Winning a Job at Lego

Aspiring Designers Build Sets Under Pressure



Nov. 13, 2013 7:11 p.m. ET

BILLUND, Denmark

James Colmer, 46 years old, had a reason for spending two days building Legos in Denmark, leaving behind his kids in Australia.

He was applying for a job.

Mr. Colmer was one of 21 men and women who came from around the globe to the small town of Billund last month to compete for a job as a Lego designer. The Danish company has an unusual method of filling this position. Rather than conducting formal interviews, Lego invites the most promising applicants to its headquarters to sketch and build Lego sets in front of a panel of senior designers.

Lego is the world's No. 2 toy maker by revenue, behind Mattel. It has built its success in recent years on a string of product lines based on hit movies, such as "Harry Potter," "The Hobbit" and "The Avengers." Vital to its fortunes is a steady flow of new play sets—themed kits of Lego bricks meant to build specific, sometimes ambitious, designs, step by step, such as a 996-piece "King's Castle" released earlier this year.

That means the company needs to continually build its design staff. Its 200 designers includepeople who sketch characters and people "who literally just sit and build Lego models," Lego Design Director Will Thorogood says. By asking recruits to design, "we get to see people in a much more relaxed way than they would be in a standard interview process," he says.

Lego has run these two-day recruit workshops for seven years, but until now, they have been kept under wraps. Aspiring designers apply online to take part in the recruiting workshop, which Lego says takes place at least once a year, depending on the company's needs. Legitimate candidates are identified via Skype conversations and tests. Participants who are selected are sent a bag of Legos and told to show up in Billund with a creation that represents a direction that Lego should go.

When the candidates entered a conference room at Hotel Legoland on a rainy October day, the first order of business was to show off the homework. Among their ideas: remote-controlled scorpion models, magical tree houses and a high-tech music player.

"It's an icebreaker, a way to introduce the recruits to each other and to us, and to see what they would make out of the bricks," said Caroline Hansen, director of the recruiting program.

Many of the hopefuls, flocking to Billund from countries including New Zealand, Brazil, Taiwan, Indonesia and Germany, were seasoned designers. Mr. Colmer, a 46-year-old Englishman living in Australia, has worked in the entertainment industry since 1988, designing the look of sets and other elements for movies such as "Superman Returns." He says, "My sonsuggested to me that he wanted to be a Lego designer when he grows up and I thought, "Hey, that would be a great idea.' "

York Bleyer, a 49-year-old military veteran from Los Angeles, worked for several years as a Mattel designer. Allan Faulkner, 48, of Inverness, Scotland, has worked for Hasbro and as a designer in the medical industry.

Design degrees and experience aren't required. Kurt Kristiansen, a 40-year-old designer on Lego's Star Wars team, creating some of the most popular toys the company sells, was a tractor mechanic before he joined Lego in the 1990s.

Mr. Bleyer was surprised to find himself competing alongside men and women fresh out of college. "First, I thought, 'what the heck?' " Mr. Bleyer says. "I've worked for years [and] you're making me go up against these kids?' But then I thought it was a really good idea. You bring your skill and show what you've got."

Most candidates were nervous when they arrived. "I haven't slept all night," Daniel Sudarsono, a 33-year-old furniture designer from Indonesia, said. As his homework, Mr. Sudarsono had built a complete magical-garden concept including a water-breathing dragon who watered the garden and an evil wizard in the nearby dark woods.

After the designers showed off their homemade creations, the real fun began. The recruits were put through a series of challenges over two days, such as sketching designs, designing minifigures, and creating a set for an 8-to-10-year-old. The challenges were timed.

Mr. Bleyer, the ex-military man, called the design challenges "brutal."

In one exercise—creating a set that combines medieval- and space-themed Lego sets—plastic bags of Lego bricks and minifigureswere distributed—and quickly ripped apart—as participants got to work sitting at tables or spreading out on the blue-carpeted floor. Some began bysketching with colored pens, while others immediately started clicking together the plastic bricks, trying out their ideas as they worked.

They had two and a half hours to come up with a Lego toy concept. Nobody spoke, and, aside from the clicking of plastic bricks and the sound of the occasional airplane taking off from the nearby airport, the group operated in silence. Senior Lego designers observed them and scribbled notes.

Candidates were judged not only on the concept but also on elements such as the designs' color schemes and buildability. Not to mention the elusive element of fun. "You need to think in a way that adds a little bit of humor to a product or a character or a story, and that's very important for us," says Mr. Thorogood. The waycontestants interacted with each other was also noted.

During breaks, Lego informed the recruits about the practicalities of relocating to Billund, a small town on the windswept peninsula of Jutland. The town has 6,500 inhabitants, and night life is limited to an Irish pub, the Highlander, that is well-known for its "Thirsty Thursdays."

Lego also told candidates about Denmark's forbiddingly high tax system. The company assured them that its wages are competitive enough to compensate.

Candidates put on a wide-ranging display of technical ingenuity. One applicant created a car that could transform into a killer robot, with the tires becoming shoulders.

Lego doesn't look to produce these sets. It takes training for a designer to create a set that is properly priced, targets the right age group and fits in the Lego portfolio, among other considerations. Typically, new hires will work alongside a Lego designer for a year before being charged with creating a small set.

Late last week, Lego said it had decided to hire eight of the 21 candidates. It didn't disclose who would get an offer; a Lego spokesman says it hadn't informed some candidates yet. But recruits who are offered a job, Lego says, will be expected to start work as soon as possible, preferably the next day.

Write toJens Hansegard