30 May 2022

Old Elementary: 10 years of LEGO® Friends

Posted by tobymac

With LEGO® Friends celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, I wanted to take a look at what the history of this theme has brought to us LEGO fans. And I’ll start off with this statement: I love LEGO Friends! The models are colorful, detailed, and take place in ‘real-life’. They are great for city-building, and they have excellent playability. They also offer lots of ‘MOC-food’; with all the new elements and colors they have made available, Friends has made a great contribution to MOC design.

While LEGO City also offers great buildings, they are on a much smaller scale. The majority of Friends sets can easily be integrated into a city, whereas City has a lot of off-shoot subthemes that are much trickier to incorporate, like the Stuntz and Lunar Base series. And how many police stations does a city really need?

What is the history of LEGO Friends?

In the mid-to-late 2000s, before LEGO Friends was released, about 90% of all kids playing with LEGO were boys. Was there something lacking in the LEGO line-up? TLG undertook a 4-year long research project with focus groups to figure out what might attract girls to play with LEGO. They really went back to the basics for this project and started from the ground up. During the research, the team was determined to examine the supposed notion that girls don’t like to build, and a lot of tests were aimed at answering this. 

Fenella Charity, a LEGO designer on the Friends team throughout this period, said in a 2016 interview with Bricks magazine: 

“The brief for the project said to strip everything back; remove any limitations that you think are defined… A lot of the girls hadn’t had any construction experience, so of course they didn’t necessarily want to build what we were putting in front of them. What we found out was that girls love to build, as long as it’s a relevant experience. As soon as we made it truly relevant, then they just couldn’t get enough of it.”  

Eventually, this research turned into the Friends theme, and with a $40 million marketing budget, the theme was launched in 2012. Sales doubled expectations, and tripled the existing sales to girls.

Set 3315 Olivia's House from the launch year of LEGO Friends. ©2012 The LEGO Group

And let me pause there for a quick moment: This is a pretty hot topic, with some (understandably) very strong opinions and emotions, that I’m not going to dive into too far, as I prefer to focus on pieces of plastic. 

Yes, Friends was originally created to draw in the female demographic. No, this doesn’t mean girls should only play with Friends, and it doesn’t mean boys should not play with Friends. Over the years, the LEGO Group’s approach has evolved, resulting in the announcement this year that they will stop promoting any LEGO theme to any specific gender. 

41703 Friendship Tree House, the 10th anniversary celebration set. ©2022 The LEGO Group

For me, the main issue is the fact that when a theme is designed with a specific audience in mind, a lot of people directly label it as ‘exclusively for’, or in reverse: ‘not meant for whatever the opposite is’. I don’t like this polar thinking; I prefer to wander around the entire assortment, picking from each theme the things I like. And as a parent of 3, I try to do the same with my children: They get the full LEGO catalog, and I let them pick for themselves what they find interesting.

Every child is unique, so it’s impossible to split them perfectly into 2 groups. There will always be crossovers: children fitting in both groups, and children fitting in ‘none of the above’. As parents / caretakers, it’s our responsibility to make sure our child finds their own unique place, with room to grow.

Back to the plastic.

Types of LEGO Friends sets 

LEGO Friends sets are pretty diverse. There are a lot of buildings – hair-salons, pet care, houses and even a movie theater – which also all fit well inside your own LEGO city. There are a lot of nature sets with campsites, and sets with boats, airplanes and cars. In 2018 all Friends got their own bedroom, in 2019 a Heart Box featuring their hobbies, and in 2020, a series of Cubes started. These are small pods each containing one of the Friends, a small build and an animal in a surprise color.

Of course the sets also come in all sorts of sizes, ranging from 25 parts in polybag 30403 Olivia's Remote Control Boat to 1572 parts in 41101 Heartlake Grand Hotel.

New colors introduced for LEGO Friends

It was important to the team that developed Friends that the color palette they used in sets also included the 'classic' LEGO colors. But being New Elementary, we’re of course mostly interested in what Friends had to offer in terms of newness.

321 Dark Azure, 322 Medium Azure, 323 Aqua / Light Aqua, 324 Medium Lavender, 325 Lavender, and 326 Spring Yellowish Green.
The 6 LEGO colors introduced in the early 2010s, showing their official Color ID and name, along with the BrickLink name where different.

LEGO Friends supposedly gave us 6 new colors, however this information is confusing. It actually refers to ink colors (for decorations and textiles) as well as plastic colors, because the only new hues of building elements to premiere exclusively in Friends 2012 sets were Medium Azure and Medium Lavender. Light Aqua was heavily used by Friends in 2012, but first appeared in brick form in 2011 in the Disney/Pixar Cars theme. Lavender was first used on the LEGO Minifigures Series 5 Fitness Instructor in 2011, then DUPLO Disney Princess sets in 2012, before finally arriving in Friends in 2013. Similarly, Yellowish Green premiered in 2012 in LEGO Minifigures Series 5 Fairy as well as a DUPLO 6785 Creative Cakes before enjoying a run in The LEGO Movie sets in 2014… it wasn’t until 2015 that it appeared in one Friends set. Same with Dark Azure: first used in LEGO Alien Conquest and LEGO SpongeBob SquarePants in 2011, it wasn’t until 2015 that Friends used it for bricks. 

Perhaps Friends was indeed responsible for the addition of the 6 new colors in brick form, but this was for other themes to make use of, while Friends held off actually using them in the theme to retain a sense of novelty each year? 

We’ve seen themes bringing in new colors before. LEGO Clikits for example gave us a bunch of new colors. But when the theme was canceled, so were most of the new colors, except for Bright Pink, which is still in use today. The same goes for a lot of LEGO Scala colors.

But the ‘Friends colors’ are still being used 10 years later, across most themes. The expansion gave a lot of new options to LEGO designers to come up with new color schemes, and of course the same goes for MOC designers. I couldn’t imagine a LEGO universe where there are no azures and lavenders. 

New elements introduced for LEGO Friends

One of the key aspects of LEGO Friends are the small details. This meant that a lot of new elements needed to be created. Friends started the ‘family packs’; bags with an assortment of small parts. 

There are a number of types, like bags with cutlery, small animals, hair brushes etc. We’ve seen this before in other forms, like sprues with Scala parts or tools. The difference with these is that all parts are already loose. The parts are all molded together in the same mold, separated from the sprue, and directly packed in a bag. This means there are no sets that feature the loose parts: whenever a set requires one of the parts in the pack, you get a whole pack. Consequently, some of the parts are left over.

After being introduced in Friends, the parts packs found their way into other themes, like LEGO Super Heroes and LEGO Ninjago.

There were also a few building elements introduced such as Door 1 x 5 x 3 with Studs and Plate 4 x 4 with Clips. Other elements were specifically introduced to adapt to the minidolls: Panel 1 x 2 with Centre Divide is used to keep minidolls feet in place in vehicles, and new handlebars reach the minidoll hands.

Traditionally, LEGO animals are, like LEGO bricks, a bit blocky. The Friends theme introduced what I call 'curvy animals', which are more rounded and realistic. And they made a lot of them! 

A quick check shows there are around 340 unique animal elements to be found in the Friends theme. Although they look good, I still prefer the original LEGO look, but that might be nostalgia. My children prefer the curvies.

LEGO Friends minidolls

With the introduction of the Friends theme came something else: the minidoll. One of the notable results from the focus groups was that most girls didn’t engage with the standard minifigure. 

“We found out that the minifigure was not something that the children were expecting to find when they reflected themselves onto a figure, to really truly role-play. Over and over we had the same reaction when they saw the figures: ‘Ugh! Who is this?!’ That was our wake-up call.”

- Fenella Charity

Figuring out what would work was not an easy task. Not only did they need to figure out the figure, but they also needed to account for the effect on production: at some point you’ll need to actually mass-produce the product.

A display in LEGO House in Billund shows prototypes from the design process. Click/tap image to enlarge.

At the core of the Friends theme at launch was a group of 5 girls, each with their own interests and hobbies: Andrea, Emma, Mia, Olivia and Stephanie. A description from the LEGO website stated: "Each of the friends ... has a distinct personality and interests, such as animals, performing arts, invention and design, that are reflected in the models. Building sets reflect different parts of town where the girls' adventures take place—downtown, suburbs, beach, camping grounds and mountains." 

In 2018, all 5 friends got an update on their appearance, so I have 2 images for each of them.

Andrea - Singer/musician. ©2012, 2018 The LEGO Group

Emma - artistic and creative. ©2012, 2018 The LEGO Group

Mia - animal lover. ©2012, 2018 The LEGO Group

Olivia - scientist. ©2012, 2018 The LEGO Group

Stephanie - athlete. ©2012, 2018 The LEGO Group

In the first wave, all minidolls with the exception of Olivia’s dad were female. 

“When we designed the minidoll figure we didn’t omit the boy figure – he was always there but intended to come later. We needed to be really strong in the first year establishing the five central characters for girls to relate to. As we grew the city we introduced supporting characters, both girls and boys.”

- Fenella Charity

Besides these 5 girls, I’ve counted 91 other characters up to March 2022. In 2020, the minidoll line-up was extended to include little children, called microdolls. These first appeared as small versions of Disney Princesses in the Storybooks sets (which were my first review for New Elementary!).

Minidolls consist of 4 parts: hair, head, torso and hips with legs. The figures are about 5mm higher than  standard minifigures. As you expect from the name, these figures are more stylized than real, looking like little dolls. 

Minidoll heads

Minioll heads are a bit different from regular heads. They have a smaller neck hole, to fit the standard 3.18mm bar on top of their torsos. Due to their asymmetrical head shape, they can’t have dual-printed faces like we see with minifigure heads. This was a bit of a let-down for me, as I like figures to have multiple facial expressions, but finally in 2022 sets, we saw minidolls supplied with multiple heads to show different expressions.  

There are 2 main head shapes: On the top right is the most-used, often described as 'female' but there are also boys who use this version. The one on the top left is usually used for adult males. 

In 2019, the mould for the heads changed. The first version was a solid brick with 2 vent holes. The new version has lost the vent holes, and judging by the seam, appears to be dual-molded.

The hair often has small holes, the  size of the pin present on elements such as a Tile Round 1 x 1 with Pin (20482), so that items like glasses, flowers and other accessories with this small pin can be connected. The hair was, until recently, made out of a rubbery material. In 2020, we’ve seen more and more standard plastic wigs appearing. There are also many versions of headwear like caps and helmets that also feature hair. This approach was not entirely new, as it was already featured in a Pirates of the Caribbean set in 2011 and Lord of the Rings sets in 2012, but the minidoll certainly brought it into the non-licensed part of the LEGO universe, where it quickly spread to other themes.

Minidoll torsos

The torsos come in 4 variations: 

  • Top Left: Girl
  • Top Right: Woman
  • Bottom Left: Boy
  • Bottom Right: Man

The major downside for all torsos are the hands: they can’t rotate, severely limiting the posing options.

Minidoll legs

Jewel image (right) ©2022 The LEGO Group

I’ve counted 17 variations for hips/legs! In 2022, there is a new dress-piece that can also serve as a cocoon or jewel.

The legs can't be moved independently, and on some versions, the hips don’t hinge at all. Unlike minifigures there are no anti-stud holes on the butt, so it can't connect to a standard chair. Instead, the feet are often wrapped around a mould that was created for the purpose: Panel 1 x 2 x 1 with Rounded Corners and Central Divider (93095).

Minidolls in other LEGO themes

©2012-2022 The LEGO Group

The minidolls are used in more themes than Friends alone. In 2014 LEGO Disney Princess was introduced, along with other non-princess related LEGO Disney sets like Encanto and Raya. In 2015 came LEGO Elves, and in 2017 the (too) short-lived LEGO Super Hero Girls. In 2019, the first sets with both minifigures and minidolls appeared, thanks to The LEGO Movie 2.

Ten years on and the minidolls are still somewhat divisive, seeing as some AFOLs don’t consider them as true LEGO. I understand the feeling. When you’ve been playing with minifigs your whole life, it’s difficult to accept something new. LEGO Jack Stone didn’t do that feeling any favours. 

Weirdly enough, a lot of AFOLs do seem to love the LEGO Fabuland figures, which are also very different from minifigs. With my oldest child being 11, all my children have had minidolls present from the start of their LEGO years. Minidolls are part of their LEGO universe, and they have no problems mixing them with minifigs. And with the size being close to minifigs, all Friends sets are built in a scale that are compatible with minifigs. 

No matter your opinion on the minidoll, the colour schemes or the designs, the fact is LEGO Friends is one of the most popular current themes and occupies a critical place in LEGO history.

READ MORE: All the new parts in LEGO® Technic 42143 Ferrari Daytona SP3

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  1. “In 2019, the mould for the heads changed. The first version was a solid brick with 2 vent holes. The new version has lost the vent holes, and judging by the seam, appears to be dual-molded.”

    I don’t think that’s correct. The vent holes started appearing in 2019, and the original version was a two-part piece (not dual molded but two parts snapped together). I’ll see if I can find a photo of the two parts, I know they used to show up unassembled in ebay lots from the China factory pretty regularly.

    1. You're correct. I've checked the heads of a 2022 set, and the vented version is the new one.

  2. I thought the 4x4 plate with clips first came out in 2004? I remember having them on my 4 Juniors Pirate Ship in red.... (set 7075)

    1. Ay, sneaky one. That mold variation was new in Friends, but a version with older clips already existed that I overlooked.

  3. Regarding Friends supposedly being the first theme to include pre-bagged accessory assortments ("family packs"), I would argue that earlier examples existed in other themes. The top three that come to mind are the Clone Trooper/Mandalorian accessory pack introduced for the 2008 Clone Wars sets, the chrome gold coin and ingot assortment from the 2011 Pirates of the Caribbean sets, and the post-2007 automotive tool assortment. The latter two can be considered direct successors to earlier coins and tools which had to be punched from a plastic sprue by hand. Still, Friends took the idea and ran with it for its kitchen, garden, fashion, and veterinary assortments.

    1. Some of the earliest "pre-packs" of this sort that I can think of are the Batman accessory pack (https://brickset.com/parts/design-55707) and Bionicle weapon pack (https://brickset.com/parts/design-55237) from 2006! They were definitely not a new thing for LEGO Friends, but the Friends theme definitely made a very deliberate choice to use them extensively in those early years — which definitely helped the theme to compensate for the absence of these important types of accessories in other themes!

      In the years since, some of these original 2012 accessory packs have been displaced by the introduction of dedicated individual molds for accessories like pens, dishes, spoons, forks, cupcakes, sunglasses, butterflies, and assorted flowers. But the theme has also managed to introduce other very useful accessory packs in the meantime, like the Marine Life pack (https://brickset.com/parts/design-49595) from 2019!

  4. I'd love to see the return of the original friends flower pack, 93081, in more colours too. Did not last long enough

  5. Nice article! I'm glad it talks about the wide variety of different innovations the Friends theme introduced back in 2012, as well as background information on the theme's early development and some of the ways it's grown and evolved in the years since. I do wish it went into a little more detail in some areas, though.

    For one thing, I wish the article had mentioned the evolution of racial diversity in the Friends theme over the years. Although the theme began with only two "standard" skin colors (Light Nougat and Medium Nougat) back in 2012, it now includes six (Light Nougat, Warm Tan, Nougat, Medium Nougat, Medium Brown, and Reddish Brown).

    It also frustrates me a bit that this article (like a lot of discussions of mini-dolls, even from people who appreciate their appeal) gives so much attention to their disadvantages compared to traditional minifigures, while barely mentioning their many advantages. And those advantages include a number of practical strengths, not just aesthetic ones:

    • Mini-dolls with long hair can generally turn their heads better than minifigs with long hair, since those hairstyles often tend to press tight against minifigs' bulky torsos and shoulders.

    • Mini-dolls with skirts, dresses, gowns, and mermaid tails (aside from the Disney Princess hoop skirts) can sit down just as comfortably as those with trousers, whereas minifig skirts, dresses, gowns, and mermaid tails generally either lack articulation entirely or limit how far the legs can bend forward.

    • Mini-dolls' arms can usually be raised up over their heads without great difficulty, whereas minifigure arms' angled axis of rotation tends to make them collide with their hair or headgear.

    • Two mini-dolls can easily sit side by side in a four-stud-wide space without any separation between them, which makes it easy to fit multiple characters side by side in vehicles, sofas, or beds. Whereas minifigs' chunky shoulders mean that you usually need a five-stud-wide space to seat two minifigures side-by-side.

    • Mini-dolls have longer legs relative to their height than minifigures, which means it's easier to design seating for them that won't make them tower over characters standing nearby! Whereas a minifigure seated in a chair will be taller than a standing minifigure unless the seat is less than two and a half plates high.

    • Mini-dolls' narrower hips allow for a number of seating options that would not work for minifigures, such as the curved backrest of the armchair and wrap-around backrest of the kitchen chairs in https://brickset.com/sets/41449-1/Andrea-s-Family-House, or the cushy armrests on the armchair from https://brickset.com/sets/43180-1/Belle-s-Castle-Winter-Celebration.

    I get that this may be way too much to address in just one article (I believe that Hispabrick Magazine devoted a whole SERIES of articles to comparisons between minifigures and mini-dolls, without even touching on other aspects of the Friends theme). But in that case, I wish the sections on mini-doll upper and lower bodies stuck to more generalized description of their design and features instead of focusing so much on how they measure up to minifigure-based expectations.

    Apologies for all the nitpicking — make no mistake, I genuinely appreciate all the detail you went into for this article, and how broad an overview of the theme's contributions you offered! Your photos are also very good at capturing the variety of different molds the theme has offered over the years, and the distinctions between some of the different mini-doll molds that some folks might not even be aware of! There are just a few areas where I feel like more detail would have been nice to see.

    1. You're right. I could have sworn I included the skin colors, but I wrote this at the same time I wrote another review for Rebrickable that included the first Reddish Brown minidoll, maybe I checked that box off for the wrong blog in my head.
      For all the advantages: I agree. The width/heigth ratio of minifigs is one of the things that often are aturn-off in sets, especially in 'life-like' models like Modulars, where the figs just don't seem to fit.

    2. I'm still hoping for a proper "Asian" color, maybe somewhere between Light Nougat and Tan, somewhat like a honey-olive color. Not too dark, but with a yellowish hue raher than a pinkish.

      Also it'd be nice to see a return of Paradisa Medium Green and a proper Bright Reddish Orange.

    3. @Håkan S: The Rebrickable bot has just found this part in a new color: Warm Tan:

    4. @tobymac

      Judging from this blog's Instagram post, the new color seems somewhat too dark and not yellowish enough as a general "Asian" skin color. Although I might change my mind when I see the color in person.

      (It might still be a useful color for more diverse characters, or as a subdued color for urban buildings and nature scenery, though.)


    5. Just wanted to say I am 70 years old and I love Lego friends .I started buying for my granddaughter. When they first came out, but sadly she lost interest.That didn't stop me though ! I

    6. That is brilliant! And what a special connection you'll always have.

  6. Thanks for a great article!

  7. I played with LEGO as a little girl. Never had a problem “connecting” with the minifigs. I still think they’re adorable. The minidolls though…to me, they look like someone shrunk a Bratz doll /shrug

  8. Yeah, DC Super Hero Girls featured a lot of impressive minidolls and amazing hairpieces. A shame the theme ended so quickly.

  9. I have 2 younger sisters that loved the theme until they began to grow out of it at 12-ish. I was usually pretty involved with their adventures and bought a lot of the sets they ended up with, yet they were the ones who were very tuned into the style change in 2018. It was definitely a negative to them, having formed the personalities of the Friends based on the original versions, and they showed little interest in making the switch. A few years later, it was time for the 1st (and final?) dark age, but I did strike me as interesting how much the details on the dolls mattered to them.

    1. I guess Lego counted on the span for the reboot being so short it was worth it in the long run, although it might have felt jarring for the kids being right in the middle of it. Few adult fans seem to still be genuinely upset, and I'm not sure if the pre-reboot animated series are still streaming and such, and in that case, the younger kids might barely notice it. (For your younger sisters, it's not unlikely they would have grown out of the theme, anyway.)

  10. I'm a male AFOL and I really like minidolls because of the extra degree of realism. I feel the same way about Jack Stone, too.