ISU alumnus speaks about designing future of play


Iowa State Daily

News pertaining to Ames, Iowa and the nation.

Ashley Green

The future of fun is in the hands of designers such as Dan Winger, senior concept designer at Lego Future Lab.

Winger visited Iowa State on Wednesday to give a lecture on the future of play in the Kocimski Auditorium of the College of Design building.

Winger received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Iowa State after growing up in Cedar Rapids. He later received a master’s of science in industrial design from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

From a young age, Winger knew he wanted to become an architect, but it wasn’t until he finished his thesis project that he realized his interest was in industrial design.

Part of Winger’s thesis project was a toy that was meant to teach children about music, which led him to a job at Lego.

Winger was lucky to land a job at the popular toy company. There was previously only one designer, who Winger happened to meet and was hired by, working for Lego in the United States.

He is now part of the Future Lab, a secretive team of employees that looks for new experiences that are “obviously Lego, but never seen before,” according to the presentation Winger gave Wednesday night. The team works to create new experiences, products, target groups, markets and more, all while maintaining the classic Lego image.

An example of this strategy is Lego board games, the first project Winger joined. These games incorporated Lego figures and other Lego pieces that the player could build.

“The product is basically the same, but you’re bringing a new experience into the mix,” Winger said of the games.

This was the first time Lego had done anything of this nature, and there were resulting challenges with labeling the packages to clearly show it was a board game, creating instructions and placement within stores.

Winger also assisted in Lego Friends, an attempt to expand Lego into the girl’s side of the toy market.

“We launched various girls’ products, but they all failed,” Winger said.

After conducting four years of research, the designers better understood the needs of girls, and Lego Friends became highly successful. Lego’s market tripled that year and has grown 20 percent per year since.

The next project was Lego Superheroes. Previously, only Batman and Superman sets tied with the movies had been released. The superheroes project created an umbrella brand encompassing Marvel and DC superheroes.

Winger did the concept art for this project, including designing products, packaging and all necessary logos.

Companies as large and successful as Lego still face mistakes.

Lego conducted research within its consumer groups and realized a gap in its portfolio, resulting in Lego Juniors. The company found that older toddlers thought Duplo, the preschool version of Lego, to be too babyish, while regular Lego pieces were too difficult to play with.

Juniors simplified the typical blocks, while not oversimplifying to the extent of Duplo blocks.

Another project created because of a gap in Lego’s portfolio was Mixels.

“We were missing humor in our products, so we really tried to focus on a product that the core of it was humor,” Winger said of Mixels.

Lego paired with Cartoon Network and did a series of mini shorts featuring Mixels and the crude humor typical of the station.

Mixels allow for easy creativity and explored new business opportunities, all while catering toward the market of children and their pocket money, as each set cost less than $10.

Lego works to keep a balance between virtual and physical play, incorporating the classic bricks and figures into video games, apps and a recent movie, “The Lego Movie.”

“A big goal was to bring back the creativity that everyone loves with the Lego brick,” Winger said.

To do so, Lego has had to adapt to the ever-changing and increasingly digital market.

The first pilot project was Life of George, a combination of a real-life game and a phone application.

The final project mentioned by Winger was Lego Worlds, a game that combines Lego video games with the real world.

Lego video games were originally only adventure-style games with Lego characters, but Lego Worlds has a building aspect to it similar to the popular video game Minecraft and true Lego gameplay. The game will be released fully next year.

Despite that success and wide variety of Lego products, 90 percent or more of attempted projects get “locked up” and can’t be shared or discussed.

“It’s not a total loss because we use those [projects] to gain learning, to forecast what competitors may do,” Winger said. “You kind of have to face the fact that a lot of your ‘babies’ won’t make it out there.”

Winger said in order to do his job he must wear many “hats,” or be adaptive to different specialties that are necessary.

When asked by Nick Senske, assistant professor of architecture, what his advice would be to someone wanting his job, Winger said, “work your butt off and get lucky.”

Companies such as Lego have to stay aware of the new experiences that are competing with the toy industry, ultimately changing the future of fun.