
   b. Have a structure that was able to cope with some abuse during play
   c. Be possible to build by the target group of kids
   d. Have the look and feel of the original concept
It's not so difficult to imagine that this was quite a challenge, especially considering the parts inventory I had to work with. My experience with Technic came in quite handy, and was probably the main reason why they put me on this task.

TBs: Alternate models from a set, seems to be one of your most favourite challenges (or should I call it an hobby?). With a few notable exceptions, we don't see many AFOLs doing this.
Thinking on a model to build from a predefined set of parts and leaving the minimum of them unused, while trying to get something recognizable and appealing as the final result, seems to be a pretty difficult task.
How do you use to approach this exercise? Do you consider it a difficult one? Which was the set/alternate that challenged you most, in order to come up with the alternate model? Why?

NK: When I started to build again after my dark-ages I didn't want to mix old with new bricks.  In this period I had to get used to all kind of new parts, so I started to experiment a bit. At the same time I just wanted to see if it was possible to come up with better alternatives than the official ones.
How difficult it is to come up with a good alternative depends greatly on the parts inventory (design and colour), my mood, and the theme of a set, as I prefer to have suitable models. Considering these, the easiest themes for me are vehicle related, the hardest animal. Another challenge is to add relevant functions in an alternate, which was for example the case with my jet alternative from set 4403, or the previously mentioned skid loader.

Respectively alternates for the sets: 4403, 4939, 4506 and 8436

TBs: As we know, some of your first models as an AFOL, specifically in Technic, were made as a combination of two models (8458 Silver Champion and 8466 4x4 Off-Roader). This is also a kind of alternate, but at a larger scale (more than 2.500 parts combined).
We can think about it as a bigger challenge in one way, or a smaller one if we consider you have more parts at hand and a lot more options. That's probably the reason why you made more than one model, out of these two.
The idea, the challenges, the compromises - What do you recall about this MOC?

NK: To me it all started with the legendary set 8448. Even though building with LEGO wasn't one of my activities at the time, I still followed the model developments closely. When I saw this set in the catalogue I was very tempted to buy it, but unfortunately never did. Then when set #8458 came out the year after, I couldn't resist any longer and purchased a copy.
The next step was to design a sportscar with it inspired by set 8448. While the model came out decent, to me it missed the spirit of the real LEGO 'supercars' due to the lack of a gearbox. This was the main reason why I bought set 8466.
My first intention was then to update the sportscar with a gearbox, but in the end it turned out in quite a different design. At this point I also started to discover the online community.

After getting in touch with 2 other talented Technic builders we started talking about what would be the ultimate LEGO 'supercar', and challenged each other to design one. I believed that it was possible to make one using these same 2 sets again. (I didn't have much choice anyway, with the limited amount of Technic I had back then.) Different than the previous times, the building process started with several exploration phases, just to see in which direction I thought the model should go. Once I had a better understanding of the possibilities, the final design had to be a combination of the most interesting ideas. It took about a month before everything came together, and I was able to present the final result. So the 'Supercar' was born then, and seems to hold quite well even today...

TBs: While at TLG, you have also designed several alternate models for some Creator sets. We know that in the Technic theme this is usually also done by the designer of the main model, because he's who better knows the part assortment used.
Is it different for other themes? Or did you develop some rare skills that made you the guy to call when it comes to make alternative models?

NK: At TLG it looks like the main themes that have alternates as a key selling point are Technic and Creator. Most other lines have a higher focus on role playing, which also seems to be the trend of today's toys.
Of course the designer of a model has the advantage of knowing the parts inventory best, and therefore likely finds it easier to come up with an interesting alternate too. While this is generally the case, there are always exceptions to the rule. If I can be considered one of them I do not know. The idea of building with a limited parts palette however, is something I have always found quite intriguing.

Nathanaël designed the Truck for set 4939, and the Hovercraft for set 4997.

TBs: Nathanaël, out of curiosity - having you designed so many alternate great alternate models, did you also design all the alternates for your Technic main models?

NK: Unfortunately I only designed the official alternate for 8292.

The skid loader I made for 8271 did not make it in the box, but I was still allowed to publish it later myself.

TBs: Now looking backwards, is it a difficult job, to be a LEGO Designer? Why?

NK: It all depends on what your expectations are, and how easy you adjust and fit in.
Not everyone can cope with all the limitations you have to work within. There are project briefings mentioning target group, budgets, and deadlines; parts and/or colours which are discontinued; models and concepts that never make it to market... Pretty much the usual business one can expect from any commercial company.
Besides job related issues, there is the possible culture and regulation differences someone might experience from Denmark as a country. Also the difficult language and Scandinavian climate could be of influence.

Lets focus now more on your LEGO Technic interests, which is probably also the most appealing topic for our readership at TBs.

TBs: During the creative process, do you use to feel the need of certain never released elements, in order to achieve some type of arrangement more effectively?
Can you describe how such elements would look like?

NK: With the available parts in Technic today there's already a whole lot possible. In the past few years I believe some very useful parts have been added to the portfolio. Not that I really needed  them, because often there are ways to work around things, but they can come in handy and often lead to less complicated solutions.
Sometimes we also do not realise the potential of a part until we start using it. Therefore when new  Technic parts are developed at TLG, a lot of time is spent building with prototypes to evaluate possibilities and limitations. Often the end result is the best compromise between versatile - and intuitive design.
So what is still on my wishlist? One problem that I run into is how to make a strong and simple studless construction for getting the catch of a transmission changeover catch (part 6641) in the centre of a transmission driving ring (part 6539). Because those were both developed during the 'old' Technic brick based era, it always requires half a module offset somewhere in today's structure. I find that quite annoying, so I would like to see a solution that stays 'in system', although I also prefer not to have a system any bigger as it is today.

TBs: From the actual assortment, which is your preferred Technic part? Why?
Do the LEGO designers use to propose new elements, to make their constructions easier and to open new building possibilities? Is there any of the actual parts, that was proposed by you?

NK: Proposals for new parts is an ongoing business which is mainly driven by the designers when they experience certain difficulties developing the models. One part I personally advocated was the T-beam (part 60484), so it should come as no surprise that this one is also among my favourites. Another element I find very useful is joiner 48989, and even though it has some drawbacks, it has served me well on many occasions. The element I'm trying to avoid most is 2 module half beams (part 41677). Put 2 together on a pair of axles and they form a very strong connection, which sounds great, but I find it annoying and difficult to separate them again. To me they are a 'cheap' solution and a quick fix, so if possible I prefer to solve things differently.

TBs: Which are your most favourite Technic sets ever? Some that stands out from the rest!?

NK: Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated by cars; the perfect match between aesthetics, engineering and technology. So the logical conclusion is that 'supercars' like 8880, and 8448 are on top of my list.
Actually, besides the cars, Technic was not a theme I was particularly interested in until the millennium shift. That is a pity, because it is only now that I also start to see and appreciate the complexity of sets like 8868 Air Tech Claw Rig and 8480 Space Shuttle. The recently announced set 8110 Unimog looks interesting too and perhaps could be seen as today's counterpart of the Air Tech Claw Rig, considering the technology.

To be continued...


Junkstyle Gio said...

So far: SOOOO good!
I really loved to read some "more" about the initial ideas of a model and how things are always a compromise between the design en the retail-version.

Can't wait to read more.

Anonymous said...

Good interview, Conchas! :)

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the interview Conchas !


al said...

Dudes got good taste when it comes to picking great models and ideas for new parts. Great interview so far!

Menno Gorter said...

Hey Nathanaël,

You still didn't answer your own question about the size of a minifig's head. :-)

If you have to many of those 2 module half beams (part 41677); please give them to me. ;-)
I can't imagine a build without these.

Since this is the minor part I disagree, I realy enjoyed the whole interview.

Paul Boratko said...

Nathanael... My Idol... :)

Alberto said...

where i can find the instructions for the 8271 skid loader alternative model that were not included in the box?

Conchas said...


I don't know about instructions for this Skid Loader.
Although you may find several pictures, here.

Anonymous said...

Great! Especially two things strongly remind me of my own experience:

One of my very first sets the 6662 Backhoe had this excavator arm part too. It wasn't the only part from this set which broke.

And I do agree disliking 2 module half beams coming in twos. Hard to put together, hard to separate. Unfortunately some designers use this combination as if it was one part. In the first technic set after my dark ages 8262 Quad-Bike I found this poor solution seven times and was initially shocked how difficult technic building had become.

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