While in Billund earlier this month, we had an opportunity to chat with LEGO designer Carl Merriam. Carl is still an active AFOL within the LEGO community, although he is now a professional LEGO set designer. Most recently, Carl Merriam co-designed 21309 NASA Apollo Saturn V and has been working on LEGO Boost that has just been released for pre-order.
We sat down with Carl at LEGO headquarters to chat about how he became a LEGO designer, along with some of the LEGO projects he’s worked on since joining the company.
TBB: Hi Carl, can you tell us a little bit about your background before becoming a LEGO designer and your current LEGO life?
Carl: My name is Carl Merriam, and I have been active in the LEGO community for a while I guess… I think my first build I posted online was in 2010 [Carl’s first post was an awesome LEGO Chocobo]. I’ve been on The Brothers Brick quite a few times. It always feels great to get on there of course. I was in video production and produced videos for 5 or 6 years professionally and while I was doing that, in my off-time I built a LEGO studio in my basement. I would just go down there and build — that was what I really enjoyed doing. I would build all night and then go to work the next morning and take a nap at my desk…saying ‘don’t worry about me, I’m just resting my eyes a little bit!‘ Then at BrickCon 2013 I met Brickthing/Nick and right after that he got a job as a LEGO designer. I was like ‘Wow…you can do that? That’s allowed?’ So I applied and I got invited to a workshop four days later. Actually, I had to go to San Francisco to get my passport renewed first as I wasn’t planning to go anywhere…
TBB: Yeah you Americans are like….America is big and has everything, what do I need to travel to Europe for…
Carl: [laughing] Exactly, who needs one of those passport things! Anyway, I got a passport and then had to fly out to Denmark to do the workshop. A few weeks later I got the job offer. So really it all happened within the space of a few months as I applied for the job in late January and I was living here in Billund in April. That was a serious difference in weather and…well..really everything was different as home for me is California. I started off on LEGO Minecraft, worked there for 18 months and designed 3 sets; The Dungeon, The End Portal and The Village, which I co-designed with Robert Heim. Robert was also hired at the same time as me and was also from the fan community. I knew him through Flickr [Robert Heim has the Flickr nickname Robiwan_Kenobi] and we met for the first time at our job interview workshop when we sat together. So at the workshop there was actually designers with real qualifications and we were both from the fan community. Robert was an industrial designer so he is the perfect LEGO designer but I was doing videos before I changed careers. We were both hired from that workshop and then we both worked on Minecraft together for a year-and-a-half after that, which was cool.
Carl: While I was working on Minecraft, my manager there, Simon Kent, was moved to the Boost project and was told to take one designer with him. He picked me, and I have been working on Boost since then. I’ve been able to do some work in between as I did two series of Mixels, made a concept build for the Riddler car from The LEGO Batman Movie and also made some little things for theBrick Bank
While some designers like to stay in one theme and will stay there almost for their career, others like me prefer to move around and work on different projects. I’ve also had a chance to work on the LEGO Employee Christmas gift sets which are a lot of fun, especially since it is exclusive inside LEGO as well as a surprise to employees. We do it in secret and have a team of 20 for the whole process including instructions so we have code names to keep it secret.
TBB: So, LEGO Boost is something a bit different. Tell us more?
Carl: When I started with Boost, I had built five products but none of them really had Technic parts in terms of gears or motors so that was a big change for me. This made it a fun challenge that was very different from the other projects I had worked on. We had to have a lot of meetings about, how easy is it to build? how stable is it? how does it move? which was compounded by the fact that we were trying to build something we would not normally design, like a robot cat. We also had to test to find out how much force could be put through the new elements we are using which was another challenge.
TBB: Tell us more about the Boost models and why they were selected.
Carl: We were working on 15 different models and we wanted to find out which would be iconic and function well especially with kids. We did a lot of testing. We would take the fifteen or so models (things like an airplane or a motorbike that would jump around) and we would just see which ones the kids would hone in on and really enjoy the most. We found out that they really liked a fun robot. We wanted to do the LEGO Auto-builder that would build LEGO models as that was something we had never seen before – LEGO building LEGO. We picked the five models to really highlight the different things that you can do. Two models can drive around — Vernie the robot and the MTV-4 — but the vehicle can pick stuff up so it is different. Frankie the cat is like having a virtual pet so the focus is not on him walking around but more the interaction with him and his emotions and responses. The guitar shows you how to use the hardware sensors so it uses all the motors and has a whammy bar but the motors are the input rather than creating an output.
TBB: So the two models you worked on are Vernie the Robot and Frankie the Cat. Where did the names Vernie and Frankie come from?
Carl: Vernie’s name originated because Boost was originally called Project Vern, like Jules Vern who was famous for inventing. So when it came time to name the robot we had already been calling him Vernie or Vern for a while. We came up with other names like ‘Big Boy’ and “Robo-Bro’ but we stuck with Vernie as it seemed to fit. With Frankie, when we first made him we were joking that he looks like a Frankenstein cat as he is so weird looking. Actually one of my friends back in Fresno has a cat named Frankie and he made this website called ‘Life with Frankie’ where you can watch videos of his cat just doing ‘cat stuff’ like having a virtual pet. I thought our Boost Frankie was similar, like a virtual pet so I started calling him Frankie. Again when it came to brainstorming his name, we didn’t even submit any other ideas, we just said ‘his name if Frankie’ and that was it.
TBB: Are the final models of Vernie and Frankie very different from the initial models you designed?
Carl: Vernie has been through tons of different versions mainly to try and ensure that the hardware components were in a good position for movement but also allows access to the batteries. In the end we took all the hardware and stacked it into one strong stack and that was the basis for the final model. This positioning meant that the wheel motor is directly connected to the track and the neck motor is directly connected to the neck, so although he ended up being taller but this was the simplest.
We had lots of different versions of Vernie that would do different things. One had an arm that could pick something up, a punching arm, a spinning head. We wanted to give him more expressions so the eyebrows we put on him very early in the design as they really convey a lot of emotion. We gave him shades and gave him the ability to interact as we wanted him to be more expressive than EV3 or NXT [at this point Carl demonstrated some movements using the coding blocks on the app and also the tilt sensor that detected when I shook Vernie’s hand, resulting in a robotic ‘Hello’] When you code a movement, for example, to get Vernie to turn, his head also turns just before to make him feel more alive as though he looks where he is going.
The cat’s name is Frankie so it could be a male or female. Frankie has a sensor in the mouth so you can feed him, and naturally he has a harmonica (as all cats do). [Carl then demonstrates how Frankie plays the harmonica by holding a brick-built harmonica that has different colours to create different sounds]. He is cute and he purrs when you stroke him gently and reacts to things he doesn’t like…for example no cat likes to be picked up by the tail…
The target was for kids at home to have an easy entrance to the coding experience but also to ensure the building experience was simple. The sets are aimed at seven- to twelve-year-olds, which is younger than MINDSTORMS. I see Boost and MINDSTORMS as two very separate entities because Boost is more about fun, play, and emotions. MINDSTORMS is more about hard coding and technical building. We are trying to separate the two themes rather than try and introduce Boost as a younger MINDSTORMS, although MINDSTORMS is from 10 and Boost we wanted to get down to 7 years old.
TBB: Was the aim to be fun and educational?
Carl: We definitely had less of a focus on being educational than MINDSTORMS. The main focus was to make it fun and easy to code. We had a mantra of Fun First whenever we were trying to figure something out — if we were laughing about it and having fun then we were on the right track. We left studs exposed on Vernie as the tests showed that the kids wanted to dress him up and they made him a beard or a backpack. This all encourages play, fun, and creativity with the coding adding an extra level to bring the creation to life.
There are five models in the box — Vernie, guitar, Frankie, Auto-builder and the MTV-4 — but within the app there are instructions for ‘a walking base’ and a ‘driving base’ that allows the base of those to be built and then the kid can create whatever they want on top – this is the second step of a starter that can be customised and then the next step would be a completely independent build.
This is the new platform for WeDo 2.0 and you don’t always want to go back a step in technology just to make it compatible. Technology has changed and we wanted it to be adaptable with the newest, latest iPads and apps. A lot of kids use iPads so there are no paper instructions as all the instructions are in the app. The focus is not so much on the app but using the app to build the LEGO model and then cause an output in the model or interact with it. I think the Boost experience is one of the best digital-physical experiences as the focus is always on interaction with the physical brick rather than the digital world.
TBB: Do you think Boost could be fun for AFOLs?
Carl: For me as a previous and current AFOL, I find this much more appealing than MINDSTORMS because I can see what it does and I can understand how it works. One of the coolest parts for me as a fan is that the motor is extremely quiet so you can animate builds without the noise of a PF motor, plus you can set it to 10% power and it is very quiet and moves slowly so you could animate with it. I also think there is potential for this for building trains as a lot of train fans don’t like the IR controls as you lose control under tunnels or behind scenery. These would not be issues with this technology. I think there is a lot of cool stuff you can build with it, and size-wise, if you compare this hardware to taking an EV3 and putting a couple of motors on it…well this is a lot smaller to fit inside smaller builds so I think it gives more flexibility to allow animation of smaller builds like cars and stuff, and program it and code it without the difficulty of MINDSTORMS.
TBB: I do think it is odd that some people have commented saying ‘oh it’s blue, it must be for boys’ as dark azure and medium azure are my favourite colours and I have no idea why people would associate this colour with boys? Why did the Boost team go with the dark azure and orange colour scheme?
Carl: We did a lot of color combinations and tested a lot with kids as we wanted to get something that was appealing to both boys and girls. So we built about sixteen different color combinations – I built an M-Tron themed color scheme with laser green eyes and it was a little bit crazy looking. We had the kids vote both ways for the one that they found most appealing and most unappealing. so they could say ‘I don’t like this’. The final colour combination was the one that came out closest to that happy medium. Also, my boss Simon was the one that made this colour scheme at the very beginning when we were doing color explorations – blue and orange is a good complimentary scheme.
Our interview ended on this happy blue and orange note, but our thanks go to Carl who was super-friendly and entertained me greatly with his demonstrations of the Boost models. I would never consider buying MINDSTORMS myself, but LEGO Boost looks a lot more fun to me despite being a few years older than the target audience!