Interview with the designer

Lego designer James May came up with the tuk-tuk, set 40469, released in January 2021. He kindly sat down with us for a short chat about life and all things Lego.

Northern Brickworks: James, welcome to Northern Brickworks, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview. We like your tuk-tuk very much and we’re now seeing how many different variations we can come up with on your design. We’ve called our competition ‘A Fistful of Tuk-tuks’.

Northern Brickworks: Please tell us, how did you come to work for Lego? It sounds like every AFoL’s dream job.

James May: Hi Jim! Well like most designers it was the dream job from an early age, but always assumed it was unrealistic, like becoming an astronaut. When I was a student, I saw they had an internship program and applied on a whim, not expecting to get it. Of course, I then in fact did get it where I worked in the LEGO Duplo and the LEGO Dimensions teams for a year. After that awesome experience, I pivoted the rest of my education towards toy design so that I am not just building models but also able to make great play experiences.

NB: What did you do before joining Lego?

JM: I was not long out of university when I was hired actually, so not too much. Before LEGO I got some experience in a start-up company designing educational board games as well as some freelance graphic design.

NB: I read somewhere that the first task of a new Lego designer used to be to make a sphere out of Lego. Is that still the case, and if not, what was your first task?

JM: Haha that’s the first time I have heard that story. That must have been before my time. There are a lot of stories like this from the old days, like if you drop a model you used to need to buy everyone in the office cake.

NB: How did the idea of the tuk-tuk come about?

JM: The decision on what to make into LEGO sets comes from other departments, there is a lot of research and marketing that goes into what we build to make sure we make things kids will love to play with.

NB: How long have you been working on it?

JM: I worked on it for around 4-6 weeks from start to finish, before it was handed off to other departments for things like building instructions and packaging design.

NB: Did you get to travel to India to research the tuk-tuk?

JM: I wish! We gathered a bunch of reference material on tuk tuks from the comfort of the office in Billund. From this we found out cool facts like how in India, they are required to have fire extinguishers on board, which ended up being a nice detail added to the LEGO set.

NB: What was the most challenging bit of this design?

JM: Getting the LEGO set to be stable was actually pretty tough as it needs to withstand the downwards force of a child pushing it along the ground, and the “hollow box” shape did not lend itself well to that.

NB: What bit of the tuk-tuk are you most pleased with?

JM: I’m pretty chuffed with getting the windscreen to match the angle of the front. I needed to have the window frame element vertical for the structure, so finding a way to do that but also have the glass element open slightly to get that angle adds a lot to the shaping.

NB: Are you working on many other projects as well, at the same time? (I won’t ask what they are, I’m sure that’s top secret!)

JM: I have a few more LEGO Creator sets in the pipeline as well as a LEGO Ideas set I am excited to share when they are announced. I recently joined the LEGO Friends team and I am looking forward to seeing what they will give me next.

NB: When you are given a design brief for a project like the tuk-tuk, is it quite an open brief, or is it very restricted to number of pieces, or size.

JM: The biggest constraint is the budget which determines the piece count and the size, although size can be a factor if it is a small box and you want to use large pieces. Luckily, it turns out the LEGO building system is pretty versatile so within those constraints there is still a lot of room for creativity, especially in LEGO Creator where the model is very much the focus.

NB: Did the Tuk Tuk design go through many different iterations? If you have any pictures of any early models that you made we would love to see them.

JM: This LEGO set didn’t quite have the same interesting development cycle as some of the ones you may have seen LEGO designers posting about on Twitter. Early on I tried to be fancy and make the canopy frame out of 3.2mm bars and clips, but that would just shear and fall apart when you tried to actually play with it. Bricks are better in most cases.

Most of the design process was spent on the colours to get them just right. At one point my desk was just covered in like 30 tuk tuks trying to find the right combination. I am a big fan of bright primary colours, so I am really happy with the one we landed on.

I do have a photo of a concept model of an extreme version I made as an exercise to see how far we could take it. The finished LEGO set would never be this wild, but it is good to make models like this to stretch the limits of our imagination as I don’t think we would have the fun colours and extras like the tiffin lunch boxes without them.

NB: James, thank you for speaking to us!