This week, Lego – the privately held Danish firm that has produced its patented interlocking children's building blocks for 64 years – overtook Hasbro (Transformers, G.I. Joe, Play-Doh) to become the world's second-biggest toymaker.
Lego announced 2012 revenues of $4.14-billion (U.S.), which is almost triple its sales for 2007, and surpassed only by mighty Mattel's $6.4-billion.
Clearly, the rise of video games and the iPad has not dampened the appeal of brightly coloured bricks. Or does Lego have a strategy that allows it to thrive in the digital setting?
To find out, we asked Graeme Dymond, who defeated more than 200 rivals in a competition last fall to become "master model builder" at Canada's first Legoland Discovery Centre, a 34,000-square-foot indoor theme park to open next month in Vaughan, just north of Toronto.
He discussed the game's creative possibilities (from storytelling to lateral thinking), recent controversies (such as accusations of gender stereotyping) and why, at 29, with his first child due in April, he decided quit his job at TD Bank's training division.
Yes, he is a lifelong Lego lover who still gets bricks for his birthday, but even his family (his father teaches at Humber College, his mother is an executive assistant and his wife a privacy officer for a financial institution) is still coming to grips with the fact he's now being paid to play.
You left your job of nine years to play with Lego full-time. What is it about the toy that grabs you?
For me, it's always been about storytelling. Even if you don't have a huge Lego collection, you only need a little bit – and your imagination can take you the rest of the way. The possibilities are limitless of what you can build.
What sorts of things will you be doing as the Lego master builder?
A chunk of my time will be spent in my workshop. I'll also be teaching Lego classes. That could be teaching kids about basic interlocking, for example. One of the advanced techniques we talk about is taking the bricks and having them going different ways, some with the studs going up and some with the studs going on the side and finding different ways to build shapes that way, or taking the top and making it the side. That just opens up new ways of thinking about building and understanding lateral thinking.
So much of what kids do today is on screens. Why do you think it's important for them build something with their hands?
I think Lego sort of levels the playing field. Everyone in the last two generations grew up with Lego. Everyone is familiar with how it works. There's a simplicity that belies how complex you can make things. The thing that's great about video games is that it is engaging for kids – but it's not stimulating their imaginations in the same way as Lego or a book would. With Lego, you're creating your own stories altogether; you're creating your own worlds altogether.
But so much Lego is now based on movies or television shows, whether it's Star Wars, Harry Potter or Batman, which critics say robs the toy of a lot of its imaginative possibilities.
There's definitely more of an emphasis on these structured narratives. But if you watch kids playing with Lego, even with these themed sets, most of the time they're not just recreating a scene from the movie. They'll have their own story lines. They're still putting a lot of themselves into these worlds and exploring them the same as they would reading a book about them, maybe even more so.
The company has also come under fire recently – its Lego Friends line accused of reinforcing gender stereotypes because it includes things like pink and purple bricks and a "Butterfly Beauty Shop." A U.S. advocacy group named it the worst toy of the year. Do you see a problem with the line?
Lego has always been for boys and girls. There's definitely been a focus over the last 10 years on theme sets and marketing those theme sets a lot more to boys. It's tough to say whether Lego is using the Lego Friends line to appeal to girls – or are they constructing what girls should like? It would certainly seem that it's more the case that Lego is using the same strategy with narrative storytelling where there's already a theme behind it. The sets are no less complex and they're not limited. They're still Lego, and you can still build whatever you want out of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.