Imagine showing up at work every day with the same excitement you had as a kid rushing home after school to play with your favorite toy. That’s what many days are like for Dan Winger, the senior innovation designer at LEGO’s Creative Play Lab in Hollywood, California.
“It’s a rare field in which thinking and acting like a child can be beneficial,” Winger says. He says that helps keep him and his team tapped into their own inner 7-year-olds, which is critical to the innovation his lab is tasked with: inventing the future of creative play for the 86-year-old LEGO Group.
That future involves melding the physical and digital worlds into products that will spur children’s imaginations for generations to come. “We’ve been witnessing a technological revolution like no other in history,” says Winger, who notes that the breakthroughs in everything from computer vision to machine learning to augmented reality are not just changing the ways people work and communicate, but the ways children want to play. For LEGO’s plastic interlocking bricks to remain relevant in today’s world, they needed to be adapted to the digital age. To do so, Winger led the design of the popular LEGO Fusion line, which allowed children to build and play with traditional LEGO structures, but then scan them with a tablet’s camera to unlock additional virtual experiences with the physical structures they just assembled.
“With the launch of the original iPad, all of a sudden toddlers were able to interact with computers, we even saw these young kids pinching at pictures in printed magazines trying to zoom in,” says Winger. “This was changing the way kids interacted with the world around them, and would likely change the way kids play.”
The Fusion line was so well-received that it was awarded the 2015 E-Connected Toy of the Year Award and led to a greater LEGO strategy for similar types of experiences, and it’s Winger’s job to come up with them. “Designing for play at the forefront of technology becomes a unique balance,” Winger says. “I keep one foot in the past, reflecting on the toys, games, and other activities I enjoyed during my own childhood, and one foot in the future, exploring new forms of media and interactive experiences for emerging technologies.”
Given how much Winger’s role involves recognizing upcoming trends and planning for the future, you may think his dream job was something he had planned from the beginning, but that’s not the case. “I’m at LEGO as a result of hard work and dumb luck,” he says.
As a child, Winger says that he had a creative bent and played with the usual toys kids his age played with at the time–including construction sets and video games. He had a passion for art and creating and took art classes, but “I never imagined that my interest in art and making stuff would lead to the opportunity to design toys and games,” admits Winger.
As a matter of fact, he didn’t even pursue toy or game design during his undergraduate years. When Winger was in middle school, his handyman father was laid off from his job at the railroad, and in his newfound free time decided to build a house and sell it to create some income. Winger helped on the weekends, and in turn was introduced to the construction process. This led him to re-examine his creative interests and inspired him to enter architecture school at Iowa State University.
“I wanted to design custom homes and furniture, like the days of Frank Lloyd Wright. I suspect most of my classmates likely had the same dream,” he says. “But the market had shifted over the past several decades, and jobs like that were very rare in the era of the McMansions. The quantity of home was more valued than quality.”
The rise of McMansion culture led Winger to fear that he’d be hired to use his creative talents to produce work he wasn’t passionate about. That’s when he decided to enroll in the top-ranked GradID program at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. It was during his time in grad school that the Nintendo Wii came out–at the time on the cutting edge of technology that would ultimately lead him to LEGO.
“I was fascinated at how it immediately shifted the game industry and redefined the market of gamers. That New Year’s Eve, my entire family spent the night playing Wii Sport, including my parents and even 83-year-old grandmother who had never touched a video game in her life,” says Winger. “This inspired me to explore new opportunities and experiences for video games for my thesis.”
That thesis involved creating a connected preschool toy that would provide music education through an interactive game. “The basic idea was Guitar Hero meets piano lessons,” remembers Winger. Yet while researching music education in relation to his connected toy, it struck Winger that most of the day’s current educational toys didn’t lend themselves to creativity and exploration–only rigid instruction. This led Winger to search out experts in the field of creativity to find out how to best design a curriculum to “teach for creativity” modeled similar to the art classes he had as a child. This created the structure that his thesis’s companion game was designed around. And it’s when he presented his midterm thesis that one of the guest reviewers happened to be the only LEGO designer in Los Angeles, Martin Sanders.
“After the class, we further discussed my project and process, along with the type of work he and the Concept Lab team did for LEGO,” Winger says. After graduation, Sanders offered Winger some freelance work, and he was later hired full-time by LEGO. Since then, Winger is one of only five designers and gameplay engineers working for LEGO in California.
“As a member of a small satellite innovation team, we have to wear many hats and quickly adapt to the demands of the various types of projects,” says Winger. “This is the hardest thing about the job, but is also what has kept the work fresh and exciting. Over the years, I have embraced the roles of game designer, developer, experience designer, strategist, researcher, user testing facilitator, writer, storyboarder, video editor, graphics and visual designer, illustrator, writer, 3D modeller, mechanical engineer, sound editor, product and character designer, product owner, and partnership scout. There’s always something new to learn.”
If Winger’s role under multiple hats working for one of the most iconic toy companies in the world sounds like your dream job, unfortunately there’s some bad news: “When I started, our team in Los Angeles was just the two of us. We have a large marketing office in Enfield, Connecticut, but we were the only LEGO employees in a product design and development team in the entire U.S. Over the years, our local team has slowly grown to five, and opportunities are still extremely limited,” says Winger.
Virtually all other LEGO product design happens in LEGO’s home country of Denmark, which is why Winger says that if you want a job designing at LEGO, a willingness to move countries is a must. But there are other, more important requirements too. A passion for creative play is a must, as is the ability to wear multiple hats, including that of entrepreneur. “With innovation comes great uncertainty, so team members must take ownership of the projects and have the drive and perseverance to push through the obstacles,” says Winger.
But that uncertainty and perseverance is worth it in the end if it lands you a designer’s job at LEGO. The best part of his job, Winger says, is the reaction someone gets when he’s talking to them and he mentions he works for LEGO. “Their eyes light up, [they] quickly think back to their childhood, and respond with their favorite childhood memory of LEGO. For a brief moment, they become a child again. It’s a great reminder that the work I do can create moments so special for kids that they will still remember and cherish them as adults. My job can help spread a bit of joy and happiness to the world.”