The roles of research, critique, and community in improving LEGO models

WW2 Medic (1)Like many LEGO builders, I spent the first decades of my life building in isolation, lucky to get suggestions or critique from a sibling or rare friend who also played with LEGO. But in the last 10 years — particularly the last 5 — the LEGO fan community has grown to include a critical mass of people who build in just about every possible genre.

People with shared interests who spend time together online will inevitably run out of solely positive things to say, and as a result, a culture of constructive criticism has emerged among LEGO fans. Balanced against this impetus to critique everything are the planning and research that individual builders put into what they create. In contrast to the solo building those of us in our 30s did 20 years ago, builders today have a wealth of sources right at our fingertips.

What effects do research, critique, and discussion among community members ultimately have on the quality of the LEGO creations we build and share? Since I’ve been on a bit of a building spree lately (amazing what you can do when your LEGO collection is sorted), I thought I’d step back and share my experience.

Read on, and share your own thoughts in the comments…

Before I set out to create a Dodge WC54 ambulance from World War II, I spent a couple hours finding the best pictures and determining where and when they were actually used during the war. Given that many World War II photos were taken by service personnel and are therefore in the public domain, Wikimedia Commons is a great place to find historical photos.

Historical re-enactors and scale modelers also run dozens of sites that pull together vast amounts of careful research. For both my ambulance and later battalion aid station diorama, I turned frequently to the WW2 US Medical Research Centre.

Originally planning to broaden my D-Day beachhead diorama, I confirmed that WC54s were used at Normandy, and even found a photo of WC54s sitting on Omaha Beach. Good enough to start building.

Targeting 1/35 scale, I translating the real vehicle’s length, height, and width into studs and bricks. Remembering what I’d learned from my wildland fire engine, I built from the top down. I struggled with the front, since I had to combine half-stud offset for the three/five-wide hood with SNOT for the grill and bumper, plus tiles (with no studs to sturdy connections on top) for the fenders.

I figured it out, though, and pleased with my results posted pictures to Flickr:

Dodge WC54 Ambulance (1)

Checking back a while later, I saw a stream of notes from our very own Tim, whose windscreen I’d reverse-engineered for the original ambulance. I gritted my teeth and clicked through. (Honestly, I hate taking criticism, especially when it’s wrong. I’d vented a week earlier that too many of the suggestions to “improve” my M4 Sherman tank took it in more interesting but less historically accurate directions. That’s just plain annoying.)

Tim had seen the mini-rant I’d posted in a Flickr group we both frequent, and his critique was spot on. He made specific suggestions based on the source material I’d used myself, providing solutions where I hadn’t thought the model could be improved. The result is the version I included in my diorama, posted separately below:

Dodge WC54 Ambulance - V2 (1)

The story arc (if you will) started with research, moved through community discussion and critique of the creation itself, and ended with a substantially improved LEGO model. This same story plays out every day in the LEGO fan community today — something that would have been nearly impossible 20 years ago and highly unlikely 10 years ago.

Side note: Looking to future World War II vehicles I might build, I’ll be relying on a copy of World War II AFV Plans: American Armored Fighting Vehicles by George Bradford. I was pleased to discover that I ended up almost 100% to scale (1/35) for my M3 Half-track, even without the book.

American Armored Fighting Vehicles by George Bradford (1) American Armored Fighting Vehicles by George Bradford (2)

Nearly all of the book’s schematics are printed at 1/35 scale, which avoids eyestrain from the WIP-held-against-computer-screen method I’d been using before the book arrived in the mail.

So, what’s your experience with the balance between research or sources of inspiration and constructive criticism?

6 comments on “The roles of research, critique, and community in improving LEGO models

  1. Starwars4J

    Honestly, I love constructive criticism…the key word of course being “constructive”. Too often we see people comment with things that they’ll defend as constructive criticism, but that lack any suggestions on how to improve a problem they see, or think they can just use that as a shield for their trolling.

    As for me personally, I tend to build things without an historical origin, so I rarely have to deal with comments about “accuracy”, but I do believe that if you’re going to try to build a copy of something already existing, that you should try to get it as close as you can…otherwise why not just build something completely innovative? :P That leaves people with mainly the critique outlet of aesthetics. Often I intend something to have a certain look that doesn’t necessarily agree with the personal aesthetics of someone else, though it usually feels a bit like a cop-out using the “But that’s how I intended it to look” justification. Ultimately though when it comes down to pure aesthetics I still appreciate the criticism and comments; even if I don’t use it on the MOC it was suggested on there’s a good chance I’ll apply the basic principle in a future MOC.

    In the end I think proper constructive criticism is a fine line that many people fail to walk correctly. You can point out mistakes or possible improvements, as long as it’s not overly attacking, and provides at least some helpful advice so it’s clear there has been SOME level of thought involved beyond “imma go troll lol”

  2. The Mad Physicist

    When I build a model, I want to know a lot about it. I search the internet for pictures or read wikipedia entries and have have bought books on the subjects. I usually start planning months before I put the first bricks together. Doing research for a build is a huge part of the fun.
    At the risk of sounding arrogant, I don’t get a lot of criticism, and if I do it’s rare that people raise issues that I haven’t already considered as part of my planning process. I have made changes to models based on comments on a number of occasions, however.

  3. Catsy

    Constructive criticism, to be honest, is not integral to my creative process. This isn’t because I don’t value it; I do. It’s more because almost all of my best builds are the result of being struck with massive inspiration and marathon creative sessions, in which the first photographs I post are when it’s already finished.

    That’s not an absolute rule, though. The Ringworld would not be turning out half as good as it is without feedback from the WIP shots. I was originally planning on making all the landmasses and oceans on the inner ring a flat mosaic of tiles. Suggestions from people like Nathan Proudlove convinced me that I should try to sculpt exaggerated elevation instead, and once I tried it there was no going back, even if it did dramatically increase the complexity of the build.

    Bird’s Eye is another good example. At one point on the WIP pics Mainman noted a place where the studs were throwing off the sense of scale, and I replaced the plates with Brassoed trans-blue tiles and it significantly improved the end product. Who knows? Maybe it made the difference in the contest.

    Part of the problem is also that–quite honestly–most of the criticism you get on Flickr or other online communities is really not worth much. People post meaningless ratings with no objective frame of reference (like 6/10–what do “6” and “10” really mean?), nitpick details that make it obvious they haven’t read the description and/or don’t have any idea what you’re actually going for, or make inapt comparisons with no real substance behind them. And that’s just the criticism–the compliments aren’t much help either, as happy as I am to receive them. I’m glad it’s “awesome”, “epic” (talk about a word that’s on the verge of being overused to the point of losing meaning), or “well played”, and I’m as guilty as anyone of popping off one-line compliments–but it doesn’t really help me improve.

    Now, as to research–that’s a subject close to my heart. My Google-Fu and Wikido are strong, and I am selectively picky about details. :) Whenever I get an idea about something that’s at all based on a real-world or fictional source, I go hunting for reference material. Probably the best example of this would be the PM Roof Support, which I built after digging up dozens of images of actual roof support equipment and spending far too much time surfing mining supply sites. If you spend enough time at it, you’ll often end up with inspiration for more ideas out of this process–I ended up with dozens of images for all sorts of heavy mining equipment that await the next time I get the urge to build Power Miners.

    The amount of reference hunting I’ve been doing has only skyrocketed since I started doing custom Brickarms and minifigs. The Customs set on my photostream is the result of hundreds of hours–literally–of hunting down reference photos, watching Youtube videos of actual weapons being fired, and digging through Wikipedia and At any given time I have about ten or twenty browser windows open with images and sites related to whatever builds I’m working on at the time, and never have I been so grateful for the way Firefox preserves your tabs between sessions. :)

    Anyway, that’s a big wall of text. tl;dr: With a few important exceptions I don’t get much useful criticism, mostly because my best builds are the result of banging it out all in one sitting from inspiration. Research, on the other hand, is huge, especially if you’re basing something on source material of any kind. Cue parade of self-serving examples.

  4. LordExxos

    When it comes to improving and figuring things out, I usually come here, klocki, or the flickr group and just browse for ideas, figuring out how other people made similar shapes.

    In regards to research, I am typically OCD, gathering as many pictures as I can and then extrapolating the best representation. This sometimes leads to a bit of backlash, since I tend to work very hard to get pictures others did not know exist, so everyone else ends up basing it on one image set while I base it on a high-resolution blueprint of the original.

    Usually the only constructive criticism that I get is from my closest friends, otherwise it is usually just negative and hateful. For an extended period, it drove me from the hobby and from public interaction in general within the community. Even now, I am hesitant to post anything again for fear of ridicule.

    I think it largely comes from my past, but I lack the fortitude to have someone tear apart something I poured every ounce of my skills into. I am not one of those that subscribe to the “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” mindset, but rather the “If you have no reason to say something cruel, don’t say it at all” mindset.

    So altogether, my experience is research and plan as much as possible, but know when to stop researching or you’ll never actually start the project, and never listen to anyone in regards to criticism until they have been your friend for over a year or two.

  5. gambort

    I like constructive criticism. It’s often a good way to polish up a model. I don’t, however, like stupid criticism or nitpicking without an adequate solution and will make that clear to anyone who does it.

    It’s a fair bet that if I post something I’ll welcome suggestions that I’m unlikely to have thought of myself and will potentially improve my model. I might not always agree with the criticism but if it’s polite and sensible I’ll always appreciate.

  6. ColourSchemer

    The community, especially the online community of the past five years is part of the cause of my slump in building, and especially posting LEGO creations.

    Let the works speak for themselves. Sure I’ve learned tons seeing parts used and combined in ways I didn’t know, but the elitism, one-upmanship, cliques, and troll-like comments left a bad taste in my mouth.

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