The History of the Minifig
The following is an article from the official LEGO® company newsletter. Reproduced here with kind permission from its author.
Greatest LEGO Hero Reaches 25Troels Witter - LEGO Life October 2003
The LEGO minifigure is 25 years old this year. Since first appearing on the market in 1978, the little yellow figure has gone from strength to strength. Billund has produced no fewer than 3.7 billion minifigures over the years – making it one of the world’s largest population groups!
Not content with that, the courageous minifigure is on it way to Mars: aboard the two Mars expeditions launched this summer were pictures of minifigures Biff and Sandy.
Over the past 25 years the minifigure has appeared as many characters – knight, astronaut, policeman, racing driver, space warrior, Harry Potter, Santa Claus, Steven Spielberg, crane operator, football player, explorer, nurse, basketball player, Spiderman, frogman, skier, fireman, skeleton, pirate, rollerskater, American Indian, queen…
Jens Nygaard Knudsen has an unlimited imagination. It helped get him a designer job with LEGO System in 1968. He gave his imagination free rein when he designed cars, trains, houses, fire stations and other sets for the classic LEGO product range. Beautiful houses. Exciting machines. “But there’s something missing.” Thought Jens Nygaard Knudsen one day to himself in the early 1970s. What was missing was… people. Some figures. Some life. The missing link was a LEGO human being.
Enter “the extra”
So Jens Nygaard Knudsen began sawing and filling LEGO bricks until eventually he ended up with a small figure looking like … a cross between a LEGO brick and a human being. A little angular figure with a round head and no facial expression, with contours of arms and legs – but a figure which could only be placed, moved and placed in a new position. It couldn’t walk or catch anything. However, it was the first step towards bringing more life to the models.
This figure, which quickly became known as “the extra”, enjoyed a fair success in the early 1970s.
Which was more than could be said for some other LEGO products. The word “crisis” was whispered in the corridors of the mid 1970s.
Fighting your way back from a crisis takes creative ideas. So Jens Nygaard Knudsen worked away at his figure. He wanted to give it more life.
Eventually there were about 50 small, tiny and slightly larger prototypes. The first ones were carved from LEGO bricks, their later cousins were cast in tin.
The owner of the Company at that time, Godtfred Kirk Christianson, saw the figure and made a quick decision.
The Minifigure, as the new character was to be called, would help put sales of LEGO products back on the map.
It could bend at the hips, its arms could move, it “grew” eyes and a mouth – and its hands could grip other LEGO elements. The hands opened up a whole new world of accessories, which later led to the development of many new parts.
Jens Nygaard Knudsen recalls those early days as he take a nostalgic trip down memory lane, browsing through sets date 1978: “Product development moved fast. The process took less than six months – and was particularly rapid because Godtfred was pushing for results.”
That was the year – 25 years ago – the first minifigure scampered onto retailers shelves. A tiny figure, complete with motor car, in a box selling at 10 kroner, was the start of one of the most fabulous chapters of LEGO history.
In it’s 25-year march across sales charts on all markets, the minifigure has multiplied its numbers: more than 3.7 billion have left the moulding machines to start their own lives in children’s hands all over the world. The figure has become a symbol in its own right.
Jens Nygaard Knudsen is obviously proud of his “child”.
He says fondly: “I had no idea it would achieve numbers like that – although I could see how pleased children were with the minifigure, and I could see it had unlimited potential. It still has. It’s entirely up to the user’s imagination – but the figure still depends on the development of good themes and good accessories. There must be a lot of potential, for example, in fitting the figure with microchips. I’m pretty sure the figure could live to celebrate its 50th birthday!”
Minifigure – a technical marvel
The LEGO minifigure may not be a physical giant but it is actually something of a technical marvel. The figure – launched in 1978 – incorporates a number of technical tricks.
The minifigure’s body comprises eight parts: two arms, two hands, two legs, a torso and a hip joint. The eight parts are held together by a special “snap system” which cannot easily be taken apart.
The head has its own story to tell. Originally the head was topped by an ordinary LEGO stud – but to avoid the risk of choking if swallowed, the stud was hade hollow, with the hole passing all the way through the head. This also permitted different accessories to be fitted into the hollow stud. The head has proved a useful universal element: over the years it ahs been used in different colours as lamps, wheels, crystal balls and many other things.
The dimensions of the figure are such that it matches all standards in the LEGO system. It can be readily combined with all the classic bricks and parts. The body is three LEGO bricks high, the head is one brick high. The figure can hold a LEGO brick in its hand, and it can be plugged standing or sitting on top of other LEGO elements.
There are certain aspects of the minifigure, however, that break with classic LEGO standards. The neck has been lengthened to permit parts to be fitted between the shoulders and the head. The arms and legs depart from the straight-line principle of the LEGO systems. The fact that that shoulders are narrower than the hips stems from the shape of the minifigure’s predecessor – it brings the hand closer together when the figure raises its arms. Designer Jens Nygaard Knudsen describes this as “a defect the figure has learned to live with for 25 years”.
It has proved quite a challenge getting all the figure’s many parts to fit together. The hands must be able to turn without falling off, the arms must be cap[able of moving without being too loose. And it must be possible to remove hair and headgear without taking the head off the neck.
During the minifigure’s 25-year history details have been regularly modified down to a margin of a thousandth of a millimetre. But the basic design has remained unchanged since the appearance of the very first figure.
New looks for 25-year-old
Before the minifigure actually made its debut 25 years ago, its designer Jens Nygaard Knudsen had made prototypes of the figure with different skin colours and facial expressions. But it was decided at the time that the figure should be produced only with a yellow-coloured face. And that facial expressions should be happy and neutral. Sex, race and role were not to be part of the figure – they would be formed by the child’s imagination and play.
It was not until LEGO pirates were launched in the late 1980s that the figure got a variety of expressions: nasty or good, happy or grumpy.
When licensed products such as LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Harry Potter came on the scene, the figure assumed the roles of specific characters. And with LEGO Basketball the figure was given authentic skin colours.
From next year the LEGO minifigure will have an even wider range of colours and looks – it has been decided the figures produced under licence should look even more like the original characters. It will mean, for example, that figures in LEGO Harry Potter will change their skin colour to a more natural shade in 2004.