My box of bricks: why play is good for design

If I'm being perfectly honest with you, this really doesn't feel like work. I'm in my studio and the problem-solving/creative-genius node in my brain is throbbing away nicely. I'm definitely designing, there's no doubt about that. It's just, well … part of me is very aware that I'm on the floor playing with LEGO.

I assure you that this is definitely work. It’s an important professional skills development training exercise opportunity somethingorother, that's what it is. You see, tucked away all alone in my little studio, away from regimented staff development courses and – shudder – team building away days, I'm responsible for setting my own learning agenda. Sometimes, I even like to speak to myself in corporate training lingo, just to make it a more authentic experience. Today, for example, I am quite literally, in a very real sense, thinking mindfully all of the way outside the comfort zone box. A box of LEGO. 

The box in question doesn't have a picture of a fire station or a spaceship on it, as you might expect; oh my no, this is proper grown-up Lego. The box is big and serious and says "Architecture Studio" on the front. It even comes with a book full of architectural case studies by proper architects who use architectingly long words. This isn't kids' stuff, this is for ages 16+.

Okay, so maybe I've got a couple of decades on that, but what's inside the box is undeniably the stuff of slightly-pre-middle-aged designer dreams. This is proper design business – you can tell, because it's all pristine and white. A blank canvas of 1210 pixel-bricks, plasticky chaos giving puppy-dog eyes, desperate for order. All it asks is to be made into homes and towers and cityscapes and basically be imbued with some sort of considered, creative, rational thinking.

And so here I am, building and playing and desperately rooting around for a flat two-by-three. I realise I could do all of this with any old pile of bricks (and that's what they are, bricks – never, ever say “LEGOs", or I will look for you, I will find you, and I will give you an incredibly stern glower), but it feels right to have some set aside specifically for this task. There are other spare bricks scattered about the place, waiting to be stepped on in the dead of night, but they've all been claimed for. I've tried explaining Le Corbusier's Five Points of Architecture to my son, but he remains unconvinced by such dogma. He rarely incorporates pilotis or roof gardens into his stacks of drool-encrusted Duplo, and won't let me teach him the error of his ways. So unprofessional.

But how exactly is this skills development? Well, I'll have you know that there are lessons to be learnt from sprawling out on the carpet and sticking brick to brick. Lesson one: good grief this carpet is horrible up close. Lesson two: pins and needles sets in really quickly these days. Lesson three: by golly it's nice to be making stuff out of actual stuff for a change.

Rather than cursor on screen or pencil on paper, today I'm creating using my hands on pointy, feely, clacky bits of three dimensionality. Atrophied senses, neglected every day under the glare of the Mac display, are getting a good work out. I can feel the things that I'm designing. It is, and I love this word, haptic. There is an abundance of hapticity. The sheer hapticitude of it all is so invigorating!

But there is also a reassuring familiarity to it all. As well as the fact I've been building with Lego since the 1970s, this white mountain before me demands the sort of thinking that I would normally apply to a book cover. It’s about mass and density, repetition and rhythm, scale and texture. Lego is nothing but a collapsed grid, an undiscovered pattern hidden within a very particular set of constraints.

Exercising that discipline down here on the floor today will inform how I utilise it up there at my desk tomorrow. Doing things the same way every day is only useful up to a point – it can easily become a self-perpetuating treadmill of bad habits and tired technique. Play demands imagination, and rewards trial and error with joy; play prevents stagnation; play is good.

So yes, here I am, hard at work. Squeezing new life out of old skills, seeing things from an architectural perspective, rebuilding synapses to enhance my cognitive approach to design. Also, I've just built an awesome spaceship.

Written for Creative Review.
Lego Architecture Studio available from Amazon. This post was originally titled “I am a Lego architect, they call me a Lego butcher” but I think I'm the only one that knew what that meant.