10 March 2021

LEGO® Designers interview: 10281 Bonsai Tree

Recently, Thomas Jenkins represented New Elementary in a virtual roundtable interview with the designer of LEGO® Botanical Collection 10280 Bonsai Tree, Nicolaas Vás (aka @PrinceGalidor) and Senior Design Manager Jamie Berard along with Jay's Brick Blog, the Brothers Brick, the Rambling Brick and Blocks Magazine. We each had 8 minutes to ask our questions, so what follows is but a short excerpt from our conversation (edited for readability and clarity). We sent Nick and Jamie our questions ahead of the interview and they came back with some really thoughtful responses. Be sure to check out the other outlets for more.

New Elementary: The pink frogs in the set as well as your own bonsai creations have inspired a number of custom trees blooming with crazy flowers in the AFOL community, are there any that have caught your eye?

Nick: There was a particular tree that I saw from a Japanese builder online and he had basically covered the entire tree with LEGO® Friends hedgehogs and it was fantastic to see that he absolutely gets what this product is about.

 

We know you have a love for the Frog element, was it something you were determined to include in the set?

Nick: I have a little disclaimer story that I'd like to say: I don't specifically set out to put frogs in my LEGO sets. I don't know how many sets have used it but I've got a list somewhere… I really like including small animals, because I loved receiving these fun little parts when I was a kid. Sometimes it can be difficult to justify including animals in like, a car or a boat because it isn't specifically about an animal. So I have a tendency to use the smaller, undecorated animals that can easily read as something else. And personally, I believe that using pieces as something other than what they were originally intended for is such a core quality of LEGO play. So that tiny, lumpy, ambiguous appearance of a frog, in my mind, makes it the perfect LEGO element. And yeah, I hope it's gonna stick around forever.

 

Of your own custom bonsai that feature in the back of the instruction manual, are there any that you are particularly fond of?

Nick: I mean, I'm obliged to say that I love all of my creations equally but I think the Pohatukawa tree is my personal favourite, just because it harkens back to my first BIONICLE set that I had as a kid. I really appreciated the chance to make a little tribute to that.

©2021 The LEGO Group

Some of my other favourites include the brick separators, or the octopus… even lots and lots of bananas: that was a fun one. Spiders was a really good one too; that worked at a distance but had totally the wrong effect up close.

 

As well as your custom bonsai, you've shared some trees that you designed prior to 10281 Bonsai Tree on Twitter. They are quite different to the one that ended up in the actual set. Does the final product share any similarities with those original models? 

Nick: Fundamentally, it's kind of the same idea: you've got a tree, a pot, a display stand, and soil. But in many other respects, it's completely different. I think in a lot of the different builds that I went through, I was always designing from scratch and trying again: what if it was slightly smaller scale or slightly bigger? And once I got to work on the set officially, I had a big head start where I had already gotten so much exploration out of my system in that I already kind of knew, "Okay, these are the things that work and don't work, so this is where I should really focus on for making the final version." And it was also at that point, really exciting to be able to use all of the new elements that were available, like the 'maxaroni'  and also a few juicy colour changes as well!

Yes, New Elementary always appreciate new colours, so thanks for that! So, this 'maxaroni' as you called it, part [Brick Round 1 x 1 diameter Tube with 45 Degree Elbow(2 x 2 x 1) and Axle Holes] 65473 arrived in sets in 2020 and it's only appeared in four sets, with Bonsai Tree introducing a colour change to Reddish Brown. Perhaps you wouldn't have used it in your earlier models, but was there any discussion as to whether it was right for the set?

Nick: When I first started working on this set, I explored making trees that used just the maxaroni to kind of see how we go with that style of piece. And from that, we decided that it would be better to focus back on a more recognisable System direction. But essentially, since it was created for 43179 Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, and the designer of that set, Ollie Gregory was really encouraging other designers to use it in everything that they could, I was really happy to oblige.

©2021 The LEGO Group

Some builders might find that the axle hole connection in the piece might limit its application compared to the full rotation that a Technic snap would have allowed, why was that decision made?

Jamie:  We didn't actually develop that element, so maybe Ollie would be a better person to ask. But for my take on it, I know that if you did have a Technic snap, you have this little slip, this little way that would break the curvature in order to allow the snaps to open up again. That might have influenced some of the discussion. And also, the fact that Ollie probably wanted to position the legs more deliberately- because it was supporting Mickey and Minnie- if you do have that degree of flexibility, it's harder to depend on it without the model wanting to shift. So, I imagine on at least those two accounts- without knowing specifically- that's where I think it might be an issue.

Nick: I know that there were a lot of explorations that went into that piece. And I'm sure Ollie still has them floating around somewhere.

Another part that appears in the Bonsai Tree is part [Minifig Shield Rectangular with 4 Studs] 30166. It's been a bit of a surprise to us, appearing in far more sets than expected, and put to amazing use once again, this time in Reddish Brown. Why do you think designers use it so much?

Nick: I've been thinking about your question a lot. I think it might just be one of my favourite pieces. It's really versatile, despite its strange origins as a shield from LEGO® Star Wars™. I think I've personally colour-changed it twice, and used it in my sets in every colour except white. I think it's probably been in about half of my sets since it was introduced. It's a lot like the classic rocker brick [Hinge Brick 1 x 2 Base (3937)], but it's compatible with the whole clip family. So that just makes it super versatile for doing all sorts of interesting angling techniques. Personally, I'm a firm believer in having the occasional part that does something weird or unexpected, because it often helps unexpected building possibilities. Also, I think some designers (including myself) can be a bit like one-trick ponies where, if they find something that works, they'll just keep doing it over and over. I feel like that with the bonsai tree in many ways. It's kind of an honest expression of who I am as a designer.

 

Seeing them appear in the base of the tree to create the angle of the trunk surprised me. Obviously a lot of thought went into the shape of the tree, the branches, everything.

Nick: Yeah, the triangle technique with those shields: it's this sort of 'reflected' triangle. I was super happy to be able to get that in there. It's not a new technique, we've used it in other models before but I was super happy that it was made quite obvious in the set and it got people thinking. And that's definitely one of the hopes with LEGO sets: that we are able to inspire people with all these different tricks in building. I mean, you made a fantastic diagram, showing how that works. 

Do you have a favourite building technique that you used in creating the Bonsai Tree?

Nick: That's a good question because it's a very broad selection. The thing that I enjoy the most is that each bag is so different. In the pot, you've got a very traditional building experience, then you've got the turntable-sort-of-reverse-thing…[Ed: There is a Turntable 4 x 4 Square Base, Locking (61485) hidden in the base to sit the tree at a subtle angle.]

But I really love the technique of just dropping all of the soil in one step. And it was really fantastic working with Martin Højen Holm Buk, the building instructions developer, to create a special graphic for that.


Martin showed me the digital model one day and all of the soil was arranged to look so organic, and he didn't want to tell me how long he'd been working on that. But then we spent another hour just looking real close, like, "Okay, can we flip that one to make it look more natural and move that one just slightly over there" until we were both satisfied with it. You really get to finesse the positions and that's really quite cool.

Nick Vas mixes his soil. ©2021 The LEGO Group

That is certainly one of the more unconventional building techniques. It sounds like you had a bit of fun with that. Did that creative decision require some persuasion?

Nick:  So, the original bonsai that I made - the bigger one - had the [loose] soil as well. But that was quite natural, because it was a MOC just for display. Then the first 'sketch model' that I made as a proposition for the proper set had wedge plates and slopes to build up this kind of rugged soil look. And through iteration and reflection with other designers about that, we realised it was just stacks and stacks and stacks of plates to build essentially just dirt. It wasn't that exciting and rewarding. I think just scattering in the soil was a unique opportunity to create something that is quite authentic to the soil-laying process. And if you turn it upside down, just like with a real bonsai that dirt will spill everywhere. So please don't do that.

©2021 The LEGO Group

Our thanks to Nick, Jamie and Sara from the LEGO Group for this interview!

READ MORE: Our review of 10281 Bonsai Tree examines all its new parts and techniques

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10 comments:

  1. Assuming the maxaroni has only room for 1L, all we need is a 2L bar. I can imagine why Lego doesn't wanna release that (and yeah, we can also "just" cut a 3mm tube) but really, a 2L bar would be so useful in MOCing. Lego knows it, or they wouldn't use silly monochrome dual molded lipsticks for that.

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    1. Some axle holes will hold a bar fairly securely, while others will barely grip it. I just tested mine, and the grip is pretty strong, but I'm also looking at chunky of a part that is, thinking about what people are likely to build off of it, and wondering how much weight it could support before the grip would no longer be sufficient to hold a pose.

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    2. Yeah, but for MOCers it's still strong enough. But yeah axle holes are sometimes a problem, especially on bricks where one end has an ok clutch but the other end is very loose. And it's the same thing with the new 1x1 brick with axle hole, you can stick a half-stud bar (nipple or random minifig accessory) on one side, but not the other side.
      But generally when you can fully pass a bar trough, the clutch is acceptable.

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  2. Its always good when new parts get used in lots of sets, all too often a new part is created and used only in 1 or 2 sets and never used again (which is not good in terms of getting value out of the mold).

    IMO they should have a rule that (unless its necessary e.g. a licensed part or something) all new molds must get use in at least 2 sets before they are greenlit for production.

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    1. What parts exactly are you thinking of? I can't think of a ton of non-figure molds that have only been used in a single set... certainly not recently.

      And of course, even when a part does debut in only one set doesn't mean that's all it's planned for.

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    2. It more seems like some parts never leave a theme. Like, I don't know, the Nexo torso 24078, it only got into 2 non-Nexo sets, and is already abandoned.

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    3. Of course I can't think of recent parts off the top of my head, but I agree that it is surprising when browsing bricklink how many parts are only used in a few sets.

      Maybe Lego has learned it's lesson? Here are a few older parts that appear in only one or two sets from a quick check:
      -Transformation box thing from Shrieking shack set 4756.
      -Broken baseplate from moviemaker set 1349.
      -Curved road piece from set 6600.
      -Ramp road piece from set 6600.
      -Tipper drum cement mixer from set 6600.
      -Roadway base support from set 6600. (is this a record 4 exclusive parts for this single set?).
      -Dump truck tipper bed from set 7998.
      -Dump truck tipper bed from set 7344.
      -Dump truck tipper bed from set 7789.
      -A bunch of digger buckets from various Technic sets appear only in one or two sets. The Liebherr R9800 bucket might be the most recent exclusive part I've listed?
      -A bunch of wheel designs like the Bugatti Veyron, etc.

      -USB camera from sets 1349, 9647, 9666, 9744, 9731 is technically in 5 sets, but damn how much design effort went into making that I wonder?.

      I didn't do any kind of deep dive into sets from the last 5 years I'm curious if there are any recent exclusive parts that really stand out?


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    4. Yeah, a lot of the ones you mention are from the late '90s and early '00s, basically the nadir of Lego's business. They almost went bankrupt around that time, in fact, due to various factors that included having very little in the way of any system in place to monitor and control costs. Similarly, their turnaround following that was in part due to getting those unrestrained expenditures under control, including introducing the modern system of budgeting specifically for new molds and requiring old ones to be retired in their place.

      Some of the more recent parts you mention, like the various digger buckets or wheels in licensed Technic sets, are one of those things like figure parts that comes with the licensed territory. Brands licensing their vehicle likenesses to Lego to produce do so under certain conditions, which among many other factors includes doing justice to iconic aspects of the design. And for many of those sorts of parts, especially functional parts like the aforementioned wheels and buckets, it'd be hard for a solution using standard bricks to meet those standards while also meeting Lego's standards for durability/reliability for the Technic theme.

      That said, in some cases, especially non-licensed sets, a specialized part only being used in one set might just be a temporary issue—for example, a larger digger bucket might debut in just a single set simply because Lego rarely has a large number of those kinds of sets available at once. Given time, they might eventually find their way into other sets. One example that comes to mind (if only because it's one of the Technic sets I have) is the large quarter circle gear parts and digger buckets from the Bucket Wheel Excavator set, which were originally unique to it but were later used for other sets.

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    5. A few years ago at Brickworld Chicago, one of the Friends designers hosted a seminar, which included a Q&A. I asked about CMF parts, since at the time they were produced 100% in China, and parts that showed up in retail sets were clearly made on different molds. The CMF team gets a lot of leeway just due to the nature of their product line. Parts designed for that theme needed a second mold in Europe before they could be included in other themes, and set designers very much had to deliver a pitch on why a particular CMF part should be available for general use. These were parts that had already been designed and produced, so the hard part was out of the way, but they couldn't just flood the factory with new molds that might never get used again. We were told that, of all the CMF-original parts, hair is the easiest to get approval for. This is probably because the vast majority of minifigs will get a hairstyle, and it looks weird if everyone has exactly the same style (unless you're the early Beatles). If the SW team tried to get approval for the new Jaguar Warrior hat, they'd probably be laughed out of the room.

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  3. There's a set missing from that set list! I was looking through the pictures and trying to find at least one frog in each photo (stuck on 80015 and 70831), and I realized the Bonsai hasn't been added yet. The list was last updated in October, so news of that set was still a ways off, but it's definitely there now.

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