A Thousand Faces: The Story of the Lego Minifigure


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Earlier this year, Forbes declared Lego the world’s most powerful brand… and it’s hard to deny the plastic bricks are a staggering success. Heck, the Telegraph reports Lego is a better investment than gold in some cases. But it’s not hard to see why: Lego is an example of great design, and has been for years. We’re going to take a closer look at the toy, starting with one of its most iconic elements.

With over 4 billion minifigures worldwide in 2006, the minifigure is an ubiquitous part of Lego sets and childhoods alike. But it wasn’t always the case. The minifigure would take several years and a number of revisions before arriving in its current form.

Lego was founded back in 1932, but the minifigure we know wouldn’t show up for over 40 years after the birth of the company. Unsurprisingly, they came about as a vital addition to Lego sets. Though creating houses, vehicles and so on was easy, there was nobody to populate the worlds people were creating.

Lego approached adding people to their scenarios in a number of ways. A precursor to the modern minifigure was a similiar figure with no arms or facial features, and Lego also created smiling, brick-built figures with articulated arms but no leg movement. It wasn’t until 1978 that we would see the minifigures we know today.

The first minifigures were released as part of the Town range, with the simple smiling faces that have become something of a cultural icon. By today’s standards they’re laughably basic, but their simple design also made them all the more accessible. Simple, gender-neutral faces and swappable hairpieces allowed play flexibility, while the yellow skin colour was chosen to represent all ethnicities and avoid any notions of exclusion.

Minifigures started out with basic designs, before growing more complex and varied as time went by.

Minifigures started out with basic designs, before growing more complex and varied as time went by.

 

As Lego continued to evolve, the minifigures in each set evolved with them. Lego’s original Pirates range, launched in 1989, was a massive leap forward for the minifigure: characters came with new facial designs and accessories like peg legs and hook hands. Licensed sets (beginning in 1999 with Star Wars) would offer even more customisation, with elaborate prints and headgear accompanying the little plastic people.

The 21st century saw a number of brief variations on the core design of the minifigure. For the Lego Sports range, a series of basketball-playing minifigures were created. These featured spring-loaded legs and modified arms to better simulate playing a basketball game. In 2005 the Star Wars range featured Jedi knights with specially moulded hands. These contained a tiny lightbulb that allowed lightsabers to actually light up when the head was depressed.

Lego also explored a range of other figure styles after the minifigure was created… though to date none have lasted as long as the original. The advanced Technic range saw larger-scale figures with greater articulation and more detailed facial features, whilst retaining the yellow colouring. The 4 Juniors range adopted a similiar concept: figures had longer legs and more detailed hands, but lacked the disassembly the minifigure offered. Elsewhere Lego’s Belville and Scala ranges, aimed at girls, moved further from the minifigure template with realistic coloration and body shapes. The ‘minidoll,’ available in the Lego Friends range, is their spiritual successor and appears across several Lego ranges today.

But what’s remarkable about Lego’s minifigures is that the core design hasn’t seen any real changes since its inception… and remains far and away the most popular way of representing people in Lego sets. Just as Lego bricks today are compatible with their early counterparts, modern minifigures are virtually identical to the ones released in the 1970s. Though new headgear, accessories and specialised head designs have all made an appearance, the basic minifigure design remains untouched. Composed of at least nine pieces and assembled without any adhesives, they’re a remarkable example of craft, creativity and accessible play scenarios. And as with Lego bricks in general, pieces can be mixed and matched to allow highly personalised play.

Licensed sets have long been a part of Lego's lineup, with over 400 toys in the Star Wars range alone.

Licensed sets have long been a part of Lego’s lineup, with over 400 toys in the Star Wars range alone.

 

It’s fair to say the popularity of the minifigure hasn’t gone unnoticed by Lego. In 2010 the company launched their collectible Minifigures range, with blind-bagged minifigures available for fans to pick up in shops across the country. The range has continued into 2015, with The Simpsons receiving two dedicated collections, and the elusive Mr Gold minifigure fetching hundreds of pounds online.

And with Lego’s new video game Lego Dimensions releasing next month, we can rest assured the minifigure’s popularity will be helping it along. Upon its release, gamers will be able to buy minifigures from a wide range of IP, from Doctor Who to The Lord of the Rings. When these minifigures are placed upon a special ‘toy pad’ they will appear in the game itself, allowing players to use their unique abilities.

Lego has become one of those rare brands that’s cemented itself as a cultural icon… and the Lego minifigure is arguably a large part of why that’s the case. Appearing in an endless number of guises, whilst maintaining its core aesthetic appeal, it’s sure to be a big part of our cultural landscape for the foreseeable future.

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