3 January 2019

LEGO® Unikitty: Yi-Chien Cheng & Janko Grujic interview

From a parts perspective, LEGO® Unikitty was perhaps the most interesting new theme of 2018. During the Recognised LEGO Media Fan Days, New Elementary sat down with two of the designers, Yi-Chien Cheng from Taiwan and Janko Grujic from Serbia, to ask them a few questions about the theme – and the new parts it’s given us.


We know Unikitty from 2014's The LEGO Movie, and she will return in the sequel this February. But in the meantime she got her own show, Unikitty! How did that come about?

Janko: The idea of that show has been, probably, on the table since the movie, because she’s such an appealing character. Warner Brothers joined forces with Cartoon Network to come up with the new show, so the sets that you see are related to the show on Cartoon Network, and I’d suggest that you take a look at it, it’s a lot of fun!

Could you explain the tie-in LEGO theme?

Yi-Chien: It’s a unisex theme, for both boys and girls. I know Unikitty is pink, so that looks girly, but she’s a very active character and there’s a very exciting story. So we tried to use lots of colours and lots of crazy ideas, and created lots of cool characters with the new printed elements. So we hope the fans can use these to create something more. We look forward to seeing that!

Janko: There’s a lot of simple bricks, because we wanted to inspire kids to build, we wanted to inspire creativity, and to build in the simplest ways: Just stacking bricks. As Yi-Chien said, we definitely didn’t want to exclude anyone, so there are sets that appeal more to the girls and sets that appeal more to the boys. But overall, we were trying to make something that would be for everyone.



I look at these sets, and I feel I have to ask: Were there any illegal substances involved when this theme was conceived?

Yi-Chien: Any illegal what?

Janko: (laughs) No, no, no, no! Just imagination. And some extra sugar.

What kind of product testing did you do before deciding to release a Unikitty theme?

Janko: The same as with everything else we do. For any line, in the developing phase, we show the kids what we’ve come up with, and we definitely take their reactions into consideration. I don’t think we did anything special for Unikitty.

Yi-Chien: No, but before we did Unikitty, we worked on The LEGO Batman Movie – which means we went from totally black to a colourful world, which was interesting – and, like that, this was a theme that was always going to happen because of the cooperation with Cartoon Network and Warner Brothers. The company decides to do the theme and then we do a lot of concept models to find out which ones work the best with the Unikitty world.
"We did a 'boost' for this theme... where we get a lot of designers together for a whole week"

Janko: We did a “boost” for this theme. A boost is when we get a lot of designers together for a whole week…

Yi-Chien: And then we try to imagine, for example, all the different kinds of vehicles…

Janko: And many people are throwing as many ideas into the pot as they can, and we then pick what we think works the best from those.


Considering the cooperation between LEGO, Cartoon Network and Warner Brothers: How much of the general aesthetic direction is handled by each team - was it mostly dictated by the animators and then handed over to the set design team or did you work together more to figure out the general direction you were going in?

Janko: I think a lot of it was about 50-50. The art direction came from Cartoon Network, but then we have to take that into consideration…

Yi-Chien: They put some ideas forward, and we tell them, “oh, maybe we can do this, and maybe we can do that”, and then we send them photos and keep discussing with the animation team.

So you sort of bounce ideas off each other?

Janko: Yes. But the story comes from them, and then we go through the script, check whether the story fits the LEGO values and our ideas for the product. So there are conversations about the script, and there are conversations regarding the art direction.

I’m of course here representing New Elementary, which focuses on new parts and interesting uses for new and existing parts. From that point of view, there’s a few things that are more interesting than anything else. Can you tell me why you decided you needed a 1x3 inverted tile with a hole in it?

Yi-Chien: I’ll leave this one to Janko!

Janko: Well, I should leave it to Pablo, who is the element lead on the project, but I worked with him in the beginning. There are two main reasons, the first being that we wanted to make Unikitty more appealing. If you use a 1x1 round plate, there’s this little rim around the edge, and we wanted the neck to be as smooth as possible. The second reason is that the connection we now have is better, it improves the stability of Unikitty and makes it better to play with.

Because the head doesn’t fall off as easily.

Janko: Yes, but it is still LEGO, so everything is still attachable and detachable. We also always want to give something new, so when we think about new elements we try to make something that could have a broad use. There were different ideas for the neck, and they don’t all come from us, we had input from the engineers and other people, but it’s always good to come up with something that could be broadly used. So I think you’ll see this element more in the future, not only in the Unikitty theme.

There’s also a new part used for the dog ears. The interesting thing about that is that it’s slightly wider than a plate at the front, which means that you can’t put two of them side-by-side. Was that a conscious choice?


Yi-Chien: I can only say that the ears were especially designed for the Puppycorn. It needs to look like it does in the TV show.

Janko: It’s character related. The part is very similar to the tooth piece…

Yes, it is – so why not use that?

Janko: Because this is better! It’s without the stud, and without the facet in the middle at the front – and it felt like a good investment in the theme to come up with something exclusive for this.

So the driving force behind that piece is purely aesthetic.

Janko: Aesthetic, and to make something that is exclusive.

It’s not the first time we’ve got special and slightly strange new parts with Unikitty – the tail ended up getting used in all sorts of themes, for different things. What is your favourite new part introduced in the 2018 range?

Janko: There’s a flower used for the Feebee character. Feebee is a bee – naturally – a flower bee, so there’s a new flower element that makes up her face. We spent some time on developing that, and it was a conscious decision to include a hole in the middle, so you can use one of the bent shafts we have in production to make a flower, for example. So we expect this also to be used in a variety of themes in the years to come.

Does it only come in pink so far?

Yi-Chien: No, I think it’s in two colours… oh, wait, no, it’s only in pink. We planned another colour though! And what I really like about the Unikitty theme is that it’s so colourful. But we were talking about specific new elements – and I really like the cloud piece. That’s also new, and unique for Unikitty.

Janko: That’s another example of something that’s exclusive and will come out first here, but we don’t know yet if that will appear somewhere else.

Yi-Chien: It’s a very cartoony part.

Janko: We expect the fans will like it, especially for building scenery and vignettes. We see it as being very useful.

Model by Sven Franic

In addition to the new parts, you also have loads and loads of new prints. Could you do as many as you wanted, and basically say “we need this, and we need that”? There’s not a lot of stickers – it’s all printed parts, and many of them are for the character’s faces.

Yi-Chien: Actually, we cannot do as many as we want. We have a limit. But we tried really hard to get prints for all the characters, so you wouldn’t need to put a sticker on to create a character. Then again, they are all built from bricks, which makes them quite generic, so you can use the decorated bricks included to build your own characters. That was also a goal for us. But there are stickers in some of the sets, for other decorations. We just don’t want to have too many of them, because we want the sets to be as much fun as possible for the kids.


That brings us over to something else that’s interesting and different with this theme. In most of the other LEGO themes, there are minifigures or minidolls, but you’ve designed your own characters. Does that give you a greater range of options in set design, compared to being limited to minifigures?

Janko: It’s easier to work with the minifigure, I can tell you that! We spent almost as much time making these characters as designing sets. So that was a new challenge.

Yi-Chien: When we were deciding how Feebee should look, for example, we had more than twenty different versions to choose from. And another character, Master Frown, the main guy… just the neck was a major design issue. He went through 20-30 iterations. Minifigures are much easier!

That does make a lot of sense, because obviously you can’t really design the sets around the characters before you’ve developed the characters.

Yi-Chien: Something as easy as designing a seat for a character, for example. With a minifigure, you have a standard. In one of the sets, we have a carousel – and that needs to have three different kinds of seats, to fit the three different characters that come with the sets.


Janko: Because all the characters should be allowed to have fun! We don’t want to exclude anyone. And keep in mind that both Unikitty and Poppycorn are based on a 1x3 element, so they’re always in the middle, it gives us an uneven number, and that creates other challenges.

Yi-Chien: But that is also part of what makes the Unikitty theme so different and so much fun.

Glancing at the sets, some people might think it’s a case of “anything goes” with the colour scheme. Is that true, or would you say it’s actually more challenging to create an effective colour palette for these sets than other themes?

Janko: Oh, absolutely more challenging. Compare it with the Batman sets, which is what we worked on before this: Black and yellow, and some red details, and that’s it! So this was a completely new challenge, and although every set is designed to work on its own, the colour palette should also work for the whole line. That was probably the hardest thing in the beginning, but we do have a little bit of blue and a little bit of pink, because we don’t want to exclude anyone, we want all the kids to like the sets.

And you’ve really got the blues here! There’s at least five different shades that I can see.

Janko: Well, in recent years, there’s been more and more blue in the sets.

Yi-Chien: I think we’re pretty much using all the different kinds of blue and green we could find.

Janko: To be honest, before we started to work on this theme, we didn’t even know all these colours existed!

It must be like opening your eyes.

Yi-Chien: In the beginning it was tough.

Unikitty sets have also brought us amazing recolours of existing parts. When developing a set, especially say like Unikingdom Creative Brick Box, are you aware of what parts may be missing from certain basic bricks and make an effort to introduce them?

Janko: That varies from designer to designer. I always try to introduce the idea to the team that if you need a new colour, and you have two different options for the colour change, go on BrickLink, see which part costs more, and make that one. I’d like to tell you that there are specific elements in this line that we did that with, but in this case I can’t.




Yi-Chien: This is a very fan-based way of thinking! I don’t think that way.

Janko: But I come from the fan community, so I’m really concerned about having a variety of elements available and how much they cost, and I try to make a difference if I can.

Yi-Chien: When I design, I try to think about the colour balances, what looks nice. Even if we use as many colours as we do in this line. I don’t think about the prices.

But of course all the recolouring is a budgetary concern.

Janko: Yes, the colours and the decorations. The price points of the sets draw pretty clear lines as to how much of those things we can do.

If you could add one colour to the LEGO palette, what would it be?

Yi-Chien: Whoa.

Janko: Good question! I would probably delete some… I think we have plenty! I’m certainly fine with what we’ve got.

Yi-Chien: I’m also happy with what we have.
"I prefer the old grey to the new grey"

No particular gaps that you see in the spectrum then?

Janko: I’m a fan of all the castle and space themes, so I would prefer the old grey to the new grey…

So you’d like to bring back the old grey!

Janko: Yes. I like the old grey.

How much does drawing impact the design process? You probably rely on concept art as well, but do you draw when you design, or do you just build?

Yi-Chien: Every designer is different. I draw a lot. We’re both architects, actually, so of course we draw. I think about what kind of building I’d like to build, take the shape into consideration, and also what it would look like on the box, so I do draw a lot.

Janko: I’m also a fan of sketching a bit in the beginning, especially if I do cars or vehicles, for example. But for this theme, I did more building, because at least for me, there was a lot of trial and error going on. You build something, and then suddenly you remember, “Oh. Unikitty has a horn. That doesn’t fit what I just built,” for example. And then you have to build it again. Maybe you have to adapt something to fit a different character, or maybe you discover that it’s difficult to make something sturdy. So for this particular theme, I built more than usual.

Yi-Chien: For Unikitty, I also drew less than usual, mainly because we also had a lot of concept art to go from.

Janko: Yes, there’s a study on each character, and there’s a study on scenery and surroundings in the show, so we had an overview on that. And of course, they then also use what we build to get inspired and make sure it all still relates to LEGO bricks.

Which brings me to the last question, about the TV show that’s linked to the theme. What do you think the future holds for the theme – and how closely is that linked to the success of the TV show?

Janko: The show seems to be going really well. The kids love it. And then we’ll see how that reflects on the sales of the sets.

Yi-Chien: We obviously hope they enjoy the product, but I also I hope everyone likes the show, because then we can make more! But whether we will do that or not, is of course confidential so far.


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Thanks to Are J. Heiseldal for the interview, Kim Ellekjær Thomsen for organising RLFM Days and Sven Franic for the elements photography. Products featured in this post were kindly supplied by the LEGO Group. All content represents the opinions of New Elementary authors and not the LEGO Group. All text and images are © New Elementary unless otherwise attributed.

6 comments:

  1. That's awesome, a designer wants old gray back?! Let's do it! REVOLUTION!

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    1. Hmmm, seriously, I think old gray looks a bit bland, particularly when yellowed. I prefer brighter colors. Muted colors might be useful for realism, but they don't mesh well with Lego's traditional color scheme.

      Some colors I would like to see personally is Old Light and Medium Green (to facilitate meshing my old Paradisa sets with ordinary City), Reddish Orange as an intermediary between Red and Orange and possibly some Deep Bluish Violet...

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  2. By the way, is that cow image there on the milk carton a sticker, or a Duplo part? I guess Duplo parts could often be used for decoration or signage like that.

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    Replies
    1. It is a Duplo piece, (4066pb447 on bl), also a similar brick in Red (4066pb277). They are ok for signs if you don't find them too large.

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  3. It was especially interesting to see Janko admit he takes bricklink scarcity into account when no other factors play a role in deciding which colour to resurrect.
    There is hope for that 1x1 plate in Sand Blue after all. :p

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  4. Personally, I'd like some more oranges. I do agree with Janko, though: there are plenty of colors as it is.
    Good interview!

    ReplyDelete

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