Behind the scenes of Brick Sketches: An interview with LEGO designer Chris McVeigh [Feature]

Last week, we had a chance to talk to Chris McVeigh, the designer of the new Brick Sketches series. Chris developed the concept of Brick Sketches long before joining the LEGO Group last year. Now he tells us more about his first major release as a LEGO designer.

The Brothers Brick: You joined The LEGO Group as a designer almost a year and a half ago. How has the transition been from AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) to a designer?

Chris McVeigh: Let me start with a little bit of background for that. Back home, in Canada, there are almost no offline LEGO fan communities. So most of my interactions with AFOLs were done online through Flickr, Instagram, and whatnot. It was only in 2017 when I came over here for the opening of the LEGO House when I actually got to meet a lot of adult fans. I was super excited to finally meet so many faces, get to learn people. And I was also surprised to learn that they knew me, which you may think is odd but, again, when I was in Canada, and I was doing my own thing. Back then, it was almost exclusively online, so once I am away from the computer, that world, in some sense, would just fade away.

Chris fixing his creations in the Masterpiece Gallery of the LEGO House before the grand opening in 2017.

One of the most refreshing things for me in getting to work at The LEGO Group was not only working with great designers but also having a community that I really didn’t have before. This is something that I’m still extremely proud of, and I’m happy to be part of is this; we’re all LEGO enthusiasts we, we love what we’re doing. At the beginning of the year, I was a little starstruck; I met a lot of people I have so much respect for and never thought I would sit down and have lunch with. I’m a little bit used to that now, but it’s still really rewarding to work at the company and be surrounded by people who are just so enthusiastic about the product and about the building process and what we can achieve.

TBB: How do you feel right now when your hobby has become your job?

CM: To some extent, my hobby became my job about six or seven years ago, when I transitioned to doing LEGO-related work full-time. At that point, I started to look at it as just part of my life. And I would say it feels like both categories. I don’t get to build for myself as much as I would like to. Still, I do a lot of building, and I’m really enthusiastic about it at work. So, I just feel very fortunate to work here.

TBB: Speaking about the personal aspect, what was the most challenging part about moving to Billund?

CM: I actually moved to Vejle, that’s 25 minutes outside of LEGO headquarters in Billund. You naturally have concerns about the spoken language when you’re moving across an ocean to a different country. I grew up in Quebec in the French community, so I was constantly surrounded by people speaking a language that I didn’t quite understand. So there wasn’t much of a culture shock for me to come here. It felt kind of natural. But the thing that has been really wonderful about being here is that so many people speak English. Not just at work, but also in coffee shops, on the street. If you ask somebody something, they’re almost certainly going to reply to you in English. I think that’s wonderful, and it actually makes me feel like, “Wow! I should have learned more French!” But now the challenge is to learn Danish.

TBB: What do you miss most about home?

CM: Snow! Yeah, that was an easy question to answer. Growing up in Quebec, we had very long winters with lots of snow. I spend a lot of my youth on ski hills. Then we moved to New Brunswick, and there’s still a lot of snow there. It’s just getting used to a place where you get more rain and snow has been a little difficult. So, I think that has been an adaptation for me.

TBB: Your first official LEGO product lineup, Brick Sketches, was unveiled last week. You have been designing these sketches for several years before joining LEGO. How did you manage to turn your own designs into official LEGO products?

CM: Brick Sketches are something that I did outside of the company. I started doing them back in 2013. It was a format that I really loved, and I wanted to do more of them, but there was only so much free time that I had. Of course, I liked to diversify a bit. I would like to build some other retro tech stuff, so I couldn’t always focus on the Brick Sketches. The challenge of Brick Sketches is getting as many details into that small 12 by 16 studs canvas as possible. This was always a really fun thing to do, and I would lose myself for hours trying to rearrange parts and trying to fit more details on that small canvas. Obviously, once I joined the company, this is not something that I could really pursue anymore. It was part of the trade-off to get to work for a great company like LEGO, but you also have to leave some things behind. Brick Sketches were among the other things that I set aside.

But I was lucky enough that I was able to propose Brick Sketches through an internal process. They came about as a result of something we internally call Creative Boost which is kind of like a science fair where you set up a display. It’s where designers can propose product ideas and themes to each other and executives to see if they get any traction. I rebuilt my Brick Sketches because I didn’t bring my LEGO with me to Demark, and I was fortunate that people saw merit in it and decided to make it a product.

It really caught me by surprise, I didn’t expect too much. And then, once things started to get in motion within the company, it felt really good, really natural for me to be back in there and working on Brick Sketches again. I’m extremely excited right now to actually have those as a real product. It’s something that I don’t think I’m going to fully appreciate until I actually start seeing them in stores.

TBB: The Stormtrooper sketch design almost looks like the one that you posted several years ago. What were the challenges converting the concept to fit within the LEGO system and the quality control?

CM: I would say that conversion has been generally seamless. When I started developing my own custom models and building guides outside of the company, I thought about creating consumer products that would have good building experience. Even outside of the company, when I had no intention of actually offering building guides for my designs, I would still start layering brick sketches in a way that I thought would be easy for people to build. So, when I got into the company, I was already in the mindset to create sets with strong building experiences. Now, when I revisit the Brick Sketches, I kind of got to go back and look at them with fresh eyes and say, “Okay, how can I make this one better? How can I use new parts to add a little bit more nuances? How can I layer this differently to make it a fun build?”

TBB: What are the core differences between the sketches you created before joining LEGO and the official sets?

CM: Brick Sketches have always had a kind of DNA. Before I came to the company, they were always 12 studs by 16 studs; they featured front-facing characters, and the backgrounds featured cut corners–which actually was a nod to the original inspiration for Brick Sketches which were some artists who were doing stylistic marker sketches. That was fairly consistent across all the Brick Sketches I did. Once we started working on it at LEGO, we had a conversation about some of the basics. We needed to level this up and make sure that we have a consistent look from sketch to sketch. We decided that we were going to standardize the width of the characters’ faces at 10 bricks wide. That’s why the Batman sketch set is actually different from the previous Batman that I did. We wanted to give him a bit more presence and expand the size of his face to 10 bricks, and the previous one was just eight bricks wide.

It was a dark and snowy knight.

It was fun for me to kind of reinvent him at that size. The other thing that we decided was that the background, instead of featuring plates, will be made of tiles. This way, we add a little bit of texture variation, give a little bit more visual interest, and visual variety to the Brick Sketches. And the other thing that some people may have noticed is that we have shoulders on all the characters now. I did a bunch of the designs before joining LEGO in the style of pop art; they might just feature the character’s head. But the original Batman had shoulders because Batman is one of those who kind of just doesn’t work as a helmet. If you have the cowl, you need the shoulders. So we decided everyone was going to have shoulders. So the Joker has shoulders, Batman has shoulders, and the First Order Stormtrooper was revised to have shoulders, too.

TBB: What do you think are the biggest challenges of designing a Brick Sketch? Is it getting the curves right, shrinking the character down, or finding what makes a character iconic?

CM: I’m glad you asked that question! One of the most important things in doing Brick Sketches is picking out the important details and leaving out the noise. So, that’s something that I always kind of bring in to my design process — getting to the recognition of this character, versus obsessively focusing on the smaller details that maybe people won’t notice. And it’s important to get the key elements to encourage people’s recognition of the character. Sometimes you just can’t get everything in, and that’s not always a bad thing. The simplified approach can sometimes make things more recognizable.

TBB: According to the Brick Sketch standard, how many layers deep of plates can a sketch feature?

CM: That’s a good question. That’s something that ties into how I did Brick Sketches outside of the company. It really depends on the character. You need to look at the character and ask, how much detail should I put into this? How much shadow detail do I need to convey the right shaping of the face? The one thing that I always tried to do with Brick Sketches is to make it so that the characters, even though they were flat, had sort of a correct relief to the face. Most obviously, the chin should never be farther than the nose, the eyes shouldn’t be sat on top of the plates, or put more forward than the nose. This is because you want to be able to look at them from the side and still recognize the character. I would say that while it’s undefined, we probably wouldn’t do one that’s just one plate thick. On the flip side, some characters require a lot of structure to them. And I’m going to call back to the one I did outside the company, Star-Lord. He has these big tubes on his mask.

Legendary Outlaw

It’s very difficult to create that by just layering plates, so I had to use some rounded bricks on the side. I think that one is probably the tallest one that I made extending maybe about nine plates deep even with those modules. You need to do what is necessary to correctly represent the character, but at the same time, you still want to give them a sense of relief so, when you look at them from the side, you can appreciate them as three-dimensional objects.

TBB: How are brick sketches meant to be displayed?

CM: Well, there are two ways you can display them. On the rear side of the Brick Sketches there is a frame. At the top, there is a coupling plate that allows you to put it on a nail or a hook on the wall. But there’s also a structure that has a kickstand. You can display it just like a photograph or regular picture frame on your desk on your shelf, wherever you might want to put it.

TBB: The Brick Sketches are your first major project at LEGO. Are there any other products that you have been working on that have already been released?

CM: No, this is my first release actually, and Brick Sketches technically are a side project for me. The main team that I work with is Creator Expert. That’s where I have been doing my primary development. You’ll see those projects in the future, of course.

Designers do have some influence over each other and each other’s products. If you take the Haunted House developed by Carl Merriam, it is a perfect example of how Carl involved many other people in his design process. That’s the type of thing that very often happens, at least in our department. There are one or two products out now that I had some minor influence on. But I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to call attention to my own contribution to those products. I’m not the leading designer, and my contribution is probably small. So, there is at least one thing out right now that has something that I did in it, but I’ll leave that for you guys to find!

TBB: No doubt, Brick Sketches have the potential to become the next thing LEGO fans will collect, though a lot of characters that you have sketched have already been released in the BrickHeadz lineup. Do you see Brick Sketches competing against BrickHeadz?

CM: I certainly hope that people who are interested in BrickHeadz will also be interested in Brick Sketches too. I don’t really see them as competing because they’re very different models. But I think that the thing that I’m really excited about with Brick Sketches is that they bring something new. They bring a different style of building: the idea that if you’re layering plates in certain ways and then look at them from a top-down perspective, you’ll see a character. So, I like that Brick Sketches are bringing these new designs to the market, allowing people to experience this different type of building.

TBB: Have you been able to make an element request for a new element that would really make your life better?

CM: I will say that I have not been in a space where I’ve needed to request an element. So, unfortunately, that bridge I still have to cross.

TBB: Thank you so much for your time and best wishes to your future LEGO projects!

CM: It’s been really good to talk to you guys. I’ve followed The Brothers Bricks for years, and I’ve been fortunate enough that you helped me get my name out there, and I just really appreciate it. You bring so much to the AFOL community, so thank you for that!

Brick Sketches will be available starting July 15 and will retail for US $19.99 | EU €19.99.