Monday, August 20, 2012

TBs TechTalk 06 - LEGO Technic Building Instructions

Hi Jeppe,

In order to prepare this interview, we asked the LEGO Technic fans community and TBs readers to raise their own questions and concerns.
The input was overwhelming and this made it a bit difficult to summarize all into a manageable set of questions…
But finally here they are!

TBs: From the first Designers Bios pages at, we learned that you were the responsible to produce the BI for LEGO Technic sets.
However later we realized that you also design your own new sets, like it was the case of 8069 Backhoe, and more recently it seems you have also assumed a team management role.
Did you work alone to produce BI for all the Technic assortment those past years, or there were also some other BI designers working with you?
How did it happen with you, when you moved from BI design to sets design?

JJ: Well, I have moved around a bit the last 5-6years. I started out in the Technic department as a Building Instruction Developer - currently the BI team in Technic consist of four people. Later I transferred to the design team in LEGO Technic and recently I became the Design Manager of LEGO Technic. I guess a combination of circumstances, development of skills and my own motivation has led me through this path. Have enjoyed and are enjoying every moment of it!

TBs: The images from the new models we see at the early box mockups, look like CAD renders. Is the artwork on production boxes also based on CAD models, or are they taken from photos of the real models even if digitally reworked afterwards?

JJ: So far almost all the boxes we have done have been based on real-life photos.

TBs: There is some curiosity regarding the tools you use to produce your 3D models and renderings. It is known that TLG uses Autodesk Maya but is there anything else you can disclose about this?
Are the BI also produced with the support of Maya tools suite, or there are some other tools being used in the process?
When building each model in CAD do you simply use Maya parts library, or do you use also any other software which automatically applies constraints (similar to LDD and SR3D) - e.g. do you make use of Maya API to prevent bricks from overlapping?

JJ: Depending on how far we are in the development process we use several different 3D software packages and DTP (Desktop Publishing) software packages. The most important one is a 3D tool that LEGO has developed especially for our own purpose. In this tool we build the 3D LEGO model, do the building instructions and make animations of the models.

TBs: 3D renderings are used for box art, ads, promotional images and videos, and of course also contained in the final BI.
Who has the task to build the models within the CAD software, and at what point in the design process does it begins?

JJ: It is the Building Instruction team who builds our models in 3D. Typically it happens when the design of the model is done, but on some models it also makes sense to use a preliminary 3D model during our design phase.

TBs: Here we got the most questions, comments, suggestions and even complaints…
Old sets instructions had a lot fewer steps and many more parts were used at each step or BI page (numerous examples can be listed here). For many, this was a lot more fun and challenging!
Then suddenly tenths of pages turned into hundreds at larger sets. Mirrored sub-assemblies got repeated, etc. Why did this change so dramatically?
Do you think kids today prefer it this way? Would they give-up building more easily or won't understand the instructions if done otherwise?
Also target ages of similar sets have not decreased (on the contrary) and after all Technic an SYSTEM sets might have different audiences.
Furthermore how does this fit with your corporate environmental responsibility, besides having eliminated paper instructions for B-models in between?

JJ: A big part of both designing a model and making the Building Instructions is to make sure that a certain age group of kids can build the models. We do a lot of testing with kids to make sure that we are giving them just the help they need during the build - relative to their age. That is also about how many elements we can add to the model per step/page in the instructions. The Technic models have also become much more complex and contains more elements than some of the older models - thus requiring more pages to make the full building experience as satisfying as possible. The example of the mirrored sub-assembly is actually a good one. There is no doubt that kids wouldn't understand an instruction based on "build X2, but one mirrored". We are learning all the time and we always strive to use our newest insights to improve the building and play experience of our models. In regards to our environmental responsibility, we take that very seriously and always try to use as little paper as possible without compromising the building experience.

TBs: Is it correct to think it was a consequence of changing the building paradigm from studed beams (upwards building) to studless design (from inside to outside building), that made instructions to grow significantly? Or in other words, has studless construction made instructions more difficult to create, or has it directly increased the number of stages?
If you were to design new instructions for an old set like 8880, what would you do differently now?
Would there be more steps? More modules? Would the build order change?

JJ: I don't think the change from studded beams to stud-less beams as such made instructions grow in size. I think the new way of building with studless beams have given us the possibility to build more authentic looking models with functions that also are more realistic. At the same time the number of elements in the sets has also grown over the years. That fact and the fact of new insights as mentioned earlier is some of the factors that has had an impact on the sizes of the instructions. It is very difficult to answer the questions about re-doing the instructions of 8880 without actually trying it out form start to finish. I think some of it would come out very different and some it would be very much the same.

Old 8880 Supercar building instructions sample page, with relative high count of parts added per building step.

TBs: What process goes in to determining the instruction steps and build order? Who decides the build order in instructions and how is it decided?
How much input and collaboration or influence, is there from the Designer of each set on the BI creation process?
Who decides if a step should be divided in several sub-steps?

JJ: See other answers.

TBs: It was written somewhere that you separate a model by hand, to make steps and then make them digitally. How do you know where to begin and what should come next?
Is it true that you make the instructions by building each step and placing them over long tables, so that for instance in case of a 100 steps set you would have 100 progressive partial buildings?

JJ: Yes it is true that part of the development of the building instructions involves breaking the model down in physical steps and laying them out on long tables. The building experience is also a very big part of the design of the model - this work is done in cooperation between the designer and the building instruction developer - by that the starting point of the build is defined during that work. In some Technic models you have to follow a very specific order to be able to build them at all. The locking of the structures during the build is one of the things that smoetimes makes it impossible to follow a different order. But a lot of the different sub-assemblies can typically be done in many different ways. To make sure that it works out in the end we simply need to build it through again and again!

TBs: Do you use to change the models, so that they get easier to assemble? Or did you ever had to change a design because suitable instructions could not be made?
Also, to what extent are the set design and instructions design linked? I.e. when designing the model itself (not the instructions), how much thought does go to the building process and are concessions done to make the building process easier? Or are set design and instruction design separate, to ensure an optimal set design?

JJ: See above.

TBs: How many revisions are there for instructions? In what way is the difficulty of the building process tested? And what is the level of difficulty you aim for?

JJ: When developing the instructions we go through many revisions, depending on the size and complexity of the model. Part of the work with building instructions involves testing with kids in different age groups to make sure that we hit the right level of difficulty - we always aim for the age mark on the specific model (eg. 10-16).

TBs: Is there any difference in making instructions for a main model, compared to a B-model? Which ones?

JJ: No, basically not. We put the same amount of work and care in to the development of both A- and B-model instructions.

TBs: How the number of BI books are decided?
Why do the small Technic sets often have several booklets to build the main model, instead of one single booklet?
Often the instructions appear not breakdown in a very logical way, split up into as many as five separate books in some cases (even for the B-model online only instructions) and the latest booklet is sometimes considerably smaller then the other ones.

JJ: Well, we try to do it in a logical way, but at the same time we are also bound by other factors, e.g. the standards of printing technology (like that the number of pages have to be dividable by 4 (as we print on four-page sheets.) and how we can handle it in production.

TBs: Also in 2011 you have experimented to release instructions without the small slits between axle holes on Technic beams (8109). And you generalized this in 2012.
Some feel it ugly and looking like Meccano... They even fear that you do that to real beams, which I doubt for obvious reasons.
Now that CAD tools would deal with extra detail more and more easily, why did you take such simplification? Apparently just to improve readability!? Do you think it is worth as an improvement or that was real need for that?

JJ: Yes, after extensive testing with kids we decided to remove the slits in the building instructions as it didn't add anything to the building experience - but it did make it more readable and easier for the kids to see what is going on in the steps. By that it improves the building experience for the kids. And fear not, we do not have any plans about doing that to the real beams!

An example of older instructions with the slits in Technic beams on the left and the current simplified representation on the right.
Indeed the new style looks cleaner, besides less realistic.

TBs: Thanks a lot for your time! It was really great to know more about the process how the building instructions for the LEGO Technic sets are prepared.

JJ: You are welcome!

Some other questions sent were left unanswered for a couple of reasons. Below I'm listing those questions for your information.

TBs: Will we ever be able to tell apart black from dark gray any better? This is often very hard to distinguish even with good lightening conditions while building.
Sometimes builders experience some frustration when they have to replace parts in the middle of a model, because they have used the wrong color several steps behind...
Black and dark grey could be better distinguished by having the black parts with a white or grey outline. Like in LDD 4.2 can the outlines of black parts be highlighted in white or grey, to make them easier to see when there are numerous black parts joined together?

TBs: Now that B-model instructions have became available only in digital format and that doing the same for the main models might not be the best idea… but since both became available in digital, have you ever considered taking it a step further and turn them available also in LDD format or similar?
Thus one can actually rotate the model and choose the best 3D perspective for each step, in case of doubt. The instructions could also be adjustable to the level of expertise of the builder, by including more/less details about beam lengths for instance, bigger/smaller steps, etc.
Just an idea rolling out...

TBs: In 2011 you started to release very poor quality building instructions online. Their resolution was noticeably very low!
This has improved again in 2012, but why did you take the decision to produce such low quality instructions before?

TBs: Some from old school remember and miss the old Technic Idea Books like 8888. :)
What do you think that have changed meanwhile, so that LEGO doesn't invest anymore developing and commercializing these? Bet you're plenty of original ideas in your drawers that could see the light in such Idea Books.


Ryan said...

I am still of the opinion the building instructions should not be too easy! It is important young lego builders are challenged. If every thing is too easy they will never gain knowledge from their errors. Of course errors should not be unacceptable, but it is not a bad thing a younr builder should do some effort to build a model.This also goes for the slits. This is the way the parts look; don't change it... It looks extremely ugly!

Ondra said...

I like easy instruction, I dont have problem with old instructions but these new models are more complex than nineties sets.And I think there are also kids that rather play with sets than building it.

Allanp said...

When asked about the many steps of instructions and them being made too easy, I think we all already knew what his answer was gonna be, it's for target age groups, we do testing on that age group, etc, etc. Hearing the same thing again doesn't convince me anymore that they need to be made so mind numbingly simple. The largest sets are as easy to build as the smallest sets, it just takes longer. The unimog is like building 10 small sets. Anyway, great interview and thanks for posting!

carolyn said...

Dear Technic Designer, My 8 year old son recently completed the 4x4 Crawler set, his all time favorite creation. He added a feature that he wished to share with the design team to potentially add to your next version. Working headlights were attached using the lights that come with the Power Functions set by removing the false lights, replacing with the real lights and connecting to the battery pack. This feature adds a great dimension to the car as it can now be driven in the dark. He hopes you will consider this suggestion and believes that it will enhance its desirability and functionality a lowithout much cost or complication in design revision.
Thanks for listening and keep up the great work.
Best wishes, Carolyn

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