What it takes to be a LEGO designer with Ollie Gregory

Last week we brought you the exciting news that not one but two LEGO designers – Ollie Gregory and Milan Madge – would be making an appearance in South Africa for, among many other things, a signing session at the Sandton City LEGO store.

The signing session is unfortunately now over but not until it ran an hour later than planned as more and more fans streamed into the store to get sets signed and to talk to Gregory and Madge about their work.

Due to time constraints we’re sure many eager people didn’t get to ask everything they may have wanted to, but that’s where we come in. We had a chance to sit down with Gregory to learn how he became a LEGO designer, his tips for others to succeed in the competitive world of bricks, the unique nature of Ideas and that sweet moustache that the LEGO community is so familiar with.

Along with the interview below we’ve linked to various other resources that came up in our discussion, such as LEGO sets and explanations on some specific LEGO themes. Click on them to see more.

Hypertext: How did you come to be a LEGO designer?

Ollie Gregory:  So I’m Ollie, I’m a senior designer at the LEGO Group and I currently work on the LEGO Ideas team. I started off actually working on DUPLO and I’ve slowly progressed from working on sets intended for those who are 18 months to those who are 18 years!

I’ve been at the LEGO Group for seven years and my education and previous work background is that I trained as a model maker. I have a degree in model making and I moved into the film and TV industry. I used to be a prop maker working on big budget superhero movies for all the notable studios. From there, as part of my skillset and being an AFOL [Adult Fan of LEGO], I got some work making large LEGO models. Until a few years ago now I had a world record for world’s largest LEGO model with a team in the UK. Making these big models reignited my passion for LEGO. It’s something that has always been there – I’ve always had it as a passion – which has made this kind of the easiest job I have ever had! It inspired my to re-apply at LEGO.

I applied to be a designer and I had my previous work as an example of what I could do. I had submitted my own fan submissions to LEGO Ideas, I had my own Flickr account with my uploads and I had a few years to build my portfolio. I presented all this to LEGO, they really liked it, and a few months later I was working on the DUPLO team.

My previous work was based on children’s’ animations which really fit in with the DUPLO team. I then worked on Juniors which became LEGO’s 4+ theme. I take some pride in having the first LEGO 4+ A-Wing. Bringing Star Wars to four year olds was a lot of fun. From there I worked with Disney for a few year in the Disney Animation team to produce sets like 43179: Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and more which were all a lot of fun.

I then moved to LEGO Ideas which is where I am now. I joined LEGO Ideas on day one when it was still called CUUSOO and since then I have been submitting projects and now I am on the other side of the fence helping fan submissions to become official sets. I’ve worked on 21324: 123 Sesame Street, 21334: Jazz Quartet, 21338: A-Frame Cabin most recently.

Hypertext: There’s a lot of people who have dreams to become a LEGO designer. What advice do you have for them to follow right now?

Ollie Gregory:  The beauty of the job, really, is that it’s so unique. The LEGO Group is such a diverse, big company that there’s space for everyone.

There are some things you can do, degrees you can chase, such as graphic design, engineering, product design and similar. The thing is, though, you don’t really need those specifically. What you really need is passion for LEGO, passion for the LEGO brick, for the system and how it all works and how you can create things to inspire and wow people.

We have everyone from ex-fishermen to lawyers to professional painters who are designers. It’s a really special position and you will find very few like it in the world.

Ollie Gregory (left) and Milan Madge (right) at the LEGO store in Sandton City. Behind them is a LEGO mosaic of the Big Five created by South African LEGO fans.

Hypertext: LEGO is based in Billund, Denmark, but it employs people from all over the world. What is the situation with learning the Danish language should you be lucky enough to work there? Do you need to know the language extensively?

Ollie Gregory:  At the LEGO Group the company language is English so you don’t actually need to know any Danish at all. That being said, living in Denmark, it is quite nice to actually know Danish, but it’s not a requirement at the company.

A decision was made many years ago that, in order to attract the best talent from across the world, Danish was a huge barrier to entry, so English was made the default.

LEGO is really great at helping employees to integrate and we’re just coming up on a milestone of employing 500 designers from all walks of life with a wide breadth of specialisations. Employees are from 70, 80 or maybe 90 different countries too. We have this diverse group and LEGO did this intentionally.

Hypertext: How long does a set take to create, from initial idea to final product?

Ollie Gregory:  It really depends on what the set is. Something like a small DUPLO set has a short development time, but even then we need to go through the same process of safety checks, quality control and other testing.

We have sets that have taken just under a year to complete while others have taken six, seven or even eight years.

From the raw conceptual stage of a designer putting the first bricks together, to the final product on a store shelf, the time varies wildly.

Hypertext: Is it easier to create a set from scratch, or is it easier to work from a base like the fan submission from LEGO Ideas? We’re sure each offers their own unique challenges too.

Ollie Gregory:  The thing I really love about LEGO Ideas is that you have the starting point of the fan submission to look at and it helps solidify the idea to the public and internally at the company. Having a visual representation with a fantastic concept model is a unique opportunity too.

Even when designing sets without that starting point, it varies depending on whether it’s a brand new LEGO design or if we’re working with an external licence holder. These licence holders really help us understand their IPs as well.

Hypertext: When you look at 21334: Jazz Quartet what song do you imagine them playing?

Ollie Gregory:  Wow, okay, this is going to be a hard one. So when myself and [fellow designer Justin Ramsden] were working on this set, we created a whole document where we created personas for each character. We made lists of incredible artists that inspired each character. We tried to infuse multiple artists into each LEGO character.

For myself I love Nina Simone and the song Sinnerman. That song is sometimes as long as the set is to build sometimes haha!

The idea here is that there is a distillation of all this jazz music history that went into the set. We also created a Spotify playlist. During the development of the set, if there was any jazz or soul that we were listening to, we added it to the playlist so we could build and listen at the same time.

Hypertext: If you could bring back one theme, which one would you pick?

Ollie Gregory:  As a kid one of the themes that really resonated with me was Adventurers. The open ended nature of narrative was great and I love Johnny Thunder. He has a real look that I adore and the whole period of the 1930s speaks to me.

I’d love to see Johnny Thunder come back but the whole era of 1990s LEGO was amazing. It was the era that I saw the toys on the shelves as a kid, seeing the big sets on the top shelves and to bring that back as an adult would be a real treat.

Hypertext: LEGO Ideas is more competitive than ever before. Every review period comes with dozens of sets that have garnered ten thousand votes and have a chance to become an official product. Do you have any advice for Ideas hopefuls?

Ollie Gregory: It’s a really hard one because the purpose of LEGO Ideas is to be unique. It’s supposed to be an outlet for the fans to make sets that LEGO wouldn’t have considered. It’s this philosophy that created great sets like 21332: The Globe and 21327: Typewriter. Even something like 21319: Central Perk has a target audience that LEGO never even considered.

What I would say is that submitters should find a community that will help you promote your submission. Find the fan base, find the forum. For myself back in the day I submitted a project for some small LEGO trains so I found train communities and rail enthusiasts and reached out to ask if they could help me proliferate their fandom and their passion.

Try to find something LEGO hasn’t done before. LEGO Ideas is a project of firsts – what is it you think that LEGO is missing and what can you help them put on the shelf for the first time?

Hypertext: You’ve been in South Africa for a little while, have you seen anything that you think would make a good LEGO set?

Ollie Gregory:  For me it would be the taxis. It was one of the big things we noticed coming to South Africa for the first time. They’re everywhere and it seems like an icon that I hadn’t seen or considered beforehand. It seems to be up there with a New York cab, a London taxi or a Lisbon tram.

LEGO has already made a London bus [sets 40220 and 10258] and a Tuk Tuk [set 40469] too.

Hypertext: It’s too difficult to pick a favourite set, so we want three from you: one you designed, one you didn’t design from the modern era and one classic set.

Ollie Gregory:  Favourite one I designed is 21324: 123 Sesame Street I think. That one was so personal. I am a massive fan of Sesame Street and the power it has for education and fun. It was a huge honour to work on it. It was great to work with Ivan [Guerrero, who goes by “bulldoozer” online], the fan designer, who is also a huge Sesame Street fan. It was a real joy to interact with Sesame Workshop and the team over at LEGO was immense too. Along with LEGO graphic designer Crystal [Fontan] we packed the set with as much attention to detail (and Easter Eggs) as possible.

For modern sets I will be quite biased but Milan [Madge’s] 10305: Lion Knights’ Castle is such a love letter to classic LEGO. Having been part of the team was so much fun to distil 90 years of LEGO play into one set. It’s full of Easter Eggs and Milan is a massive fan of real castles himself, so the set has a lot of accurate details too while still being fun to build and play with.

For a classic set it is either 7410: Jungle River or 5978: Sphinx Secret Surprise. The Jungle River set has so few pieces but manages to pack so much play in. You get an entire adventure in a small box and it feels like there’s so much to explore in the few pieces it has. Before I got the sphinx set as a present as a kid, I only remember having very old school, basic LEGO. Just red, white, black, yellow and blue. To now have all this tan and gold was amazing. And Johnny Thunder in both sets was a kind of role model to me, if you can call him that.

Hypertext: So we have to ask about the moustache. When we told some LEGO fans we were interviewing Ollie Gregory they all said “that’s the designer with the moustache!”

Ollie Gregory:  I was born with it actually, haha! I have been asked this question before and it’s so funny… I wouldn’t be surprised if subconsciously Johnny Thunder made me think moustaches are cool. I have had it for about 15 years now and I will say I had it first. Now Carl Merriam [another LEGO designer] has one too and I get misidentified as Carl Merriam almost daily. We have a running tally of how many times we have been mixed up, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a bit of a trademark I guess.

If you’ve read this far and you want another local LEGO interview to read, we have just the thing. Click below to see our interview with Miroslav Říha, country manager for The LEGO Group in South Africa.

Alternatively, click here for yet another interview on the creation of the LEGO Super Mario theme.


About Author


Related News