Journey to the East: LEGO Senior Design Manager Dennis Fong

In a series of interviews that delve behind the scenes of LEGO latest hit theme LEGO Monkie Kid, I had a chance to pose some questions to LEGO’s Senior Design Manager Dennis Fong who was heavily involved in the creation of the new intellectual property (IP).

Hailing from the sunny island of Singapore, he had a constant fascination and huge passion for product design since young as he felt that it is a great way to envision and build the future. Dennis takes the time today to share with us on some of the inner workings of the LEGO Group and the responsibilities of a LEGO Design Manager.

Brickfinder (BF): Nice to catch up with you Dennis! Could you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Dennis Fong (DF): I am a Senior Design Manager and I’m responsible for the creation and development of new and exciting play themes at the LEGO Group. Driving and supporting product development; from research and insights to management of model assortment with a team of LEGO Model Designers and across functions. Delivering China specific play themes like Chinese Traditional Festival sets and most recently Monkie Kid.

BF: What made the decision to leave Singapore and travel to Italy to pursue a Masters degree?

DF: Temasek Polytechnic provided me the foundation for technical skills and knowledge for product design. After which I wanted to upgrade myself to learn more about design philosophies and the thinking behind it. Back in the days, there wasn’t much options in Singapore, therefore I was fortunate to attend Domus Academy in Milan where I was able to receive higher learning in Design.

BF: What is your first memory of LEGO?

DF: My first LEGO set was 912 – LEGO Universal Building System, that’s what it was called back then (aren’t I giving away my age here?!) There were loads of basic black and yellow bricks, wheels, a gigantic motor and battery box in there to make my creations come alive!

If I remember correctly, the minifigures didn’t have face prints and no movable arms and legs! Inspirational model images were on every inch of the box which I especially loved and it inspired me to build and play for hours. Another thing from this set that left a deep impression on me was the packaging.

It has this top lid that opens and closes, revealing LEGO elements laid out in several neatly distributed compartments, which also makes for good storage. Now in hindsight, truly one of the best gifts from my Dad!

BF What made you want to join the LEGO Group as a concept designer?

DF: After graduation, I went back to Singapore and started at a Design consultancy. However from the beginning, I have always had a longing aspiration to work abroad in wanting to expand and build up my career with an international design experience.

Then one day a friend shared the news that the LEGO Group is in town hiring Asian designers. It sounded fun and interesting, and so I told myself why not give it a go?! One interview led to another and as they say, the rest is history!

LEGO Senior Design Manager Dennis Fong (L); LEGO Designer Nick Vas (R)

When I started my LEGO journey in Singapore back in 2000, I was heavily involved with front-end innovation of new LEGO play concepts and experiences that were never seen before. Over the years, I was also responsible for setting up and heading LEGO Design Studios in Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai before relocating to LEGO Headquarters in Billünd, Denmark, in late 2016.

BF: Did the skills you acquired in Temasek Polytechnic and Domus Academy help with your job?

DF: Absolutely yes! From applying and executing Design processes to structuring concept presentations, I was able to combine and integrate my ideas with the core LEGO values of Fun, Imagination, Creativity, Learning, Caring and Quality to create and develop exciting new play experiences that demonstrates obviously LEGO play but never seen before.

Temasek Polytechnic (Singapore)

Besides that, a lot of it is also about putting yourself in the mindset of children. Imagining back in the days when you were a kid, what toys fascinates and intrigued you and why? How to make construction toys more desirable and fun to play with. Of course, along the way, I’m also truly grateful for many of my fellow LEGO designers who have shared and taught me awesome building techniques that helped to get a deeper understanding and learning of the LEGO System in Play.

BF: How is it like living in Billünd, Denmark?

DF: I now live with my wife and daughter in Aarhus – Denmark’s second largest city after Copenhagen. No doubt Scandinavian culture, food and weather is extremely different, we’ve learned to adapt, appreciate and embrace the Danish culture and we’re truly grateful to have this experience. Life takes you to unexpected places, and though occasionally I still crave for warm weather and local Singapore food, but for me Home is where the family is.

BF: What were some of the themes that you have worked on at the LEGO Group?

For the most part, I was involved in Front-End Innovation, which means providing inspiration and concepts that seeds the maturing of themes like Powers Miners, Atlantis and Ninjago among many others that did not make the cut. After moving to Denmark and having worked in LEGO Billund, I had more opportunities to be involved in down-stream projects where I was responsible for the LEGO Movie Maker from The LEGO Movie 2, Chinese Traditional Festival sets and most recently the launch of LEGO Monkie Kid.

BF: How do the concepts translate into the themes that you mentioned?

DF: It was more of the ideation and visualization through concept art along with various design direction styles whereby the LEGO Group can potentially take a Ninja play-theme and story universe into. That was like back in 2008-2009 and was involved only at its infancy where the LEGO Design Studio in Tokyo seeded concept ideas and provided inspirational materials for Ninjago. After which another Design team in Billünd did most of the heavy-lifting to further develop and mature it to production ready for the inaugural launch of Ninjago in 2011.

BF: You have a very unique perspective of the company having worked 20 years with them. How much has LEGO grown since the beginning?

During my 20 years with LEGO, I have no doubt seen some rather challenging and also good times. For example, back in 2000 the LEGO Group was on an innovation binge. We expanded quickly into new play categories with many new product offerings. Some of which were successful, but many were not. Losing focus of our core offering and straying away from what made us successful in the first place led to near bankruptcy in 2003.

Jorgen Vig Knudstorp Signature figure ⒸLowMango

Fortunately Jorgen Vig Knudstorp CEO of the LEGO Group at that time, emphasized the critical need to re-focus on our core products and offerings. He initiated the thought of going “back to the brick”, streamlined business complexities and element production to help steer the LEGO Group back onto the growth path. Since then, the LEGO Group has been experiencing extraordinary growth year on year and till this day, the number of employees have increased to over 18,000 employees worldwide.

BF: What are some of the new ways that LEGO is evolving?

DF: Another dimension that has clearly changed is the play pattern and touch-points of our target consumers. With everything going digital, we adapt to stay relevant. Now more than ever, we take a consumer centric approach and empathy towards designing products with quantitative and qualitative research to co-create and shape new product offerings.

Niels B. Christiansen holding his own Signature figure

Today we have a new CEO, Niels B. Christiansen who is passionate about digitalization and the toys-to-life play category while still remaining true to LEGO brand values and mission. One thing that remained constant is the brand statement we have at the LEGO Group “Only the Best is Good Enough”. We apply this mindset in our everyday work, ensuring the LEGO Group delivers its brand promise of the highest quality and safety to all our consumers globally.

BF: I read that LEGO Designer Wen Xiaodong did pitch a LEGO Monkey King model during his audition. How was the process like to bring the LEGO Monkie Kid theme from concept to product?

DF: For us it was a “Journey to the East” because right after we were given the Design brief, from the very beginning we made trips to China and involved our Shanghai colleagues in brainstorming workshops to create several concept directions. Subsequently, we made more trips to various cities in China to test and validate our concepts with Chinese kids and parents. This provided us with valuable insights which pointed to the huge potential Monkie Kid has as a promising new playtheme.

It ticked all the boxes of having the right play ingredients which resonated really well with our Chinese consumers as they find it super interesting. At some point we also tested the models in US and Germany as well, where the theme also received really positive feedback. Over time, we shaped the assortment lineup of Monkie Kid and developed model designs based on consumer insights and inputs from our Chinese colleagues.

Back in Billund, we regularly conduct play sessions with kids to test model handling and stability, among other quality tests like heat tests, model design build through with LEGO model coach experts to identify areas for design simplification and improvements. Thereby undergoing several rounds of design iterations until we arrive at the final model design.

In parallel, many other Creatives were also hard at work with designing and developing new element prototypes needed for Monkie Kid, stickers and graphic prints that go onto the model, principle design identity, packaging and last but not least the building experience itself. It was truly a collective team effort to pull it off and excellent collaboration on all fronts. All in all, it was a fun and exciting journey to be involved in the creation and development of LEGO Monkie Kid.

BF: What was your involvement with the LEGO Monkie Kid theme? 

I was involved in the whole Design process of creating and developing LEGO Monkie Kid. From facilitating creative boosts and briefing designers for generating initial concepts and models, to the shaping and management of model assortment across functions and with a team of talented LEGO Model Designers like Joseph, Aaron, Jordan, Chris, Nico, Justin, Li-Yu, Xiaodong, Paul and Alex. Whilst Simon Lucas was our Senior Creative Director on the Team.

From L-R: LEGO Designers Li-Yu Lin, Wen Xiaodong, Chris Perron

BF: I actually love the fact that the original Journey to the West mythology is preserved. As someone with an Asian background, did it help shape the style and concept of the LEGO Monkie Kid?

DF: Yes, absolutely. I have fond memories of watching “Uproar in Heaven”, a classic 1960s animation about Monkey King by Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Though Journey to the West and Monkey King is a 500-year-old legend, it has stood the test of time. It is well-known across generations in China and is still highly relevant today as it has been interpreted in many new ways.

Like in comics, video games, TV series and movies as seen in popular culture today. With my Asian background, I was able to bridge the understanding of values and spirit behind the amazing adventures and rich cast of characters from Journey to the West to colleagues who are less familiar with the legend. The special trait of Monkey King with his 72 transformation ability is also a perfect match to the LEGO brick as a creative building toy because it encourages children’s imagination and creativity for story-telling, role-playing and re-building.

BF: What were some of the concepts that you knew had to be included in the final product? And what were some that did not make the cut?

DF: Since this is the first time we’re developing a new LEGO playtheme rooted in Chinese culture, we wanted to make it distinctively new and fresh. Therefore this explains the vibrant fun colors, humor and eccentric visual style and look as some of the key defining characteristics for LEGO Monkie Kid. At the same time, it has to be authentic to the original legend and culture. In developing LEGO Monkie Kid, it was important for us to maintain the essence and spirit of Monkey King with important icons and symbols featured in characters and model design that are instantly recognizable to introduce the story universe of Monkie Kid.

LEGO Designer Justin Ramsden and the LEGO Monkey King Warrior Mech (80012)

The Monkey King Warrior Mech (80012) was one of the models which got the team super excited because it was designed in the image of the great Monkey King in full glory and a lot of intricate details were put into it. Throughout the design process, we had to prioritize, find creative solutions around challenges and make hard choices based on parameters set by project frames.

BF: Are there any ‘easter eggs’ in the LEGO Monkie Kid that you could share with us? 

DF: Some fun facts are brand new LEGO elements designed for LEGO Monkie Kid, including a new hilt piece for the Golden Staff, headphones and a bespoke wig for Monkie Kid. A new head for Pigsy as well as some new hairpieces and helmet for other characters. (Perfecting a wig can take up to five weeks and the hairpieces are sculpted in a scale three times larger than the minifigure).

Another highlight is model 80012 – Monkey King Warrior Mech, it features the most drum lacquered elements to date. With 119 drum lacquered (metallic gold) elements (in 14 different shapes and not including the foil elements), LEGO model 10266 – NASA Apollo 11 Lunar Lander is the only model that comes closest with 83 drum lacquered elements (in 8 different shapes). I’m also thrilled to share that there will be contents created specially for LEGO Monkie Kid and it will come in the form of a 44-min. special mini movie, followed by 10 episodes of 11 mins TV series.

BF: Which is your favourite set from the LEGO Monkie Kid? And why?

I LOVE all the sets!! Because each of them is truly unique, offers different play and expresses the many hours of passion each designer has invested and put into their models.

BF: Will we get the original Journey to the West characters as LEGO minifigures? 

That’s an awesome idea! In the LEGO world and play universe, anything is possible right? the only limit is your own imagination.

BF: Couple of last questions, what is your favourite LEGO theme of all time?

Obviously, it has to be Monkie Kid! Because it has been an incredible and unforgettable journey, from start to finish it took us 2 whole years to develop and finally launch it. Personally, it is extremely satisfying to see it come to life and getting into the hands of many consumers and kids around the world.

I believe a unique play-theme like Monkie Kid that appeals across generations can unite parents and children in playing more together. I hope they will have as much fun and love for LEGO Monkie Kid as the Design team had creating it. I want to see children play and live out the adventures of Monkie Kid and awaken the hero in themselves.

BF: Any parting words for students hoping to make a career as a concept designer at LEGO?

Having prior Design education is not a pre-requisite in becoming a designer at the LEGO Group. What matters most is how you demonstrate your creativity and passion for the Brick. My advice is to keep playing and experimenting with LEGO bricks. Focus on building and creating things that you are passionate about. Constantly be inspired and learn from other more experienced LEGO builders or AFOLs (Adult Fans of LEGO) to build up a solid foundation of knowledge and building techniques with the LEGO system.

Establish your own LEGO design aesthetic with creative confidence and put together a portfolio of MOCs (My Own Creations) LEGO models that you are really proud of. Then what’s left is be ready to present it when the job opportunity shows up!

There you have it folks! I know that this is basically a wall of text and congratulations on making it all the way to the end. This is one of a handful of interviews that I did with the creative team behind LEGO’s latest hit theme so watch this space for more insight to the making of the LEGO Monkie Kid!

Thank you Dennis for taking the time to answer (in great detail) our questions on your involvement on the Monkie Kid. I really learned a lot.

Do let us know when you’re back on our sunny shores! We’ll go for a bowl of 炸酱面…

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