I took a trip to the Headquarters of LEGO in the later part of summer for the Recognised LEGO Fan Media Days but I was also there with the purpose to catch up with my friend and the only LEGO Designer from Singapore.
We had a nice chat over home made tea about his favourite LEGO sets that he grew up with as a child to how it is like living so far away from home. He also touches upon a certain Toys ‘R’ Us exclusive Harry Potter set that has since been a runaway hit.
I knew Chee Woon Tze (WT) before he applied to be a LEGO designer while he was still tinkering in his studio, churning out Batmobiles and various Bat-vehicles and was simply elated when he got the job. He has since designed sets from Mighty Micros, Harry Potter, Marvel Superheroes, Jurassic World and the SDCC BrickHeadz Spiderman /Venom set.
He is currently on the LEGO Overwatch team and I did try asking questions but all is quiet on that front. It is without further ado, here is my exclusive interview with Singapore’s first LEGO Designer.
WT : My very first LEGO set was the 6080 “King’s Castle”, I still have it today complete with box and all pieces. That was the only LEGO set I had as a child and I loved it. I am very much a fanatic when it comes to toys, cartoons and comics, whether it was back then or now. I had quite a collection of toys and comic books when I was young, and I really cherished each and every one of them.
WT : As I grew older I gradually went into many years of non-contact with LEGO products, what fans would refer to as “the dark ages”. I reconnected with LEGO products in 2013 when I bought my son his first LEGO set, the Dino Defense HQ (5887). As I was building it with him, the quality, coolness, and play
features of the set rekindled my love for building with LEGO bricks.
WT : I was fascinated at how this was achieved by just snapping some LEGO bricks together, it inspired me to start making “My Own Creation” or “MOC”, a term I wasn’t even familiar with at that time. I wanted to see what I could do creatively with those bricks. Once I started making my own build, it opened up a whole new world to me. I learned about the LEGO Digital Designer computer program, how to buy loose LEGO pieces online and became active in the LEGO fan community in Singapore.
Each completed project gave me confidence to start another; very soon I became really passionate about it. I used to wake up very early in the morning, worked on my model for about 2-3 hours before getting ready for work at 7am. I was doing this routinely for about 2 years. When my family and friends found out about it, they thought I was crazy and they were probably right. Looking back I do not recommend doing this, it is important to have a good and healthy rest.
WT : Many designers at the LEGO Group will be able to tell you amazing stories about their dream of becoming a LEGO designer when they were young and how they finally fulfilled that lifelong ambition when they joined the company. Unfortunately I do not have a story like that. As much as I enjoyed playing with LEGO bricks as a kid, I had never thought of becoming a LEGO designer because I didn’t know such job even existed! Growing up I heard people talk about becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer; and if you are slightly creative like me, architect seemed to be an obvious choice.
WT : It was an online application and applicants were required to send in a CV and portfolio. As I considered myself fairly new in making MOCs and had only been doing it for about two years at the time, I practically included all the models I had made in my portfolio. I would think people with more works would select only their best to show.
About two weeks after sending in my application, I got an e-mail scheduling for a video call interview. I was later invited to a recruitment design workshop in Billund, where about 40 participants were required to complete multiple design tasks over a period of 2 days. At the end of the workshop we were informed that there were originally over 700 applications from all over the world! The workshop to me was truly an eye-opener and a memorable experience, just being able to attend was to me a great achievement. Through the workshop I met and befriended many talented individuals, many of them I still keep in touch with today.
WT : After the workshop we waited for about a month for the potentially life changing phone call, it felt like the longest month in my life! All participants would receive feedback on how they performed as well as areas of improvement; those who were not successful were encouraged to try again in the future. For the workshop I was in, some participants attended for their 2nd or 3rd time! Therefore, I consider myself really lucky and blessed to have been among the selected few that “made it”.
WT : I suppose my architecture background thought me how to put “bricks” together? Actually, I would think having any design background helps. However, we do have many LEGO designers that do not have a design background and are great model designers too, so I wouldn’t say it is an absolute criterion.
I think having a design background prepares you for the creative process, such as working in a team, working with deadlines and constraints, taking feedback and criticism, and working through multiple iterations before arriving at the final design.
Ultimately LEGO is also a system of play that has over 60 years of history. If you are passionate about building with LEGO bricks and have a thorough understanding of the system, as well as the creativity to explore and push the boundary of how these elements can be connected together, then potentially you can be a good LEGO designer too.
WT : It is awesome! It is everything I imagined it to be, and more! The company culture is fantastic; the people are fun, friendly and helpful, and I get to do what I love to do everyday! One of the things I like most about working at the LEGO Group is that there is an exceptional level of trust and respect among colleagues, and it doesn’t matter what your job title is. A senior colleague once said that job titles are a representation of responsibilities and not status. To me that is really admirable.
WT : As a LEGO designer your task is to deliver the best LEGO model possible that includes fun play features, logical building flow, high product safety and quality, and complexity that matches the targeted age group. To achieve these, our models go through a multitude of tests, one of which is testing ideas and models with children to ensure that we are delivering the best toy for them. It is extremely motivating to see children really having fun with what you have designed. It is important to mention that although designers are primarily responsible for a model, it is always a collaborative effort.
A project team would include marketing, element designer, graphic designer, model coach, building instruction designer, as well as quality and safety. Through feedback and suggestions, everyone contributes in shaping the model to its final form. Sometimes other designers from another team might be interested in what you are working on, and many of their ideas and suggestions might end up getting incorporated into the model. Being able to work in an environment where everyone shares the same goal in making the best LEGO model possible is what makes the design process so fun and interesting.
WT : I am happy just being a LEGO designer and be part of a diverse family of more than 200 designers represented by 39 different nationalities. I personally think everyone stands an equal opportunity of becoming a LEGO designer. Perhaps like me many people didn’t know about the job, or maybe some of them have reasons for not applying. I would definitely encourage people to try, as I mentioned earlier, even just having the opportunity to attend the recruitment workshop would be a memorable experience.
WT : As I’ve only been here for about 2 years, I sometimes still discover or learn new things and wouldn’t consider myself an expert to talk about living in Denmark. When I first arrived it was late summer, the very first thing that struck me was that the sun sets at about 10-11 p.m. and rises around 4-5 a.m. It was rather difficult to convince our children to sleep early. This changes in winter when the sun sets at about 4-5 p.m. and rises around 9-10 a.m. The weather can be rather unpredictable; hence a short outing with our children often requires us to pack as much clothing as we are going on a small vacation.
WT : The best thing about Denmark, in my opinion, is work-life balance. Throughout my many years of working in different companies, I heard this term being mentioned a lot but have never truly experienced it until I started working here. It is not only common, but also encouraged to leave work on time so you can spend quality time with family, friends or just yourself. This actually resulted in people using work time effectively; everything would be scheduled accordingly and is important to finish as planned. This concept also extends to school where they have no textbooks or homework, giving children more opportunity for play and activities while maintaining their natural curiosity to learn more.
WT : Our children absolutely love school. As I spend most of my time in this small Billund town, I would imagine it being different from larger cities in Denmark. Denmark has an egalitarian culture where treating everyone equal is the way of life. The locals are very welcoming; there are many events and activities where people can participate and get to know others better. There is also a large international community here and the locals speak good English, so communicating is relatively easy. To some extent you almost feel as if you know everyone here and I actually like it. When it comes to food, we really miss Singapore.
WT : When I first started I was with the Super Heroes team, so the first set or rather sets that I worked on were the 2018 Mighty Micros (76089, 76090, 76091, 76092, 76093 & 76094).
All 6 sets were developed at the same time. After that I worked on three BrickHeadz namely Flash (41598), Aquaman (41600) and Cyborg (41601), and was lucky enough to also work on the 2018 San Diego Comic Convention exclusive BrickHeadz, Spider-Man andVenom set (41497).
Working on these Mighty Micros and BrickHeadz really showed me how difficult it is to build small and simple. Trying to capture the unique and iconic
features of a character or vehicle, while being restricted by simplicity of the design really challenges your creativity. You need to think about every piece that goes on the model as it changes the silhouette or look significantly. The last set I worked on with the Super Heroes team was for Marvel Avengers Infinity War: The Hulkbuster Smash-up (76104). I was very passionate to work on that, as I am a big fan of the Marvel movies.
After that I joined the IP team and worked on sets for Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom: Stygimoloch Breakout (75927), Blue’s Helicopter Pursuit (75928), and the T-Rex promotional prize set (4000031). I also worked on a set for Harry Potter: Hogwarts Express (75955). Our latest collaboration is with Blizzard where we are developing multiple Overwatch building sets across various price points. I really enjoy movies and IPs so I feel right at home joining the team, I think that’s also why they put me there. Having the opportunity to work on these iconic IPs is very exciting.
WT : Normally before we start working on the models, we would have brainstorming sessions within our team to come up with ideas for the sets. We sometimes invite other designers as they might be huge fans of the IP we are working on. These ideas will then be discussed and agreed with the partners, where among the many ideas presented only a few would get “approved”. If the IP license is about a new movie, we will most likely have to work within a more constrained time frame compared to other non-IP teams. We might be developing the products as the movie production is still at a very early stage, in which case we may not get much reference materials.
Nevertheless many of our partners have been working with us for many years now, so we have a very good relationship and they understand our design process well. Working with IP licenses means you must stay true to the IP universe, although we do have some creative freedom particularly when it comes to scale. Buildings or large vehicles are often scaled down to make them a reasonable size for play sets; while in other cases such as the Hulkbuster Smash-up set, the mech-suit was scaled up to make it a cool and playable toy. We also often make suggestions for certain play features to be included that might not be in the original reference material, we just need to make sure they fit the theme and characters.
In general our models need to meet the same quality regarding build, safety and play as any other LEGO models, hence they go through the same amount of tests and development. Sometimes working with IP requires us to create new elements; this is only done if we find no alternative with existing elements. When creating new elements, we have to make sure they fit into the LEGO system.
WT : Adam Grabowski was my mentor. I still remember when I first arrived in Billund, he picked me and my family up from the airport, sent us to our accommodation, brought us to buy some supplies and necessities, and made sure we were settled in before leaving.
Even before he left, I remember him asking me to give him a call should there be an emergency or if I needed help without having to worry about what the time was. We felt very welcomed and well taken care of; it is an experience my family and me will never forget. It is worth mentioning that this isn’t a requirement or protocol of the company, but because he understood it wasn’t easy moving to a new country, moreover with young children.
Adam is a very skilled and experienced LEGO senior designer who designed the highly detailed model of The Tumbler (76023). My first own creation as a fan was a minifigure scale Tumbler, so you can imagine how ecstatic I felt when I was told he was going to be my mentor. He often says that I tend to overcomplicate my design and advises me to find the simplest way to achieve what I am trying to do. Working on the 2018 Mighty Micros sets really helped me with that; Adam designed the 2016 and 2017 Mighty Micros sets.
Working with him has me feeling impressed and humbled all the time. Whenever I get stuck with a particular issue of my model, whether it is about a function or a particular way of building, he is always able to come up with a solution almost instantly. I’ve still got a long way to go in regards to model building when compared to him.
WT : Working with IP materials make it difficult to include easter eggs, often models or decorations need to be referenced accurately. If there are opportunities to include them, I am more likely to make references to the IP universe. For example, in the Aquaman BrickHeadz, I have included the classic character colors of orange and green for the internal bricks.
While for Cyborg BrickHeadz, the internal bricks are transparent red and blue, the colors of the “glowing tech” of his mechanical body. As for Mighty Micros, many of the accessories were not specified in the design brief so those that I have included were just me having fun with the project. For example Spider-
Man uses a shovel going up against Sandman, Starlord has his “Awesome Mix Vol.1” cassette stolen by Nebula, while Brainiac holds the Bottle City of Kandor and Supergirl has a magnifying glass.
In the Jurassic World Stygimoloch breakout set, graphic designer Crystal “Bam” Fontan included a calendar in the lab that has a picture of Brachiosaurus, the first Dinosaurs to appeared in the original Jurassic Park movie, while the date on the calendar points to the release date of the movie on June 11th, 1993.
WT : When working on a model, I aim to use elements that best achieve the shape, proportion and look of the reference material. Therefore I am not sure if I do have a specific go-to element, because I would use whichever element I need. In fact I realize I have very different element palette when I work on different model. I might be using a lot of curves for one but many angular bricks for another. I sometimes even end up using an element that I otherwise might not use anywhere else, it really depends on what model I am working on.
I do like parts such as 30602, 47456, 47457 and 47458, because they allow you to create unique shapes and contours that you are otherwise unable to achieve with regular LEGO bricks. In fact 47456 and 47457 are slightly more special because they are among the few LEGO elements with 2/3 height, hence they are very useful in situation where you need to achieve that height without resorting to stack 2 plates together.
WT : As cliché as it sounds, I would advise people not to give up on their dream. Perhaps the timing isn’t right yet, or maybe there are factors opposing to it currently. Hold on to that dream, don’t give up, work towards it even if it’s little by little, and believe in it, so that they will be ready when the opportunity presents itself. I would be very privileged and honored if my experience and story can inspire someone to pursue their dream and continue believing in themselves.
Woon Tze is currently living the life most of us can dream of as he is working on the much anticipated LEGO Overwatch theme so keep an eye out for his latest offering to the world of LEGO!