Ahoy there scallywags, welcome to Episode #15 of Classic-Pirates.com's Behind The Helm'. Your hosts Cutlass_Iz and Captain Zuloo were lucky enough to get the chance to interview Nik Groves, the LEGO designer behind sets such as Soldiers' Fort and Medieval Market Village. Another interview packed to the brim with great info, we've split it in two parts to give you longer to absorb it all!
Listen to the audio interview
And thanks to Izzy, here be the text:
Hello, welcome to another episode of Behind the Helm, I’m Connor Hicks otherwise known as Captain Zuloo in the online world and joining me today is Cutlass_Iz, or Izzy Kilmartin, as we know her personally.
CH: So Izzy, I thought we’d start by having a few words about what our current Lego projects are, you building anything at the moment?
IK: Ah yes, I just today finished building a brick built Lego nativity scene.
CH: Are there any special features about that?
IK: I’ve got a donkey, cow, camel, shepherd, two wise men, Mary, Joseph and the Pièce de résistance baby Jesus. What about you? Have you been building anything lately?
CH: Well, I’m working on a ship that I have called the Grandeur that I have been working on for many months now building and re-building. A number of Bricklink parts have just arrived, so I’m making a good bit of progress with that. We also have somebody else on the line, I’m wondering what your building at the moment, we have Nic in the line.
NG: Hello there, at the moment I am building something very cool, very high price point, it’s a IP tie in, but I can’t say too much about it at the moment or else I will mysteriously disappear at the hands of the Lego assassins, so you’ll have to wait and see.
CH: Well, if you didn’t quite get that, this is Nic Groves, he is a Lego Designer and he designs all of our downfall, so we will find out a little but more about him.
NG: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me on.
CH: Yeah, no worries mate. I’ll start by asking you, did the LEGO obsession start for you?
NG: I think like a lit of kids, I grew up with Lego. I come from a big family, so a lot of my Lego just came in giant Tupperware boxes. It wasn’t until I was actually quite older that I realized that they actually came as sets, so I just assumed that it came in these giant tubs that your older brother handed down to you. (laughs) You know, I was kind of amazed to see it actually came in boxes and sets. I always grew up building spaceships and cars with my brother, which used descend into an all out brick war in the bedroom, much to my mother’s dismay. But sadly once it was deemed that I was too old to play with Lego it got handed onto my younger sister and younger cousins. So I did have quite a long dark period until Lego came up on the horizon work wise and I got back into it.
CH: Okay, cool.
IK: So, you didn’t really have a ‘first set’ then?
NG: I can only remember receiving one set; back when I was very young and it was if I remember correctly a Technic Police Buggy 8230 and it came, back when they did the Technic figure. And I remember thinking that the Technic bricks weren’t as cool as the bricks in my tub, obviously I had an allegiance to System and not Technic from an early age. I remember realizing that they were different but not really understanding why it was kind of a different building system. That is the only set I remember being ‘bought’ other than that is was just this mass pile of bricks in my toy closet.
CH: (laughs) I’m just having a look at that set now, does it have steering does it?
CH: I have never been a huge Technic fan either, always been a System man myself, but as far as Technic sets go, that looks like a pretty good one. Can you tell us some of the sets that you designed?
NG: I’ve been bouncing around in many different themes, when I originally got to Lego, I came into the Creator department, as kind of like an intern doing a few months so see if I liked it at Lego. I actually got to build 4916Mini Monkey he actually wasn’t a big seller but he has a place in my heart because he is so cute. Then I moved onto play things and I kind of ‘cut my teeth’ on Castle, I worked on the Skeleton Tower, so that was kind of like my first major set, then I did Skeleton Attack Ship exclusives, did all the figures for the chess set, then the second year I got to do the Dwarfs Mine Defender, the Troll Warship. Then I moved onto IP’s, I worked on Batman, just finished up on Toy Story, which I’m sure you and your listeners have seen pop-up online here and there, and of course working on Pirates and Medieval Market Village. So I have been around, in my short time at Lego.
CH: Which Pirate sets did you design?
NG: I did Soldiers Fort, 6242.
CH: Ah okay, that is a pretty cool set, that one.
NG: Thank You, Thank You.
IK: So what do you feel is the best part of being a LEGO designer?
NG: The best part is I get to come to work, create a big mess, play with bricks and call it a job. (all laugh) You know, it is pretty cool. Although it has its stressful moments just like any other job, but when you take a step back and look at it. I get to create really cool toys that ultimately kids are going to enjoy and play with, and adult fans are going to take to the next level and discuss online. The fact that it is this huge community, it’s just great, Lego has a real place in everyone’s heart. There aren’t many people who haven’t played with Lego, so when you tell people you work for Lego you see their face light up. There are so many great things about working for Lego.
CH: You mentioned there are a few stressful moments, what sort of challenges do you face as a LEGO designer?
NG: It is quite varied, obviously we are creators and designers and we are a company and you do have to work to a deadlines, you have to meet certain parameters, there are cost implications, so you have to make sure that the model you are building, not only is it kind of cool and fun and at a level that a kid will find challenging but fun to build. But it has to be on price and you have reach quite a strict deadline to get it done otherwise the bricks won’t be manufactured and shipped on time. So there are days when you are pulling your hair out, because it is hard to be creative Monday to Friday 9 to 5. So there are late nights and working on weekends, stressing about these little bricks, how are you going to get this built? And just like sweating, trying to get the smallest details right before it is shipped off in a box. So deadlines are tough when you are a designer, because it is tough to be creative within a time-frame.
IK: How did you get the job you currently have as a Lego Designer?
NG: Well my background is, well I suppose you could call it a classically trained designer, I went to Art School, I have a design degree, I’ve done some freelance work in the past, I’ve actually worked for Gillette in the past, designing razors. I was doing an exhibition in London and I got chatting to who I thought was just some random guy about my work and we were just chatting about design and at the end he handed me his business card and it turned out he was a guy named James Hall, he worked as a designer at Lego, he was kind of scouting for new talent and he asked me to come along to an interview in their office in Seoul. I went down there and I think there were five of us and they said there was a place for two people, we will take you over to Denmark, where you will work for a few months and see how you like it and you can go further from there. It is probably one of the best interviews I have been in, they read us a quick story, something about a Captain Smith going to the bottom of the ocean and discovering all these weird creatures and animals and treasures. Then we had to break up into small groups and design sets based on the story at different price points. So they wheeled out this huge box and spilled it on the floor and we just spent the rest of the day designing.
CH: Oh, that sounds like good fun.
IK: That is awesome.
NG: It was pretty cool, pretty cool.
CH: So do you get a chance to MOC much at home? Or do you get your fix at work?
NG: I do get most of my Lego fix at work. As I said, I played with Lego as a kid but I wouldn’t class myself as an adult fan. So I’ve never come home and built to unwind or relax. So when I do MOC it is like Christmas presents for people, of weddings when they want Minifigs on top of a cake. At the moment I am building quite a fun one. I am quite heavily tattooed. And I’m building a tattoo machine for my tattoo artist for Christmas. I’m sure that is not something I would normally get to officially do, (all laugh) so it is quite a challenge and quite interesting. So I do get to do some varied stuff, but I wouldn’t get to MOC like you guys might do or your listeners, but I do on occasions.
CH: I’m not sure that the Lego Company would be… a tattoo machine would be sending the message that they wan to put out there. (laughs)
NG: Yeah, it doesn’t aim at our core demographic. (all laugh)
IK: I’d buy one.
NG: There is a market, Yay!
IK: Even it is only one girl all the way in Australia. (laughs) Where do you get the pieces… because you don’t MOC a great deal at home, where do you find is the best source of pieces for when you do make things?
NG: Well obviously I have an amazing source of Lego at work, I’m very lucky in a sense, that when I am MOCing or doing official sets, I can take a big box go to the basement and take huge handfuls of every element that you could possibly imagine. We have a very large basement with shelves and shelves of elements, we also have a very large building that is full of elements that aren’t currently being used, so we can kind of back catalogue and pull up elements that we need. So I have, if I need to get stuff I can take it from work, so I’ve never needed to go online to order anything particular. I’m just very spoiled.
IK: You are set for life.
NG: Yeah, if there is an element that I can’t find I’ll ask one of the old school designers who probably has some stuff stashed away. They’ll probably let me have it for some cake, or beer. (all laugh)
CH: trading for Lego… (laughs) Oh, hold on! I was going to ask you a very stupid question. I was going to ask you ‘What is your main source of funding for your Lego?’ But then I realized I was talking to a Lego designer. (laughs)
NG: Yeah, me main source of income is working for Lego to buy Lego.
CH: Okay, sorry. Um, moving on to a non-stupid question, which is your favourite LEGO theme that has been released?
NG: It’s tough, I thing it would probably have to be a fight to the death between Pirates and Castle. I’m not sure who would win, I really like the classic Lego themes, and there is something about them that I really enjoy building and collecting. You know, you get that echo of the heritage of Lego and the almost naïve-ness and the classic feel from the bricks, its just something really nice about those two themes. I don’t know if I could really pick just one. It’s really hard.
CH: Well you are talking to two diehard Pirates fans so…
IK: Classic Pirates.
NG: I know, I don’t want to start a war.
CH: I suggest if you want to live the duration of the interview, you should say that you are a Pirates fan.
NG: (all laugh) If you look at some of the Castle sets I’ve built, there’s Skelton Attack Ship and then the Troll Warship, so you know, I’m quite into ships and I’ve tried to sneak that into Castle a fair bit.
IK: Yeah, even Medieval Market Village can cross over quite a lot into the Pirates theme, I think.
NG: Yeah, I just love a lot of the Old World kind of feel, there is just so much detail and it is so rich to reference and play with.
CH: That’s the funny thing; those eras are seem by everybody as really rich and have a huge sense of grandeur about them, but in reality everyone back then was really poor and had terrible living conditions.
IK: But they had lots of apples and fish, so it is all good. (laughs)
NG: Yeah yeah, that is what counts. (laughs)
CH: And lots of Shakos, or is it ‘Shar-kos’ or ‘Shak-os’? How do you pronounce it?
NG: I would say ‘Shay-kos’ I don’t know if there is an official way to say it, or how it is pronounced all around the world but I would say ‘Shay-kos’
CH: What about you Izzy?
IK: Yeah, (laughs) I’m not going to fall into that trap and pronounce it wrong in front of everybody. I’ll just say, out of all the official LEGO sets ever released, which would you say is your all time favourite? A Pirates of Castle set, I’m guessing.
NG: Um, that is an extremely hard one because they are all the sets you kind of have an emotional attachment to and they have a special place in your heart for different reasons. Medieval Market Village was definitely something I loved doing, it was great, definitely in the top two, or then Pirates, the Pirates project was really great to work on a kind of re-launch of the Classic Pirates line, those two again they are kind of up there.
CH: Maybe if I rephrase the question a little, seeing as you can’t decide between the two themes, do you prefer the older Castle and Pirates lines, or the newer Castle and Pirates lines?
NG: Probably the newer ones, basically because I’ve worked on them they are bound to be much better. (laughs) You know what we try to do in Lego, whenever we bring back Pirates or Castle, or an ‘Evergreen Theme’ as we call it, we try to give it a different twist, I do like the original Castle and Pirates stuff, I’m probably not as in to the Knight’s Kingdom twist that they did when they tried to rejuvenate and give it a crazy spin on the Castle line. When we redid Castle it was really going back to classic, and when we redid Pirates it was also going back to classic. That is what we really enjoy and that is what defines a great line.
CH: (fake coughs) I’ll just, err, mention that Classic Pirates did have Blue Coats, if any of the Lego executives are listening to this.
NG: They might be. (laughs)
CH: Oh hopefully. So do you discover many different, new techniques when you are designing LEGO sets?
NG: Um, well they are new to me. I don’t know, there have been time when I have built something and I have shown like, Jamie or someone of greater experience and they are like ‘Yeah, I’ve been using that for 6 years.’ You know, it is nothing new. (all laugh) But you do discover new ways of using stuff and you do encounter different problems everyday. Obviously when I come across a technique I have never used before, there is the question of, can the child that I am aiming for… if it is a 6+ of a 7+ can they build this technique? And you have to go through loops, sometimes you build something and think yeah, a kid would have no problem with this, sometimes things are a bit unorthodox and you do have to check. You do learn a lot of new stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily make it into the retail sets. It’s more likely in the direct avenue.
IK: So what is your work environment like?
NG: I would probably describe it a chaotic fun. It’s a really weird mix, basically you have all the teams split up, for example a Castle team, a Pirates team, a Star Wars Team, and in that you have X amount of designers, then there is a Project Lead, and a Marketing Lead, you get those people who just look at a spreadsheet and do emails and they are kind of thrown in with designers who’s desks look like a Lego bomb has exploded and it is just like, bricks everywhere, you can hardly find the keyboard or mouse just under a huge pile of bricks and then there are cardboard boxes of bricks under you desk and every nook and cranny is filled with sketch models or some other toy as inspiration. There is a lot going on and it is very chaotic, but it makes sense to us.
CH: That’s the way it should be. (laughs) Of all the different sets that you have designed, what would you say is your favourite? Would you prefer exclusives, licensed themes or Creator etc?
NG: I really like working on Lego themes, I’ve worked on some IP’s, it is fun that you are working with a movie licence for example and you get references and you have to make a Lego version of whatever you are looking at. But when you are making your own theme, you have so much more freedom and more responsibility because you have to make up the universe and tone of voice and you really get to explore that world and how dark is this going to come across when kids play with it. Where as with an IP you don’t have to worry about it because it is based on a film or cartoon of something. Lego Brand owned themes are much more fun I think and challenging for me.
IK: Cool, so… (laughs) I was just about to as how much money would you spend on LEGO in a year? But I should say how much cake and beer do you spend on Lego?
NG: Yeah, I probably spend a lot in cake and beer actually, probably in dollars, not much. Obviously you know, when you work on a theme, when the theme ends you normally get one of every set, which is great so you get to collect all the lines you have worked on. The only time I would really spend money on Lego, would be at the employee shop for Christmas gifts and presents. So maximum it would be about a hundred dollars a year.
CH: Okay, you mentioned that you sometimes have other toys sitting around for inspiration. What other sort of inspiration do you have when designing Lego models?
NG: Well depending on what stage we are at with the development, it will be books, we have quite a big book library that we are always adding to. Magazines, um Internet is also a huge resource.
CH: AH HAH! You steal our ideas.
NG: Yeah, that is all we do. We sit there and steal from you. (all laugh) No, no, I mean it is good obviously to see where you guys are up to and what trends are out there and what interesting building techniques you are using. I’ve got to say, like 80% of the time, the way you guys build. We can’t use it at all, because kids would not be able to do it. But it is great to see how fans can take a model and MOC it to the next level or take an element and use it in a way you couldn’t possibly imagine. So that is pretty cool.
CH: There are a couple of builders I’m thinking of now that are notorious for that sort of thing, like Sly Owl and SirNadroj and Pe668 that just make awesome things.
NG: It is pretty cool, I mean a lot of our original sketch models are, probably a lot more fan like. Then we have to go through a process to make it buildable for a 6 or 7+. Whatever age group you are building for. So we start with a very fan built sort of sketch model and then kind of turn it into an official Lego set. So it is pretty cool to see what you guys are doing online and in the communities.
CH: Yeah, now you will probably have a lawsuit saying that you have pinched ideas or something. (all laugh)
IK: Prove it! PROVE IT! (all laugh)
NG: No. Obviously we do look at fan sights but we would never steal. That is something we would never, never do. It is just really cool to see what the fan community is doing. And we do get some inspiration from you guys; just interesting ways you are doing things and what trends are developing. A lot of trends tend to start in the adult fan community. Whatever genre it is, eventually it kind of trickles down into kids media or whatever. I am seeing a lot at the moment of Steam Punk, and I don’t know at the moment, kids can’t understand exactly what Steam Punk is, because it hasn’t trickled down into a medium that they can use, like a cartoon or film that they can relate to. Personally I think it is only a matter of time you know, you see these trends emerge and develop in the adult fan world, so it is always cool to see what is going on.
CH: I feel really bad now; I have put you in a very sticky situation.
NG: You just got me fired now! Thanks! (laughs)
IK: Those Lego ninjas will come and get you.
NG: (laughs) I’m going to disappear mysteriously.
Captain Zuloo (in voiceover mode) - Nic didn’t mysteriously disappear. Izzy and I decided to cut this interview into two parts due to its length. Keep your eyes peeled for the second half of the interview, next week!