Making Friends, with Fenella and Ricardo: LEGO Friends’ Designers (Interview)

At the start of June, as part of the LEGO Fan Media Days, I had the opportunity to meet Fenella Charity and Ricardo Silva, who are both part of the LEGO Friends design team.  Fenella’s back ground is in industrial design, and Ricardo came to work at LEGO via the fan community. Our conversation rambled over a variety of topics relevant to the Friends line: including storyboarding the  sets and animated stories;  stickers vs printed elements; gender balance; designing Stephanie’s house and starting the trip down a slippery slope by using tan walls  in the pizzeria. But before we started on that path, I had to ask something…

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The LEGO Friends sets have be inspirational for introducing buildings around town that aren’t fire stations, banks being robbed or police stations, as are de rigour in LEGO City. But something I have been wondering… Are we going to see a police station?

RS: We never know. We don’t know the future. Every year we sit down and talk about where are our girls going? What should they do next?

Certainly it is exciting to have a hospital enter the current set portfolio.

FC: To be honest, the possibilities are endless for Heartlake city. As Ricardo said, we brainstorm every year, about what we think could be cool. But it is always tested, over and over again with the consumers that we are targeting. We need to make sure it is relevant to them.

I’m a little outside your target demographic, aren’t I?

FC: You don’t match up with our main consumers, but we are very happy for you to want to build our sets!

Considering the video content related to the minidoll lines: Elves seems to have a strong story integrated with the sets and the webisodes. (and indeed the forthcoming Netflix series). How does the animated content (complete with the trope of the corrupt mayor being thwarted by those pesky kids) work in with the story development process?

We work together, and have the same development timeline( as the animations) – we will be making sets at the same time as they creating the stories. They will make suggestions as to supporting characters, and also accessories that may be included – such as a cell phone, because in the story she will make a phone call.

So, why haven’t we yet got the corrupt mayor as a minidoll?

There are some characters that exist in the (animated) content for certain appeal or comic relief or conflict, but then when it comes to play, they still need to be iconic without knowing the story. For example, it would be way more important in (the hospital) set to have the doctor rather than to have some supporting character that appeared only in the content . We need that balance for the child that has never seen the stories, and just wants to play hospital versus someone who knows all the details of all the stories.

It was particularly the story with the adventure camp storyline that caught my imagination.

So for that one , we had the camp leader Joy. She was was a really cool character who could exist in both content and model, and would make sense for the girls playing with the set [Ed. Joy appeared in 41122, Adventure tree house].

So there is this constant narrative development between both the animation and set development?

RS: There is a story about this with the Grand Hotel: There is a painting in the hotel in one of the rooms of the White Lady. If you just buy the set, you just see the picture, but if you see the episode, you will see that it revolves around that character. Some of these secret gems are well hidden.

Oh no… now I have to go out and spend more time. I had never appreciated the high level of integration between the media and set design.

RS: There was also a treasure map that we used in the lighthouse set, that was also used as a story starter in the series.

What is the primary platform for the media?

FC: There are different types of content: short episodes especially on Youtube, and then some long form episodes screening on TV.

I have only seen a few of these longer episodes at this stage…

 I see today that you have both brought some things in for us to talk about?

IMG_5493IMG_5494RS: Here we have some concept models for Stephanie’s House (Set 41314). You can see the development of it in different stages as we were developing the model. This is the first one that we took –when we started developing the model. As you can see we are looking at a different style of architecture in it.

I see it has a bit more of a plantation type of a building feel: big verandah’s, the swing on the front porch and the big bay windows – but they aren’t really big enough?

FC: No – that’s why we changed them! You get the essence of the building here, but we felt you couldn’t see though the windows enough to see the details in the model, and it wasn’t making the most of this differentiated architectural style, so we thought it would be worth making a new type of window. In this model, it’s a label or sticker but in the end it became a printed element.

Oooh: you introduced a new printed element! This had been a topic of robust discussion amongst my colleagues recently. Particularly the way that using a sticker prevents you from needing to introduce a new element

FC: For Friends, we use a lot of stickers to enhance the level of detail in the models.

I think you mask it in your box art a lot better than they do in city. I have found it relatively easy to look at a CITY set box and say ‘these are stickers’, where as it was not so obvious with, for example, the Pizzeria, where the stickers were well concealed in the box art. I felt I had been a little misled when I picked up this set.

FC: The pizzas are printed though?

Oh yes. They are printed in both lines, but the (pizza) boxes had stickers on.

FC:We worked together with the CITY Team to design those pizzas, because we knew that we would both use them. And it became quite a political discussion, as the old pizza was quite an icon: the old yellow round tile, with the red print .  It was a really classic LEGO pizza. Both teams felt it was time to update them, particularly with the opportunity to take advantage of the quarter tile.

Indeed it is the year of the pizza, with 4 sets including pizza.

FC: For the (large) window, repeated sticker placement would not increase the play experience for the children (there are six in this set). So that really justifies making the decoration.

How often would a new printed element be introduced?

FC: It needs to be able to be used multiple time across a number of sets, such as the pie or watermelon slice; or it needs to be used a lot of times in the same set, such as with the windows here.

The decorations on this window does add a lot. I look forward to building it soon.

IMG_5495IMG_5496IMG_5497FC: This second model shows what happens in later stages of development, when we need to make some decisions on what we prioritise. Obviously in the first version we built the barbecue and the Jacuzzi, but these are things which we have done in sets before, like the hotel with the pool on the roof, and a lot of these were still on the market, so we felt that the staircase would be a much more exciting thing to introduce.

So, we took out the pool, and parts of the verandah, and we introduced a new element in this staircase.

RS: We came up with bringing in a new layer of playing to the model. Of course we kept a lot of the details from the earlier models, and added a few new ones, such as the vacuum cleaner that the Dad is actually holding to clean the house.

I suspect that no man was ever murdered by his wife while doing the vacuuming.

FC: When the model gets to a point where you are happy with the architecture, to some extent it comes down to the details, and what do we prioritise? The swing seat is something that we have kept throughout the entire process, because it tested really really well.

I see it has had the obligatory design change, but one of the reasons for this was to stop the figures from actually falling off.

FC: Yes we had to put the footplate in. And we had to make it wider: so that there was room for Stephanie and both of her parents. This was important for those testing the set.

There is also the printed newspaper element. It’ s called ‘Whats at ♥’

When talking about Friends, one of the things we should talk about is the colours.

We actually only introduced six new colours when we launched Friends, but we have changed the way in which those colours have been used. It is rare to introduce new colours now: Friends was unprecedented in being able to introduce those new colours. If we were to introduce a new colour, we would probably have to remove one.

Aaah,  the Stafford Teal Manoevre? >laugh <

When we launched Friends, we wanted to be able to create our tone, our voice, to make it clear. So we needed those colours, but from then on, I don’t think we have introduced any since then.

One of thing I am noticing here is the ‘colour line’ between floors feels like it is an expression in the Friends sets. Do the characters have their own ‘palette’s’?

FC: All of the Friends have colours that we associate with them. For example, Andrea has warm yellow; FC: Stephanie has the white, with the azure and pink trim. It was a decision to ensure that her house was made using her colour palette. This is something that has evolved over the five years that we have been doing friends, and it has started to become a bit stronger now. The way we layer colours is part of our design strategy. We know that there are certain things that make a friends model what it is:  the lines of colour, and the ways that we  layer the colour, is something that we really work with.

RS:Also the roundness of the architecture is something that is very related to friends. – for example the base plates on this model.

Friends seems to do gardens nicely, as well as the tiny details; Elves sets often focus on the larger landscape elements. I love the garden like elements such as window boxes in the Friends sets.  I feel that there should be more gardens in LEGO City.

FC: Its all about the target group: City would never prioritise flowers to be in a build where there can be a trigger for another $100 bill to rob from someone. It’s all about stories, and I think when we developed LEGO Friends we found that it is really important to have these details that bring it to this level of reality and detail: our consumers just look at the box in awe and marvel at those tiny details.

I sometimes feel a bit conflicted: we look and say ‘wow look at the piece count’ but some of those pieces are pretty tiny! I’m not sure I am going to use them all.

FC: You can find alternate ways to build with them!

I have just seen this great collection of animals and other pieces that you have brought along.

RS: These elements are the ones that have been developed specifically for friends

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I see we have the watermelon quarter,the pie quarters, the sausage in a bun

FC: It’s the bun which we have developed. The sausage is a classic element, but we were so excited to be able to develop the bun which goes with it. We also developed the quarter tile as well, which has so many potential uses.

RS: Also the scooter is something we are really proud of.

Yes. I can’t get enough of those handlebars. I feel a little frustrated by the lack of rotating wrists, especially when trying to put minidolls onto a motor bike!

FC: We know that it is a design compromise. We really tried to make it work with a functioning wrist, but it was just not possible within the geometry of the minidoll. When we tested the minidoll when we came up with it, it was more about the realism and beauty that was the most important things for the consumers, beyond the function.

So, have you both been with friends since the beginning?

RS: I have been with LEGO friends since the launch. Fenella was involved way before that.

FC: Yes, I was involved for four years before it came out, defining what it would become as well as involved with design of the minidoll. One of the driving forces in developing Friends was to attract girls back to LEGO.

Speaking of that..back in 2012, at the time that LEGO Friends first came out, 10% of Minifigures in City were female, whereas this year 30-50%, depending on the sub theme are. Which is a huge advance over that five year period . I may have spent a little bit too much time counting those numbers up. Are we going to be seeing some more male characters coming up? Looking at the Hospital here, as well as Stephanies house, I see one out of 3 characters in each of those sets is a male.

RS: From the beginning, we wanted to develop the brand, with the five friends. Each box has one of the five friends, and we aim to add a complementary character, whether male or female depending on the set. We have been building up the numbers as you have seen. This year we actually have 7 new male figures. So seven on this years boxes, as well as five from last years sets, which are still on the shelves this year. So looking across the line, there are twelve male characters on the shelves at the moment.

Oooh – touché. [ So… looking at sets currently available from shop.lego.com – July 2017; Australia presently, there are 16 female characters – not counting different forms of our 5 core characters, and 11 male characters ( not including the multiple forms of Nate). Alternatively, 13/65 minidolls currently available are male)

FC: In the storyline, we want to make Heartlake City as realistic as possible, and as time goes on, we are able to bring in more supporting characters. We also want to prioritise women in empowering roles too. Here we had the discussion about whether the doctor should be a man or a woman, and we felt strongly that it should be a woman.

One last question. What’s the deal with the tan being used (for the walls) in the pizzeria? Is this the start of a slippery slope towards a more muted colour palette?

FC: It’s a fairly realistic wall colour..

But you haven’t used any others over the years… why start now?

White is a fairly natural colour though?

I suppose so. The thing for me is that I went to that pizza shop when I was a kid!

FC: Because they are not linked in to a specific character they aren’t required to use a specific colour palette. It is a city tone of voice.

A City tone, you say?

FC: Not LEGO City, Heartlake city!

Fenella and Ricardo, thank you both so much for your time!

It was a fantastic opportunity to meet these two passionate designers at the LEGO Fan Media Days this year.  I would especially like to thank Kim Thomsen,  from the LEGO Community Engagement Team for coordinating these days.  There will be more content from these sessions presented over the next few months.

Come back next time, when I will put together Stephanies house, agonise over the use of stickers, and be grateful not to have a jacuzzi on the roof.

Until then

Play Well.

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