Story building and creativity: a lesson from LEGO®. (Episode 38)

Interview with Thomas Holst Sørensen, Head of Design/Creative Director of the Design Innovation team at LEGO Agency in Billund, Denmark.

It would be easy to think that LEGO bricks are about building things, but they are actually about building stories too – and that can give us crucial insights into how to be more creative.

Story building was one thing I learned about by talking to Thomas Holst Sørensen, Head of Design/Creative Director of the Design Innovation team at LEGO Agency in Billund, Denmark.

If you do not know what LEGO is you must have been living under a pile of bricks your whole life. Even if you know LEGO you might not know how big LEGO is, so here are some fun facts about the company: LEGO has 17,534 employees and produces 20 Billion LEGO elements every year. That’s 2 million elements every hour, or 35,000 every minute. More than 400 million people around the world have played with LEGO bricks. 7 LEGO sets are sold by retailers every second around the world.

But enough bricks trivia, let’s look at what those bricks can teach us.

It turns out that LEGO is actually not just about the bricks. Not just about building things. But about building stories as well.

When a child (or an adult for that matter) starts putting these cute little plastic bricks together to build something – say a duck, (or a spaceship, or a prison, or a dragon …) – the minute that duck is materialised it triggers the imagination to start to create a story around it.

The fact that something in the builders imagination created something in real life helps the imagination to take off. The bricks makes it easier for any story to develop. Kind of like roots help keep the soil in place.

More about this later, but first let’s meet Thomas. Thomas has been fascinated by stories his whole life. From drawing comic books as a child, to working in advertising, to co-producing tv-shows and movies and from working at LEGO for now 19+ years. Listening to Thomas describe the work enviroment at LEGO makes you realise that the company is just as creative as you would imagine. I have interviewed thousands of people about creativity, but I do not think I have ever interviewed anyone more passionate about his employers ability to create a creative work environment than Thomas.

Thomas: “Working at LEGO is the ultimate creative dream. Here you get to explore every facet of creativity, and it’s expected that you do that. It feels like a creative paradise – there is nothing you cannot do there – if you want to, the sky is the limit. At LEGO you get to realise all the crazy ideas you had as a kid now that you are an adult and you get to do that for other kids.”

Yes, that does sound like creative paradise.

Thomas has worked on so many different creative projects at LEGO during his 19 years at the company, from the LEGO Movie to opening up a Creative Department in China – LEGO even sent bricks to the International Space station. I asked him about his approach to creativity and he said: “Everything for me is about telling stories.”

The word “story” is actually derived from the word “history”. This is crucial. Story comes from History – not the other way around. And “History” ultimately comes from the word “to know” or “to see”. So at it’s core a story makes you see. And you take what you see and turn it into a story. Somewhere there lies the magic connection between story and creativity. Because “imagination” means “to see a picture in your mind”. But a story is more than an image, it’s a series of images. (Think of the difference between a photo and a movie. A photo is a frozen moment in time, while a movie is a long series of images creating a story. So when your brain creates a story it creates a long series of “imaginations.”.)

I asked Thomas about the connection between story and creativity from a LEGO perspective. He said: “LEGO is about building stories – you are not only building things, you are also building stories. The bricks can be seen as props for the story. Using LEGO to build stories is a way for your imagination to continue outside of your head.”

It becomes a beautiful dance between the bricks in reality triggering your imagination which makes it easier for your imagination to see the next step in the story which triggers you to build something new. That is why the bricks are so powerful. They give the story something to cling on to. That is the same role that a prototype or a mock-up plays, or some scribbles in a napkin or some ideas in your idea book.

At LEGO they have an exercise where people are asked to build a duck with just six normal lego pieces. There are apparently millions of ways to combine these six bricks, but as soon as a person builds “their duck” the duck comes alive and a story – however long or short – starts to build in their heads. The imagination of the builder make these six dead plastic bricks come alive as a duck. And then that duck triggered the imagination of its creator.

As Thomas said “It might just be you who see that story, and that is ok. It might just be a story saying “The duck jumped”, and that is ok too. The point is that what you built became a story that triggered your imagination. A loop of imagination triggering imagination. A story of creativity.

But there is also a deeper effect. Without that story in your head those six pieces of plastic are just six pieces of plastic. When the story makes the duck come alive it gains personality, morals, meaning, back-story and ambition. It comes alive. And as the duck comes alive your imagination about that duck comes alive as well.

So if you look at it this way, LEGO is really about building stories. So much that Thomas during our interview burst out: “You can not build anything in Lego without some kind of a storyline in your head.” 

And I think we can take that quote and turn it into a general truth: “You can not create anything without a story in your head.”

When we realise this, we not only understand the power of stories, we also understand that we should develop our ability to develop better stories if we want to become more creative.

Thomas left me with a powerful advise. The last thing he told me before we ended our conversation was: “Life is your story unfolding before your eyes, creativity is how you can actually influence that story.”

So powerful. And so true. Use stories to develop your creativity, and use your creativity to develop the story of your life.

Let’s learn from LEGO and its ability to inspire stories. Develop your own ability to develop stories, Hone your skill of creating things in real life (prototypes, models, samples – or LEGO bricks) to give your mind something to hang its imagination on. And then use the creative power of the stories that your imagination creates from that.

Do not only build things. Build stories. Do not only create things. Create stories.




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