Justin Ramsden Discusses SDCC Exclusive LEGO Sets, Career as LEGO Designer

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Lego Exclusives Comic-Con

Justin Ramsden has been a senior designer with LEGO Group for the past five years. I spoke with him at Comic-Con in San Diego last week about his career at LEGO and his work designing LEGO Group’s SDCC exclusives.

Sean
Just to begin, can you say who you are and what your job is?

Justin
My name’s Justin Ramsden. I’m a senior model designer at the LEGO Group.

Sean
So how did you end up with that role? Did you initially build with LEGO bricks like as a fan, and then your work got noticed? Did you come through product design?

Justin
It’s a long story but we’ll try and condense it. So pretty much ever since, yeah, I could break my brother’s models, it really hooked my brain and I was obsessed by LEGO bricks and LEGO products. And yeah, so I was a fan all my life, well, all my childhood, I’m still alive, so fan all my childhood.

And then the LEGO  Group ran this thing called the inside tour where basically you go behind the scenes and get to meet designers and you’d go and see the factory and you go and meet Kjeld [Kirk Kristiansen, former CEO of the LEGO Group] and you’ve got to go to the vault and just all these really amazing things. We still run it to this day.

But I went, I was lucky enough to go on it first, as that was back in 2004. And it was then that I realized that LEGO design is actually a thing. Because before then it was like LEGO sets just appear at Christmas time, and it was made in Santa’s workshop and that seemed to be the norm.

And then I was like, oh, I have all these faces and names and this guy designed LEGO Racers, and this guy designed LEGO Technic. And that was crazy. So, from that I asked the question, how does one become a LEGO designer? And what do I need to learn? What does, and had all these, this set of skills and, right. Okay, I’m going to follow these to the letter. And I was lucky enough to have an internship in 2007 at the Billund model shop.

While I was at college, I was building a lot of big-scale sculptures just for my art practice and for coursework. And then I got invited to come down to an interview in winter for LEGOLAND as a master model builder and I said, “I’ll never get it, I’ll never get it.” And then I thought, okay, maybe I’ll try so I decided to apply for the job there. Came down. I was up against the candidates, like 500, it was crazy. And, spoiler alert, got the job and worked there for pretty much five years, building all the huge scale things around the parks. I’ve got models in multiple countries and there was a wild ride.

And at the same time, I decided to go to university. So I studied design at Goldsmiths University of London. And then you know, one day I was like, well now I want to pursue other adventures. I’ve done LEGO building for a good period of time. I’m still a fan. And let’s see what else there is since I’m only young, right?

But in the back of my mind, it was always LEGO designer, LEGO designer, LEGO product designer that is. I’ll never get it, I’ll never be good enough. Because it’s like one in a million thing. This is the dream job, right? And then one night it just hit me like, why don’t I just apply. Like it’s not going to cost me anything. And, the worst thing that you’re going to say is, okay, well you didn’t get it, but that’s not gonna stop me having a passion for the brand. I’m still gonna be obsessed with LEGO building and LEGO products. And so I decided to apply and then yes, spoiler alert, got the job. So, it’s a very long-winded thing. And then been there, year, nearly five years now.

So it’s crazy the fact that we’re here at comic con, I get to do a signing. People queued overnight to get my latest set. It’s mind-blowing… This is crazy! I’ve got goosebumps thinking about this, how crazy it is.

Sean
It’s awesome to hear your passion for that. You mentioned the people waiting at comic con overnight. Can you talk a little bit about the sets that you’ve designed for this show?

Lego exclusives Comic-Con
Captain Marvel SDCC Exclusive LEGO Set

Justin
So for this show, I was lucky enough to design the Captain Marvel and the Asis, which is a comic con exclusive for the Marvel brands. And that was a lot of fun. Just to, just design a spaceship that has been in such a popular film and it’s just so relevant. And the fact that we put a Flerken in the set as well. So the cat with the tentacles, it’s called Goose, it’s never been done before in a LEGO set.

And so it’s amazing. In fact that people queued overnight to get their hands on it, it’s just, yeah, amazing. It’s mind blowing. And then also I worked on the Stranger Things set, so was lucky enough to sign a few of the boxes that people again have sold out of. We’re sold out. There’s no more of the sets.

But then also on the show floor I’ve also designed the big Hogwarts Castle that we’ve got, and there’s a Spider-Man accessory pack as well there, that I was lucky enough to design.

Lego Exclusives Comic-Con

Sean
Since you’ve been able to build both, what’s the difference between designing for consumer sets, versus designing for installation? What are some of the differences in how you approach them?

Justin
Of course. I mean ultimately they both use LEGO bricks. That’s the easy part. But the, it’s totally different because with the installations and the huge scale builds, sometimes they have a steel armature inside to make sure that they don’t fall apart or they’re stable enough to move around the world. And also you’re building a different scale. So I was lucky enough to build a mini figure scale. That’s 1:45 scale, but also minivan scales, so 1:20.

So you build a huge scale buildings and like cars and everything that you see in, that populates the miniland world, which was great to work at different scales because then it gives you a perspective of using LEGO elements in new and exciting ways.

And then, yeah, so you also have to make them resilient to the weather if the models are outside. You have to make sure that they’re childproof so like if a child leans over, they can’t snap something off, or they can’t impale their hand off…

Sean
And just to be clear, when we’re talking about these different scales, we’re still talking about sculptures at LEGOLAND?

Justin
Yeah, this is still large scale. We have to make something just more resilient because at the end of the day, it’s still going to stand on a plinth or a podium. But you see, behind here we’ve been a Sith trooper and people are touching and grabbing bits, but we use glue. That’s the, obviously the spoiler. Whereas when you’re building products, you have to make sure they’re stable, but without using glue and also kid friendly, they’re playable, they’re enjoyable to build. That’s the one thing because when you’re building huge scale models, it can get quite tedious if you’re just stacking windows.

Whereas we want all the LEGO products that we’ve designed to have this flow and this excitement and this adventure that you would go on when you open the box. I mean that’s the, that’s the main thing of the product. I mean, yeah, you have a set at the end of it, but the best part for me is building it.

Sean
When you’re designing a consumer set, and you are trying to make sure it’s fun to build, how do you decide, for a given age group, there should be so many steps, and so many parts? Is there a distinct formula that, for a 13-year-old, there shall be X number of pieces? How do you make an “easy” set versus a “hard” one?

Justin
It’s more pieces and harder techniques. But we work with multiple groups of people. One of those is model coaches. So, they’re experienced designers or ex-designers and also they have their heads wrapped around age marks and is this easy to build?

And then also building instructions developers. So people who design the instructions. So we sit down with those people when we’re designing the model and literally tell them each step that we want to do in our head.

So when you, when you read the LEGO building manual and you see okay, step one is this, step two is this, we have to do that. Which is great when you’re working on a smaller set. But when you’re working on something like Hogwarts, the second biggest set we’ve ever released, that takes a few days.

Sean
Do you start with a specific step count and an image of what you want, and work backwards? Or do you do you do something different?

Justin
It works both ways. I mean some people, everyone works differently. Like for me, I like to just get the bricks and pour them on the floor, get on my hands and knees and start building. And be sort of in your head, you know, okay, this is going to be this price point and it’s going to roughly fit this, and make sure it fits on the box as well.

We also design for how the box looks and okay this will do and this size. Because of course, it’d be amazing to release huge, huge sets every time that we release sets. But I mean I have no room in my house so like I design to what fits on my shelves. We sit down with these people and we sort of discuss what the age mark could be and it’s totally different once you’re building for them.

Someone asked me once, oh, is it hard? Is it easy to build the more adults sets or the older age mark sets and no it’s a totally different kettle of fish. Because with the easy ones, the lower age mark, it’s difficult as well because you’re trying to figure out, oh, can a kid of have five years old actually build this model? Whereas like 16 plus would a teenager or an adult fan of LEGO, would they enjoy this step or this technique and is it still build able for them? Because, yeah, you can be 16 plus, but you can be brand new to LEGO building, or you could be a seasoned veteran. So we need to make sure it’s accessible.

Sean
You’ve worked on licensed sets before. What role does the license holder have in the design? Do they provide a lot of input into the design, or do they allow you more freedom?

Justin
We work really, really closely with our partners. But we get sent, the reference in advance. We get to sometimes read the scripts [for the movies], go to the sets. I mean that’s crazy. That’s on top of building LEGO sets, I get to hear what happened in Endgame before the rest of the world. And so it’s amazing that we get to work with these fantastic licenses and also, yeah, these amazing partners.

Sean
When you’re designing these consumer sets, what are the most common challenges you run into? For example, on your Captain Marvel set, what’s the most challenging part to get right?

Justin
It varies on every model. With the Captain Marvel set, the shape of the spaceship is very, very weird, but it still has a form you could build out of LEGO brick. But I’ve worked on products where I’ve spent days just trying to figure out how this little thing and then one of my colleagues will walk back and go, oh, have you tried this? And goodness. And that’s the beauty of working in Billund and working there where you have 300 designers.

I mean we’re one big community, but also I’m working with some of the best designers in the business for LEGO design. And that’s again mind-blowing. And so when I was there working on the Stranger Things set, the whole upside-down flip, and the ability to flip the set, I worked with multiple people around the office because we just needed to make sure it will kind of be stable enough.

That’s the biggest problem. Stability. You can make the most amazing looking things, but then you touch it and it all falls apart. Or it uses rubber bands to wrap around and hold a tile on the top, and then it just gets too messy. It’s a fun challenge.

Sean
I knew this is the question everyone dreads being asked—

Justin
Well, you haven’t asked it yet, so we’ll see.

Sean
Is there a specific set that’s your favorite that you’ve designed, or that you’re proudest of?

Justin
All of my children are my favorites right now. It’s crazy because I fall in and out of love with every set while I’m working on it because yeah, you get stuck on these problems. You know, you slave hour an hour. And even when you leave the office, you’re still thinking about it.

I mean, I was working on the LEGO Movie 2 and built the Statue of Liberty. And I remember distinctly cooking, and I was cooking sausages and I said, oh, what if I use sausages as the eyebrows for the statue?

And so inspiration comes everywhere. But I mean I remember being in the office for a period of time and just slaving away. Just, you’ve put so much passion, so much energy into it. And then when you’ve finished, you don’t really realize that you’re done until the set comes out on the show floor, the shop floor.

So I don’t know, each set has its stories and has its memories and I even remember the music that I was listening to when I was designing this set or what I was thinking and where we were going when I did this one. But I mean, of course, yeah. My first set is also my favorite because it’s the first time you get to-

Sean
What was your first set?

Justin
It was actually a comic con exclusive, which I still haven’t got. So I’m hoping to get my hands on it. I just need to wait for the prices on the secondary market. It was the Throne of Ultron, for the Avengers film. And that came out four, three years ago, four years ago. Obviously having a convention exclusive as your first set is, is a really big deal. But it makes it very hard to get multiple copies.

Sean
So everyone else gets to play with your set?

Justin
Exactly, or maybe they don’t open it. We don’t know. That’s the beauty of convention exclusives.

Sean
Is there anything that you’d want to build? Do you have like a dream set that you wish you could design?

Justin
It’s funny, like obviously going into the job, you have these set ideas, okay, I want to design this and I want to design this.

And the LEGO Group is in a period now where anything’s possible. Well, it’s always been possible, but the fact that we get to team up with Netflix and do Stranger Things … The fact that I got to work on LEGO yellow submarine for the Beatles…

I mean these are huge things, and huge passion points for me. And so the fact that we’re bringing in these new licenses and just really crazy things, oh, let’s do the Delorean from the Back to the Future. Let’s do the Ghost Buster car. I mean, these are amazing things. So I don’t know what’s next. And that’s scary, but also really, really amazing because I could be working on LEGO anything, whatever it be. And that’s crazy.

Sean
One question about the engineering work that goes into a set, you mentioned stability, is there any sort of formal stress tests or engineering tests for the models?

Justin
We have a drop test and that’s normally by just getting your model and chucking off the desk to see how it survives. Especially things with Stranger Things. All of them. That’s the beauty of working on all these crazy licenses and all these amazing partnerships is, yeah, when I was working with Netflix, the number of people that would just come by your model in the office and test it, it was amazing cause I’d leave the desk and it’d be upside down when I came back in, because we’re always constantly playing, always constantly getting a hands-on.

We obviously have play tests for new models. The designers, they will all sit down and test each other’s models and then we can bring in kids into the office because, oh, my friend’s son is here. My friend’s daughter is here, so they get to play as well.

The LEGO system is tested to like to an inch of, or not an inch of, like a millimeter of a millimeter. That’s the main thing, making sure the tolerances work and just, it’s great. That’s a totally different department.

It goes back to the fact that way, way back when LEGO bricks first started, I mean the quality was always there. I remember fondly this story where only, so the founder like, he made this duck and it had three lacquers, three coats of lacquer on the duck, and Godtfred, the owner’s son, goes “oh, but dad, what if we, if we put less coats on, we could obviously make more. It takes less time. We can get them in the hands of kids faster.” And he was like, no, the quality has to be there. So he actually made Godtfred go back to the train station to get all the ones that he’d only coated with two lacquers and Godtfred had to spend all evening painting these ducks and get them back on the trains that they, they made it safely to wherever they were going.

So even back in the thirties, I mean that quality was there and that was also key. And that stuck with the brand. And to say, well I can strongly say that the quality still remains and that is permanent.

Sean
One thing that surprised me was learning many of the larger models don’t have any kind of metal, it’s just LEGO bricks.

Justin
Exactly. I mean, at the end of the day we try and make it as buildable as possible. Yeah, okay. Things yeah, may move over time or they have to be shipped to comic con. They have to be transported wherever. So sometimes that’s where the steel is, but I remember, yeah, none of the buildings that I built. They just have LEGO pieces bracing it across because, at the end of the day, it’s a strong product. Why not use it, it’s a great system.

Sean
Thank you so much of your time.

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