Decoding Design

Lego's latest design research: what girls want

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Lego conducted extensive international research to design new products for girls, to debut in the U.S. in January. What did the company learn--and what will others learn from Lego?

Legos are perennially hot toys. It's evident in their sales figures, with revenues skyrocketing 105 percent since 2006 (stated in the privately held company’s 2010 annual report). In 2010, Lego achieved more than $1 billion in U.S. sales for the first time. Lego has also been praised as an innovative company, one that has re-designed its toys and strategy over the years to obvious financial success. So what's next?

In the December 19 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Brad Wieners goes behind the scenes at Lego's Danish headquarters to uncover the design tactics behind Lego's newest goal: to appeal to girls. As Wieners reports, a new line of 23 products called Lego Friends, aimed at girls 5 years old and above, will hit American stores on January 1, after European debuts in France on December 15 and in the U.K. on December 26. The idea to hold off after the holidays in the U.S. was to gain more display space than the toy line might receive during the Christmas shopping season.

Here's how Lego determined how to come up with what it hopes is a set of products that will be as appealing to girls as earlier Lego blocks and figurines have been to boys, according to Wieners' insightful and detailed report:

  • The company relied more on "cultural anthropology" than traditional focus groups, reflecting the successful process Lego used in 2005-2006 to design new Legos to appeal to contemporary boys
  • Lego searched for leading internal product designers and sales and marketing staff within the company, then assigned these top performers to work with outside design consultants
  • The design and strategy teams then worked in small groups to observe and interview girls and their families over a timeframe of numerous months, conducting research in the United States, the U.K., Germany, and Korea

Lego found that

  • Girls like "harmony," or "a pleasing, everything-in-its-right-place sense of order"; warm, welcoming colors; and precise detailing on toys
  • Yes, little girls enjoy role-playing as their favored style of play
  • Girls like to construct, but in a style that differs from that of boys. Boys like to build what they might find on a photo on a toy box, kit-style. But girls like to tell stories and re-design their constructions as they create them.
  • Boys play with figurines in the third-person, while girls project their identities on their toys

The result of Lego's latest research is a set of curvy, versus angular female figurines, along with new blocks in pretty, pastel shades. They'll be packaged so that girls don't feel pressure to create a scene as if they're playing with a boy's model kit. The 29 new characters, which represent nine nationalities, come with Lego-written biographies. The mini-dolls are imagined to live within a community called Heartlake City to help encourage--and appeal to--the storytelling process.

While other toy manufacturers are likely to keep in mind Lego's new, gender-based research for their own future designs, it's likely that they will also be watching how the public reacts to the new line. Although there have been critics of Lego's perceived inattention to girls' tastes in the past, as Wieners points out, there are already skeptics who question the company's design strategy to create obviously "feminine," and arguably stereotypical toys--even if the research backs up that girls around the world very well may want them.

Image: Andrew Becraft/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure