2021 is almost upon us, and there’s still time to peer into my LEGO crystal ball and try to get some predictions in on what LEGO might do in 2021.
If you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1 of my predictions series, which focused on Entertainment.
In Part 2, I’m predicting that LEGO will finally break the mould when it comes to diverse minifigures, and improving access to a wider selection of skin tones.
I’m predicting that we’ll begin seeing darker skin tone minifigures being inserted into core themes like City, Creator, and 18+ sets alongside yellow minifigures.
Covid has obviously been the master narrative of 2020, but this has also been a defining year for the fight against racial injustice, driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, which had global ramifications, in society, but also amongst businesses and brands.
During the height of the protests, LEGO got into a bit of media trouble by requesting affiliates not advertise City Police sets, but also demonstrated their commitment to the black community and the fight against racism and inequality with a $4m donation to organisations dedicated to supporting Black children and educating all children about racial inequality.
But first, a brief history of LEGO minifigure skin tones.
Yellow has always been the default colour for LEGO minifigures skin tones. Digging into LEGO’s old documents and presentations yields several official statements on LEGO’s stance.
In a 2010 Company Profile, here’s what it says about LEGO minifigures and their iconic yellow skin tone.
When the minifigure first appeared, it was decided that its face should have only one colour: yellow. And that its facial features should be happy and neutral . The figure would have no sex, race or role – these would be determined by the child’s imagination and play.
With licensed products such as LEGO® Star Wars™ and LEGO® Harry Potter™ the figure began appearing in specific roles, and with LEGO Basketball in 2003 it took on authentic skin colours. In 2004 the LEGO minifigure assumed an even wider range of skin colours when it was decided that the figures in licensed products should resemble the original characters as closely as possible. One result was that the figures in LEGO Harry Potter™ changed from yellow to a more authentic skin colour.
And here’s the most up to date statement on LEGO minifigure skin tones.
The statements, and most importantly, evolution with LEGO’s stance on yellow as something that’s fluid and not set in stone.
Also, here are a few notable first instances where LEGO have deviated from their yellow = neutral skin colour.
One of the more famous examples that predate minifigures was of course 215 Red Indians from 1977 with the proto-LEGO figures that would eventually evolve into the iconic Minifigure.
These figures had orange/red skin to better match Native American skin tones.
When Star Wars minifigurs were yellow, 10123 Cloud City introduced Lando Calrissian in a skin tone that more closely matched Billy Dee Williams.
And let’s not forget the LEGO Sports theme, which featured NBA stars with darker skin tones.
The modern problem: access to darker skin minifigures
Fast forward to modern day LEGO, and we have a more systematic way of delineating minifigure skin tones.
In LEGO’s core non-licensed themes like City, Creator, 18+, Ninjago, yellow is the skin tone.
For licensed themes like Super Heroes, Star Wars, or anything based on another property, we have flesh tones as the default for “caucasians”, and a few other shades like brown, nougat for non-white characters.
One of the biggest challenges, for LEGO fans and parents that want to get their hands on non-flesh, or non-yellow minifigures is that they’re quite uncommon, or are included in expensive licensed sets.
Looking at the sets available on the market today, if you wanted a black female minifigure, you’ll have to shell out US$99.99 on the Resistance I-TS Transport Ship. There are of course smaller sets available such as Falcon & Black Widow Team-Up, but it isn’t readily available at most toy stores, and Falcon has a red visor on which makes it hard for you to repurpose it.
Simply put, for people of colour, who can’t see themselves being represented with yellow minifigures, there are currently so many hoops (access and financial) that you need to jump through in order to get minifigure parts that they can see themselves in.
Getting LEGO’s core sets in line with their other product ranges
One thing for certain is that when you look at LEGO Minifigures in the context of their other product ranges like Duplo and Friends, a massive disconnect becomes a lot clearer.
Duplo for example, has a wide swath of Duplo-figure skin colours available in most of their sets. Looking at my daughter’s collection on Duplo figures, she has a really good mix of different skin tones available, which is great for parents and toddlers who want a more representative population of Duplofigures.
And what about one of LEGO’s most successful themes? LEGO Friends has been consistently excellent at diverse characters thank to its cast of main characters.
The characters are spread out evenly across sets of different price-points, and even the side characters are equally diverse, so it’s never a massive effort to find a minidoll in a specific shade.
Looking at my 4 year old daughter’s LEGO Friends collection, she has a great mix of different minidolls of all types – except for maybe male minidolls, but that’s starting to improve too.
What could happen in 2021?
Donating money and supporting organisations that promote racial equality isn’t the end of it, and LEGO have a strong track record in using their brand power to push social causes (remember when they ended their Shell partnership because of sustainability issues?) but also using their toys and themes to reinforce their stances and messaging (remember the re-release of the Vestas Wind Turbine to promote renewable energy?).
In 2020, we’ve seen LEGO take very active and visible steps to improve representation with their advertising – if you look at their key advertising campaigns for 2021 LEGO Super Mario Wave 1, Mario Wave 2, Christmas 2020 you’ll see a very diverse cast of talent front and centre of all their videos.
Advertising and marketing is the first (and easiest step), and reflects their Diversity and Inclusion mission which states that “Regardless of race, gender, language or religion, children of all ages love to play, and LEGO commercials should reflect that. That’s why we work to ensure that our creative content reflects society and the children who play with LEGO bricks.“
The next (and slightly more challenging due to LEGO’s long lead times for products) is rolling out more divserse minifigures into easily accessible sets, and I think 2021 will be the year we see the next step in the evolution of LEGO minifigures.
What I think is likely to happen is a People Pack with diverse skin tones, as a starting point, before seeing more diverse skin tones start rolling out to core sets, possibly with 18+/Creator Expert sets.
I’m a lot more confident in my theory when I saw LEGO’s latest promotional video for Build Day which had darker skin tone minifigures front and centre, including a new nougat baby element, which is a completely new and unreleased variant.
In LEGO’s Ambassador Forum, there has been a very lively debate on this very topic, and taking stock of the conversation there, if LEGO were to enact this change, there would be considerable pushback from more traditional LEGO fans, who feel that “yellow = neutral” should remain the status quo.
But if there’s anything I’ve personally learned from Black Lives Matter, is that representation matters, especially to kids who are, and will always be LEGO’s primary audience.
It’s no secret that people with darker skin have trouble seeing themselves in yellow minifigures, and the scarcity and accessibility issues around darker skin tone minifigures is something that LEGO is lagging behind, especially when compares to other major toy brands who have all made tremendous strides in creating more diverse options.
If LEGO go down this route, there will predictably (based on the LEGO Ambassador debate) quite a bit of resistance from fans who feel that yellow = neutral, so we’ll see how that pans out.
When the LEGO Minifigure celebrated its 40th anniversary, they released this incredible timeline charting the evolution of LEGO Minifigures – from blank faces, to simple smileys, to expressive faces and flesh skin tones.
I think if LEGO were to take the next step and introduce new skin colours into the core lineup, there would be initially be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth, but like expressions, or more detailed face printing, we’ll all come to accept them as part of the ongoing evolution of the LEGO Minifigure.
Just in case you missed my point
I do have to clarify, I don’t think LEGO will revamp that yellow = neutral. I feel like that will always be a core LEGO principle, and the simplicity of yellow being a universal colour is never going to change.
I just think that LEGO will begin by providing more options, and improve accessibility for other skin tones, as a means of addressing the needs of those that can’t and don’t see themselves represented by yellow.
Representation is really important, more so for kids. There’s an indescribable feeling I get when I build LEGO’s Chinese New Year sets (like the new Spring Lantern Festival set), and see my own heritage and culture celebrated by a brand that means so much to me.
Validation and representation are really important for young minds, and I think 2021 will be the year that LEGO takes meaningful steps in this area!
Thanks for reading Part 2 of what Big Moves LEGO will make in 2021! Be sure to also check out Part 1 of my predictions series, which focused on Entertainment.
Remember, this is all speculation on my part, and I could be fabulously wrong about all of this! It’s just fun to try and predict what LEGO might do in the New Year!
What do you think of accessibility of darker skin tone minifigures in LEGO’s core ranges? Would you like to see this change in 2021?