Exclusive interview with LEGO Star Wars head of design Jens Kronveld Frederiksen [Feature]

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of LEGO Star Wars, I recently sat down with Jens Kronveld Frederiksen, the Director of Design for the LEGO Star Wars line. Jens has been with LEGO for more than 20 years, and shares his insights on how he joined the company, what lessons he’s learned over the years, and how LEGO balances input from both kids and adults. Read through to the end to learn a really cool detail about the movie Millennium Falcon Jens saw during a visit to Pinewood Studios during the filming of The Force Awakens!

The Brothers Brick: Just about every LEGO builder’s dream is to become a set designer. How did your career as a designer begin?

Jens Kronveld Frederiksen: A little bit of a weird story and coincidence. LEGO has been a great part of my life for as long as I remember. I really, really loved LEGO but I was never thinking of it as a profession or a career to be honest. In 1998 I was participating in a model building exhibition. I have a hobby building plastic model kits, which mainly is of World War II stuff. At that event in Copenhagen, there were some LEGO people there, and they were looking to hire designers not for model builders but for making new prototypes for new elements, and well I was of course interested in that. And then before I started on that, I saw a job application for a permanent position as model builder and I got the job. That’s how I got into it.

TBB: Did you grow up playing with LEGO as well? Did you build your own Star Wars models before you joined LEGO?

Jens: I’m Danish, and as you know, in Denmark every kid plays with LEGO, right? Same thing for me. At that time, as far back as I can remember, I was building houses and stuff like that, and then I remember I had some of the first lego trains sets as well and I still have pictures of myself playing with them. And then I spent a lot of time making my own creations. But I can’t remember making my own Star Wars models, even though it was a big interest. But at that time I was really into comics and making my own drawings on Star Wars, so I had interest [in Star Wars], so it was with other thing but not together with LEGO.

TBB: What was your educational background?

Jens: Well again, it was totally something different. I come from the graphic trade, I was educated as a lithographer — it does not even exist anymore! (chuckles) So for me I was really happy about getting the LEGO job, but a little disappointed because of where I came from because of what I thought of it being more creative, but it wasn’t. So that’s why I felt really, really good coming to LEGO where there’s more opportunity to use my creativity.

TBB: How do you think that that background in lithography and design has helped you over the last 20 years?

Jens: Well it’s definitely something that has meant that when we were getting new packaging, I’m the first person who points out if there’s something that’s not done right. So of course, we’re very much involved in designs, or how the packaging’s going to end up. So with my background that’s of course a benefit. I’d have to say it’s not something I’m using a lot.

One thing I remember back from when I was in my education, we were working on Macintosh computers, and we had two hours weekly working on Macintosh computers and it was obvious that the teacher he didn’t believe in it – it was something that was useless. But you know — well ok, you see where we are today… (smiles)

TBB: Do you use Macs or PCs at work today?

Jens: Well, a little bit of both, people use what they prefer.

TBB: That’s a perennial, religious fight, right? Mac vs PC.

Jens: I don’t know if more creative people still use Macs — that’s how I think it is in Denmark or Europe, but I think in the office the majority of people have PCs.

TBB: What kinds of tools do you use to create new 3D models for elements and new minifigures, as well as during the set design process?

Jens: Well, we have our own software — tools invented specifically for designers, because it’s not like Digital Designer, it’s one that also can calculate things like the price of the bricks. We have a special program that’s being used by designers.

But still I have to say, the majority of the designers prefer to work with physical bricks — many reasons for that, because you know in the development process, we still need physical models. We need them for stress-testing which is super important. And also, to create a model digitally it’s hard to see if the features and functions work, so we’re still working a lot with physical bricks.

TBB: A couple of designers have talked about the “oven test” to test stability as part of that process. How does it make you feel when one of your products goes into the oven?

Jens: Well, we are used to that. We are designing a model with that oven test or heat test in mind — we are using it to make the quality higher than the end product needs, just to be on the safe side because we know that what happens when it’s been heat tested. And that heat, it’s an important part of the quality because we know that heat sun, whatever it affects LEGO bricks and the clutch power. So it’s important that the model can stand that test.

TBB: What other kinds of tests do you do to test for stability? Do you drop things from a certain height or, obviously you give them to kids to play with too, but what other ways do you test for stability?

Jens: We have a lot of experts from different areas, building instructions people, we have some quality people that are building our models several times, playing with the model, and that’s what it’s really about.

As you mentioned, kids test is super important to us in the development process from the beginning to almost the final product. By the final product, they have been in kids’ hands many, many times. But I’d say it’s about playing with the model. One example that I’d like to explain how important kids testing is, is with one of the older Slave 1 sets, just to demonstrate. We had that model that was working well and no stability issues, and you could handle the model like this, and then when the product came out, we had some consumer complaints for stability. We found out because when you are lifting the model like this there was no problem, but when a child lifts it — they have smaller hands and hold the model in a different place, and then the model actually fell into pieces.

And that was a reminder, back in those days — many years ago we didn’t do as many tests as we do today — that was a very very good lesson for us to learn how important the kids tests are.

TBB: You joined LEGO just as LEGO Star Wars was about to come out. How did you get from there to here?

Jens: When I first started with LEGO in 1998, the first thing I worked on was LEGO Rock Raiders, if you remember that — and I still love that theme. It was great, because it was the first theme I worked on. Unfortunately it came out the same year as LEGO Star Wars, and it really never got a chance. There were some cool things in it.. a Rock Monster and we introduced the color teal. For me it was something I really like, but later I worked on Harry Potter as well, as well as a lot of the elements for Harry Potter, the Owl, the Three Headed Dog, I can’t remember the name of it. Serberus. Yeah and I even made Harry Potter’s hair — that was done by hand. And then I was the lead designer on the very first Batman launch in 2006.

TBB: What keeps you inspired with Star Wars after all these years?

Jens: I think what’s keeping me there is the development, it’s like, it’s been a fantastic ride, because we’ve had the prequel movies and that was super interesting, and then there were some years there wasn’t really any content from Lucasfilm or Disney, then we just created our own and it worked really well. Then there was Clone Wars, and now new movies that bring new content is just so interesting to be involved with.

I also think that in designer roles people at LEGO are moving around a lot, but I think also there are some benefits of being on the same product line for so many years — you kind of have the full story or history of the project. So no, I’m definitely ready for 20 more years. It works perfect — by then I’ll be 70 and then I think I can retire, so that’s my plan.

TBB: We talked earlier about your own background with art, with lithography, drawing, and comics. We also talked about the importance of sturdiness and stability. That seems like you’re balancing both art and engineering in how you and your team design LEGO Star Wars sets. How do you maintain that balance?

Jens: When we’re designing the models, a very important thing for me and for us is that our models have a very clear LEGO identity. And by that I mean, look like LEGO System with studs and whatever, but as what you talk in some of the models there are Technic elements inside — it’s hidden or something inside of a model or it’s something that is being used in a model for creating cool play functions or features.

The Technic frame interior for 75192 UCS Millennium Falcon

But still, something of a majority of the bricks in a LEGO model should be standard LEGO bricks. That’s our aim. Because it’s not that there’s anything wrong with Technic, but it’s just another product line so that’s also why we’re keeping it at a minimum, only using where it benefits either features or functions or stability of the model.

TBB: How do you resolve creative conflicts within the design team?

Jens: Well, I think actually it’s pretty smooth. The only thing is many creative people are not the most structured people in the world. But in general, I think, we really really have a great team at LEGO, in LEGO Star Wars. I have nine model builders in my team and there are some of them who are old guys but there are also people starting out. It’s very much, when designing, a team effort. And by that I mean it’s hard for a designer to go out and say, “Hey that’s my design!” because it could be that as a designer you have created a sketch model and then later when we are building the final design it’s a another designer that would finish the model. And also in the process we having a lot of meetings where we sit together and discuss each other’s models and maybe a designer has a problem and then through colleagues that person can go to another place and solve that problem and help each other out. So again, it’s very much a team effort, so I think that dynamics that are in the team work perfectly.

LEGO Star Wars design team members, from the “Behind the Scenes” section of Chris’ and my book Ultimate LEGO Star Wars

TBB: Do you do anything in particular as the Design Director to foster a creative work environment?

Jens: I think the whole environment has a lot of creative people there, and we’re working in this open office environment, so we’re walking around and talking to each other and so on, so I’ll say its something that just in the house we’re working in — it’s just such a creative environment. I think a lot of it comes naturally, and with something like LEGO Star Wars specifically, there’s a lot of excitement. And with a lot of new content coming out, that’s something we’re really excited about.

TBB: We’ve talked a bit about playtesting with children and how important that is — LEGO is ultimately a kids’ toy. But of course lots of adults also collect and build LEGO Star Wars sets.

Jens: With our Ultimate Collector Series models and so on, we are totally aware of adults. And we know that there are a lot of adult collectors out there that are also collecting our standard products, so of source we are also having adults in mind, but you’re right, never forgetting that it’s toys that we make

TBB: Are there particular things you enjoy doing in a standard set that you know adults will appreciate? Do you have any favourite examples of an Easter egg or something you built in for the adult fans in a regular “6-12” set?

Jens: You really have to be a Star Wars nerd to notice. We made a a set called the [75204] Sandspeeder. I don’t know if you remember, but the pilot seems to be wearing a random pilot helmet, but if we look carefully, you’ll be able to see that helmet is the one that Rey’s holding and playing with.

TBB: The first thing I noticed (laughs)

Jens: That’s cool but it shows you’re a little bit nerdy, I’m sorry to say. (laughs) But that’s one thing where sometimes if we have stickers there’s something written in Aurabesh [the standard script for Galactic Basic in Star Wars]. I think my name has appeared on at least one occasion, written in Aurabesh. Another thing we are also trying to incorporate is special ways of building. And we know that’s something that’s appreciated.

TBB: I had the pleasure of showing Thrawn author Timothy Zahn the new Grand Admiral Thrawn minifig for the first time a couple years ago. Do you have any favorite moments like that as a Star Wars fan yourself?

Jens: Yeah, we’ve had the same experience, when you see videos of Daisy Ridley being super-excited to see herself as a minifig.

Daisy Ridley building 75105 Millennium Falcon from The Force Awakens

Another detail I was really really surprised about but also proud — we are very lucky to be invited when there’s a new movie coming out to visit the movie set in Pinewood Studios and I remember when The Force Awakens was being filmed, before that we were there and I was coming into this big, big room and there was this full-scale Millennium Falcon build up and that was blowing me away and then the guy that was the prop master said, “There’s one thing you need to see.” And then he took me to the entrance of the ramp, where there was a panel of buttons on the wall, and one of the buttons on that panel was a 2×4 brick that was glued on and painted grey and I was just blown away. During the movie, I was sitting there, “Can I see that LEGO brick in the movie?” but it wasn’t there, you couldn’t see it. But it was just the fact that people have this passion for LEGO that the set designer said “OK, we need to have a LEGO brick there.”

A: That’s awesome, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much Jens!

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.