Licensing LEGO: Author Graham E. Hancock on how the brand builds fanbases in his magazine – and book

Writer and Blocks magazine editor Graham E. Hancock on his experience of licensing LEGO

Graham E. Hancock. Lovely to meet you… we are going to talk about a Lego book and a Lego magazine shortly. Before we start, though… My grandma always used to say that when people include an initial in their name, it must be important to them! What’s the E for?
There’s another Graham Hancock, a prolific writer with some unorthodox views about how human civilisation developed… Given that such subject matter is a long way from LEGO bricks, it makes the E very important indeed!

There! I knew it’d be worth asking! What does the E stand for?
The E stands for Edward, my father’s name. When I was a child, he spent many hours building LEGO models with me, so he has definitely influenced this book beyond my middle initial.

And on that, your upcoming book is licensed by the mighty LEGO Group. What’s the book? What’s it about?
I am indeed and it’s very exciting. We’ve all seen the incredible, beautiful creations that people build with LEGO bricks. But some people take things a step further… They don’t just build something amazing, they take the actual concept of the LEGO System, the foundational thinking behind it, and apply it to real-world problems.

Go on!
LEGO Heroes: LEGO Builders Changing Our World — One Brick at a Time collects 12 stories about people who are changing their community – and the world – through innovative thinking and some LEGO bricks. There’s Carlos Anthony Torres, for example. He creates customisable prosthetics for children. A team of marine biologists in Singapore is using LEGO to culture more resilient corals… And Jan Vormann makes cities more colourful! Each story is so surprising and so different.

Graham E. Hancock, LEGO
Jan Vormann is the chap that uses LEGO bricks to ‘fill in’ gaps in walls and so on?
Exactly right, yes. Beautiful.

This must’ve been a pretty inspiring topic to research. Were there other stories and models that couldn’t be included due to space limitations? If so, what were some of those?
I won’t give away any of them here, because if another volume of LEGO Heroes is required, I have a whole list of stories I’d love to focus on! In fact, I probably have enough for at least two more volumes.

Ah! Fair enough!
In terms of space though, it was all a fine balancing act… There needed to be a mix of projects, so I selected some art based, some science based and some community focused stories. The variety of ways that people have found to use LEGO bricks is pretty incredible.

Agreed. And LEGO licenses quite a lot with your publisher, Chronicle Books. What are some of their other titles?
There are a few! ‘Secrets of LEGO House’ is a guide that takes you on a tour of LEGO House in Billund, Denmark – and as anyone who has met me knows, I love that place. So everyone should read that book, then go visit LEGO House! ‘We Just Click’ takes a fun look at minifigures in love. It’s very lighthearted; very punny.

Graham E. Hancock, LEGO

That’s by Aled Lewis, is it?

Yes. Aled also wrote ‘LEGO Small Parts’ in a similar tone… A sideways look at the secret life of the minifigure. It’s good for adult fans of LEGO; very playful.

Your book, though, is a bit of departure in terms of meaningfulness. Why is now the right time for this title, do you think?
There have been many wonderful LEGO books over the years, but never one that’s focused on this application of LEGO bricks – and the LEGO way of thinking – in the real world. Given the number of amazing projects that keep cropping up, it was definitely time to highlight what people are doing.

What else makes the book special?
What makes LEGO Heroes special is that while LEGO fans will get something out of these stories, this is a book that’s also great for someone who isn’t a dedicated fan of the brand. The stories are inspiring and fascinating even if you haven’t picked up a LEGO brick since childhood. It might even give people a new appreciation for the humble brick.

Graham E. Hancock, LEGO

And how did this come about, Graham? How did you come to be writing this?
When Chronicle Books acquired the licence for adult LEGO books, we had a few conversations about possible topics. The one that seemed the most fresh and exciting became LEGO Heroes. Those conversations came about because I’ve been working on Blocks magazine for eight years, in the role of Editor for the past two and a half.

Blocks magazine… For the uninitiated, what is that?
Blocks is a monthly print magazine that’s designed to be an essential companion to the LEGO hobby for adult fans. Each month we have a mix of content to cover all key aspects of the LEGO experience; we take readers inside the LEGO headquarters in Billund to find out how these amazing products are created; we provide build guides that show how to do new things with your bricks… We also share some of the best creations from the fan community, and delve into the history of the LEGO Group. And of course we get nostalgic about classic LEGO products!

Worth my saying, perhaps, that it’s beautifully produced; I really stunning magazine.
Thank you! People outside of this LEGO world that I’m in often ask me how we find enough to fill the magazine every month; I have the opposite problem though… We always struggle to fit everything into our 116 pages.

Yes, I can imagine, actually. And am I right in saying that Blocks is NOT a licensed publication?
You are right, yes! Blocks has been proudly independent since it launched in 2014. It’s very nice for LEGO fans to have a magazine that delves deep into the hobby, but isn’t an official publication.

Graham E. Hancock, LEGO

Why is that, Graham?
A good example of why this works so well is our Reviews section. Just like a movie or music magazine reviews the latest releases, so does Blocks – we take a look at the newest LEGO sets and provide expert commentary… If you add up the number of LEGO sets the writing team’s built, it’s in the thousands. Those reviews wouldn’t work if we were a licensed LEGO publication.

That’s a very good point. Yes… You can maintain a more independent editorial tone. I’m always curious, though, about brands that recognise the power of fandom and encourage – even cooperate with – unlicensed allies. What’s the relationship like between Blocks and LEGO?
Blocks magazine has an incredibly productive working relationship with the LEGO Group that’s been built up over the past eight years. As you can imagine, it has only gotten stronger over time… We recently published our 100th issue, and I received some lovely messages from friends at the company who really value what we do. Apparently, you can’t go far in LEGO Campus – the company’s headquarters – without coming across an issue of Blocks!

More generally though, it’s quite amazing just how good the LEGO Group is at working with its fanbase, through many different touchpoints. The LEGO Ideas platform is a good example… Anyone can submit a LEGO model and, if enough other fans vote for it, the LEGO Group will consider releasing it as an official product. That’s a great level of collaboration with fans.

Yes. And you know, I was a bit sceptical about that platform when it started but – and I’m the first to admit this – some of my favourite sets have come to about because of that ‘fans-then-brands’ attitude.
Right! And out of interest, what are some of those?

Graham E. Hancock, LEGO

The typewriter was stunning. The Ghostbusters car was fantastic… And the Mickey Mouse boat; Steamboat Willie! Beautiful. So anyway, you’re right; Lego Ideas is a very clever research tool and fan portal.
And getting even deeper, there’s now the BrickLink Designer Program, where fans can submit digitally designed models that might be officially produced in smaller numbers for a niche audience of hardcore AFOLs – adult fans of LEGO. That the company offers multiple opportunities like this, for fans at different points in their LEGO journey, shows just how seriously the company takes the fanbase.

And on that, what is it about LEGO, do you think, that encourages this breadth of vision and depth of interest?
The concept of the classic 2×4 LEGO brick is a really simple one: you can connect more than one of these. The nice, tangible feeling of building with these perfectly designed bricks is really inviting on that level.

It’s also a playful way to get people to think about an idea. In LEGO Heroes, Rita Ebel talks about building ramps with LEGO bricks that can be used to make shops and businesses accessible for wheelchair users. Not only do the ramps serve this practical goal, but she consciously uses LEGO bricks to draw attention to them and get people thinking about other people in their community.

Graham E. Hancock, LEGO

Then there’s another level up… What if you start to think about LEGO bricks in a more abstract way? What if you use LEGO bricks to think about thinking? Doing that can allow you to experiment with ideas in ways that you might not otherwise… Some of the people I interviewed for the book might not have consciously thought about LEGO bricks in this way, but what they have in common is that they all took a solution-orientated approach to what they wanted to achieve.

Brilliant. I genuinely can’t wait to read it! When’s the book out, Graham?
May 16th – not far away now! It’s available to pre-order from all of the usual booksellers.

Fantastic. I shall put in an order. Let’s wrap this up simply: what’s the one question I could’ve asked you today but didn’t?
What’s the most recent LEGO set you built?

Perfect! And what’s the answer?
It was 40504: A Minifigure Tribute. This is a model you can only buy at LEGO House and it builds a massive version of the classic LEGO Pirates Captain Redbeard minifigure. That character was my childhood favourite, so building a big version put a huge smile on my face.

Wonderful! Graham, thank you so much for making time to chat. Best of luck with the book and magazine… We’ll put in links to both, the book here and the magazine here.

Graham E. Hancock, LEGO

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