Interview with LEGO Star Wars designers Jens Kronvold and Kurt Kristiansen [Feature]

Earlier this year on March 29th, The Brothers Brick team was invited to take part in a Star Wars Fan Media Day at the LEGO House in the centre of Billund, Denmark. One of the main events was a round table discussion with LEGO Star Wars designers Jens Kronvold and Kurt Kristiansen — designers who have been working on LEGO Star Wars sets since the very first wave of products hit shelves back in 1999. Jens and Kurt had a lot to share with us, so we didn’t miss a chance to ask them some of the most exciting questions.

Kurt Kristiansen (left) and Jens Kronvold (right)

Q: Tell us about the LEGO Star Wars model design team. How many people does it include? How many lead designers are there?

Jens: Right now, the model design team consists of 10 people: me as the Creative Director and Lead Model Designer and nine other model designers. We also have two graphic designers, who create designs for all the stickers, printed pieces, and minifigures. While in the office, we sit it an open office environment together with the marketing team, people who design building instructions and other specialists. So, all together we form one “super-team” which I find particularly nice and convenient. If you need to talk to somebody, they’re just next to you!

Kurt: It’s the same with any other model design team. And if, say I have a question regarding LEGO Technic elements, I just need to walk 10 meters down the aisle and I can talk to anyone of my colleagues who are working with LEGO Technic pieces. So, it’s a very open office environment.

Q: How many sets does LEGO Star Wars model team create each year? How many sets are designed by each member of the team?

Jens: Well, the LEGO Star Wars lineup has grown significantly over the years. What we do now is about 30 regular retail sets a year, plus a lot of extra small things: gifts-with-purchase, mini-builds, etc. So, very often any designer can be working on more than just one model at a time.

Kurt: The way we distribute work tasks depends on the stage of development. For instance, we start with the sketching stage. Once we get through that, we can actually swap around. Usually it’s Jens who coordinates the tasks among the model designers.

Jens: At the concept phase, we generate a lot of sketch models that we can give to kids to play with while testing so we can figure out what they like and what they don’t like. And then, it’s a huge puzzle to assign tasks among the designers and to make sure that nobody is overloaded with work. At this stage it can happen that, for example, Kurt designs a sketch model, but another designer will continue developing it later. The more eyes on the model, the better. But we also have weekly team meetings. This is the kind of meeting to which everyone brings their models in their current state. Then an open discussion starts and we all share the problems we face and exchange opinions, etc.

Kurt: We also criticize one another! Especially, design-wise. And we also have so-called design play tests. These meetings are similar to our weekly team meetings, but involve designers from many other model design teams, including Duplo, City, and Technic. We bring the stuff we are working on and play with each other’s models putting them to play tests.

Q: You do a lot of tests with children. But are you doing any tests with adult fans of LEGO?

Jens: Yes, this also happens. No doubt, this is a little bit different from what children do, but what we are monitoring here is fan forums and online blogs. This way we can get a lot of feedback. Unlike kids, adult fans provide well-formulated and reasonable feedback. This is one of the ways we get feedback on the products that have been released recently, and we see how we can improve those models if we choose to re-release them one day. But we also monitor fan forums for the wishes of the fans.

Q: Speaking about the 20th anniversary sets, the original Han Solo minifigure is back, as well as Darth Vader’s helmet. How difficult was it to bring those designs and pieces back so many years later?

Jens: No doubt, we were extremely lucky with Darth Vader’s helmet, as we still have the mold for the piece. Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky with Princess Leia’s hairpiece mold; that mold simply doesn’t exist anymore, so we had to create a new one. For us, she was a very important character to include in the lineup.

Q: There are five special minifigures that come with the anniversary sets. How did you choose the characters? And why there are no driods among them?

Jens: We believed that the minifigures of human characters would look stronger than the droids. Additionally, for example, R2-D2, even though the droid’s design has changed since 1999, the figure hasn’t evolved that much. As for C-3PO, we couldn’t bring him back because of the type of plastic we used then was different–it was a unique cream-gold color. We simply can’t recreate its original look right now. So, we decided that the lineup must consist of the most iconic heroes and villains.

Q: And what about the choice of the sets? How did you choose among so many of the sets released during the last 20 years?

Jens: This was also a very long process. First of all, we looked for the most popular sets back in the days. Then, we also decided that the anniversary lineup must include sets from different years, and not only those released back in 1999, as we are celebrating 20 years of the theme, not just it’s first year. There is a reason why we chose each of the five sets. For example, 75262 Imperial Dropship is the smallest of the five sets, and it is a battle pack. We just did a new Stormtrooper helmet, and we knew that 7667 Imperial Dropship was one of the most popular sets of that time because of several Stormtrooper minifigures. We have a new Stormtrooper and we know that people would like to collect them.

Speaking about the 75258 Anakin’s Podracer, we know that not every fan likes the set, but a lot of children do love the model. As we have only done it twice since 1999, it was quite obvious that we must release it once again. Next, 75261 Clone Scout Walker is based on 7250 Clone Scout Walker – probably the most popular walker we’ve ever created. I think this is because the set is perfectly balanced: its size is great, it’s inexpensive and it has a lot of cool features. Well, 75243 Slave I is just Slave I, what else can I say? And as for 75259 Snowspeeder, it’s just one of the icons of the theme. But we also had to consider what is on the shelves already. The Millennium Falcon is already there, as well as the iconic X-wing Starfighter.

Q: Today you brought the beautiful 10195 Republic Dropship with AT-OT Walker from 2009 with you. Could you tell us more about how a set like this one was born?

Kurt: A little bit of craziness, I guess!

Jens: When we first saw the reference, we thought it was just awesome! At that time, we had an AT-OT planned already, and we started to think about the mechanism we could use to attached one model to another. Another challenge was the “spine” of the Dropship, and we had no idea if the whole thing would work.

Kurt: Yes, there was a lot of engineering work. At some point, I had to look around, even at some construction cranes outside the office and ask “Hey, how does this thing work?” so I could use it in the model. Usually, when we do models of this size and scale, we do something we call “a spine” and sometimes even a handle — just like the one on the Dropship. The spine is either inside the model or can be an external one, with some room inside the model where we can put the minifigures.

Q: Let us all hope that we will see AT-OT in the Clone Wars. But what happen to the models that do not end in the final cut?

Jens: Sometimes we have no idea if the model will appear in the movie at all. It did actually happen to us! Sometimes it’s a bit of a disaster, but sometimes the idea turns out to be such a cool set that we don’t want to cancel it. For instance, 75100 First Order Snowspeeder from The Force Awakens. While working on the set we got a ton of reference material, including shots of a 1:1 model built for the movie. Judging by the references, I was expecting it to appear in some kind of a chase scene. But the speeder was cut out completely! And we were like, “Oh, well… we already have this product here ready to be released!” And we really had to consider if we should release it or not. This is when kids helped us to make the right decision: they liked the model even though they had zero context. And we did release the model and it turned out to be a pretty popular set.

Q: When planning sets you get your ideas approved by Disney. Say, if you want to bring back a certain model, how do they react?

Jens: There are two sides of the question. When we are making products for some new content or movie, we need to know how much a ship or a model is important for the story. This is when we rely a lot on Disney. We work in a very tight cooperation when planning the assortment. But as you know a huge part of the lineup is usually the classic models. And this is what we decide ourselves. We look into the previous years’ portfolio for the models that we can bring back. Some of them just work perfectly in the context of other sets. We must admit, we have a very good relationship with Disney. They always help us to make the very best toys possible. They totally follow us, but they also let us put in some play features and functions that cannot be seen in the movie. We also love to put in the models some Easter eggs and a little bit of LEGO humor — this is also such an important part of the theme. Disney knows it, and they let us do this.

Q: Going back a few years you did a lot of models where you would bring something out in the summer and then there would be something in the following waves to match the initial set. For example, 9516 Jabba’s Palace followed by 75005 Rancor Pit. Do you think you could return to this concept?

Jens: Yes, this is totally something we could do in the future. Just look at the latest Harry Potter sets, where Hogwarts can be built out of several independent sets. We do know that fans would appreciate this.

Kurt: The thing with the 75005 Rancor Pit is that it was a bit of an experiment for us. Jabba’s Palace as a set works fine on its own, but the Rancor Pit must have also been able to sell itself without anything else. This was quite a challenge for us.

Jens: On the other hand, we wanted to make this one huge location, but we also wanted it to be affordable. This is why we had to split it. Remember we had 75020 Jabba’s Sail Barge and 9496 Desert Skiff?

Kurt: The planning we did with the figures was also quite a big deal.

Jens: We started with a big planning board divided into four sectors, i.e. four sets. We used sticky notes with the names of all the characters from all the scenes, and we moved them around the board and placed where they made the most sense.

Kurt: For instance, Princess Leia — where should she be? Should we make a Slave Leia minifigure in the Palace or should we put her on the Barge? Once again, it was a huge puzzle for us.

Q: Star Wars fans and especially LEGO Star Wars fans are known to be brutally honest in their feedback on the products. There are tons of references for the models from the sets and it’s so easy to have an opinion on if someone went wrong with their final design decisions. How do you as a team of designers filter out the brutal feedback and make sure that what you collect is constructive and not just people who personally disagree with the choice of the model?

Kurt: When speaking about the feedback, we have to separate UCS sets from playset models – the actual toys. And we pretty much consider how we do the toys both in durability and building complexity. This is where we do a lot of compromises when working with references.

Jens: We also study a lot of fan creations–there are some absolutely stunning models which inspire us a lot. But most of them simply won’t pass our quality tests. And if the final product is too weak and falls apart we will get even more complaints. Meeting quality requirements sometimes means a lot of compromises. You can imagine how much work it is. One of the most recent examples is 75222 Betrayal at Cloud City, where a lot of fans loved the set but many thought that we did it all wrong. This is one of the products that could be interpreted in many ways. In the 75222 Betrayal at Cloud City we tried to use the building style of the Death Star playsets and adapt it to the scenes from the Cloud City. And obviously, this is not what some fans were expecting.

Q: With new Star Wars content coming out every year, you get more and more models to choose from when forming the assortment. Which models do you find more engaging to work on? A classic X-wing Starfighter or something brand new from the latest Star Wars movie?

Kurt: Well… I always like to do something new! It depends on shape and size of the model whether I find the project attractive, but I also pay a lot of attention to the model’s functions. If there’s a function that looks challenging, then I will definitely try to complete the idea.

Q: Which is your personal favorite set among those released during the 20 years of LEGO Star Wars?

Kurt: Well, it is probably 9516 Jabba’s Palace from 2012. Why? Because it was so much fun to make the playsets. When working on the set, we had a lot of discussions about whether we should include the exterior of the palace or its interior only. And, of course, the whole process of planning of the lineup was both challenging and exciting.

Jens: I bring it every time, but for me it’s 10179 Millennium Falcon – UCS. This is a very special set for me for several reasons. First of all, it was the first model of its size, but it is also very special because of the process and the way it was born. It all started as a just-for-fun project, and I also remember the brief, which said “Make the ultimate LEGO Star Wars model, and we will figure out its price afterwards.” And this happened just that one time. Logistically and in many other regards this was a totally new experience for all of us – sometimes very frustrating, but ever exciting.

What questions would you ask the LEGO Star Wars design team? 

2 comments on “Interview with LEGO Star Wars designers Jens Kronvold and Kurt Kristiansen [Feature]

  1. aanchir

    Great interview with some very cool insights into what it’s like designing sets for a high-profile licensed theme like this! Personally I haven’t collected Star Wars sets in many years except for the buildable figures… I stopped around when the prequel trilogy ended. But at the same time, it’s cool seeing how much they’ve improved since then.

    It’s frustrating sometimes to see disparaging comments about licensed set designers not having any creativity, since from my experience it’s often really tough to figure out the best way to recreate a pre-existing subject in LEGO, whether it’s one from real life or pop culture. I can only imagine how much harder it is to do that when you also have to adhere to certain standards of playability and a building level that’s suitable for younger and less experienced buyers!

    I know for certain the types of Star Wars models I was making as a kid or teenager (using the Star Wars cross-section books and Star Wars video games for the Nintendo 64 as reference) would not have been on par with the expectations for official sets at that time, and design standards since then have steadily improved.

    As an adult, I think part of what’s kept me from getting back into LEGO Star Wars has been that regret about how much attention I paid to collecting sets that have since been far surpassed by those designed for the next generation of kids. I suspect that many of the new sets being made for the sequel and anthology films might likewise be re-released in vastly improved forms one day.

    Even so, it’s good to know that the LEGO Star Wars theme does just fine without any personal contributions on my part, and that some day younger kids might get a chance to enjoy even more improved versions of the types of sets I liked growing up!

  2. Flip

    A very insightful interview indeed! When I started reading this I was a little bit afraid that it would be very similar to the interviews in the visual dictionaries, but I’ve learnt reading this! I love how straightforward and contextual all the Q&A’s are, congrats to the author!

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