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?
Stuart Smith says
i personally like the original yellow skin tone and hope it stays I am a purist and like the look of the lego city have the yellow head people. please do not change the mini figure look because of peer pressure the world is subject to way too much of that already. its lego, its fun, and I enjoy my lego the way it is. yellow mini figures thankyou
please let me know if you are planning to stop the yellow mini figure or keep them running please.
and on keeping up great work, more creator expert modular buildings please, cities need to more buildings. thankyou
This is not an official post from Lego, but some personal observations from a fan builder.
I haven’t heard anything else than Lego would continue to produce yellow-only minifigs in non-licensed themes. The criticism that yellow is less appropriate for darker-skinned people would remain, I’d guess.
That’s fair, the yellow will always be iconic and I don’t think they’ll ever move away from it, but as we’ve seen this year, there have been many more diverse minifigures across all types of sets, and even a new skin-tone colour introduced too – we can have the best of both worlds!
They are always watching says
Yeah this article was a waist of time and man power. It’ll probably never happen unless ‘they’ say so.
I hope this come to pass. My son is just old enough to start transitioning away from duplo and the lack of diversity in comparison is disappointing.
I saw no problem with it when I was growing up as a white boy in a white suburb, but the world is different now. All minifigs were also genderless then, but my wife didn’t play with legos because they were boys toys, so lego’s messaging obviously wasn’t persuasive; the minifigs were all boys to her and her parents.
Likewise, if they truly want to back the yellow=neutral message then they would have to stand behind this with a strong visible statement. It’s hard to find any official justification for why only yellow. That’s probably because the caveat for the licesensed sets is particularly weak, as if kids will keep a strict firewall in their minds when mixing sets when playing.
So yeah I hope this happens. I’ve got a gallon ziplock bags of yellow male minifigs from my childhood already to give my son, but maybe he’ll have a more diverse bag to give to his child when he’s my age.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kevin. I certainly hope so too as well.
They do seem to skirt around the yellow = neutral quite a bit, because I think internally, they understand that in today’s world, that isn’t good enough any more.
Agent 86 says
It’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought, although when purchasing Duplo as gifts, I did notice and appreciate the variety. Seeing more skin tones rolled out across all themes sounds good to me. Diverse People Packs would be a good way to help populate existing sets / collections with more variety.
I think that’s the hallmark of really good design, that you don’t notice it’s there until someone points it out, and you see that it makes sense!
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SHARON A BRESHEARS says
I really like having a variety of skin tones. I am okay with yellow, but I have a bi-racial friend. I wanted to give her children some Lego and I really wanted the figures to represent the children more closely.
Yeah, a balance is great, and I think the key thing I’d like to see fixed is simply accessibility. As long as options are readily (and cheaply!) available, it would go a long way to help exact situations like yours, where some people of colour find it hard to get the parts required to remake themselves as LEGO minifigures.
NPC #7468821 says
I see no lego minifigures with skin grafts. this lack of representation makes me so mad even though I never heard of lego before today and never played or purchased any lego before today.
Does Anakin Skywalker/Vader count as a minifigure with really bad burns/scarring/disfigurement?
Evl Hmr says
What an absolute turgid waste of letters. There are NO people with yellow skin tones, ergo Lego minifigures are not racist or whatever woke agenda you are trying to push.
Let Lego be Lego. An imaginative toy for children and adults that doesn’t push agendas no matter how extreme they are.
Imagine thinking that racial representation is an extreme agenda 🤔
agreed its lego. a fun creative toy / hobby thats enjoyed by all ages. theres enough hate in the world without people using lego as a weapon for their own reasons/ agendas . if you dont like how it looks dont buy it.
Jasmine Liang says
I really appreciated this post- I haven’t seen a lot of people who are willing to go in-depth about LEGO’s recent representations of people of color, let alone speculations for the future. I’m glad to see the inclusion of more “medium nougat” and “nougat” minifigures and minidolls, like the Patil twins, Cho Chang, new Andrea, and new Emma.
However, I think there is still work to do with Friends sets. At the moment, dark-skinned people do not exist within the Friends aesthetic. I’m quite disturbed that there has yet to be a brown minidoll. While Duplo and franchise minifigures have represented dark-skinned people using brown, there are only “medium nougat,” “nougat,” and “light nougat” people that exist within the Friends universe. I don’t know if this has ever stood out to anyone else, but as a person of color, it has for me.
Currently, there’s a lot of limitations with the three skin tones LEGO uses to represent people of color. And as long as these limitations exist, it will always be a battle between accurate representation and symbolic representation. For example, Cho Chang is a person of color and it is important to show that with a “medium nougat” minifigure, though yes, the actor who plays her has lighter skin and isn’t “medium nougat” in real life. Despite the limitations, it has been evident that LEGO is fully capable of representing people of color in their minifigures and minidolls. So I’m hoping for more diversity in Friends, movie franchise themes, and maybe one day in City.
Thanks Jasmine! This is something quite close to my heart as well, raising an Asian daughter in a predominantly Caucasian community!
I believe the darkest shade in minidolls are Andrea? They did introduce a new set – Andrea’s House which has her entire family, which has been a long time coming, but is fantastic when it comes to more skin-tone diversity.
As this can be quite a touchy subject to some parts of society, and LEGO being really protective of their brand, I think progress will be slow, but progress will eventually happen, given how progressive LEGO has been on so many other issues.
LEGO have done a lot of great work in recent years balancing gender in City sets, but even that took a few years and pressure from the LEGO fan community who have been raising it as an issue.
Once again I am very impressed with this company’s initiatives.
Previously Lego have put sought after minifigs behind paywalls. Remember the original Kylo Ren and Director Krennic shuttle microfighters, which had random First Order and Empire officers instead of the main characters? They seem to be leaning away from that sort of thing lately, with Kylo Ren having appeared in two microfighter sets since then. One would hope that this practice, in addition to Lego’s stance of solidarity with the black community against racism, will result in a wider variety of minifigures in easier accessible sets.
But seriously, are we still using this skin tone with Cho? It’s like their default east Asian colour and its really inaccurate. Lets hope for more representation in 2021!
Yeah, a great example of this is with the Mandalorian/Grogu minifigures – with the new Tatooine set, they’ve put them both in a relatively affordable set.
Yeah Cho is an interesting choice – I’d go as far as to say that the “nougat” colour seems to be the default for “Asian skin”, as both Parvati and Padma also have the same skin tone.
The skin color is weird, but I think the problem at its core is how Lego is struggling on how to do Asian characters. Not as a complaint, but I think they are seriously confused on how to handle it, considering a minifig face is so simplified and stylized.
The skin tone is so similar to Light Nougat, (with a yellowish rather than pinkish tint, I’d say) that a new color doesn’t feel warranted. (I could imagine something between Light Nougat and Tan, but it doesn’t seem like a color that would have much use outside minifigs and minidolls.)
Accentuating the nose could be construed as racist, and would generally look rather weird on a minifig.
Accentuating the eyes could be construed as racist, similar to Short Round. The eye shapes for Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) were so stylized that the same head also was used for Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).
I think LEGO should stick with yellow for figures who are not depictions of movie or tv (live or animated) characters.
Give a city criminal a non yellow face you are going to offend someone.
Minifigs with yellow faces can be criminals, coppers, firefighters, astronauts, doctors, mums and dads (have we ever had a depiction of a non heterosexual family unit?), what ever your imagination wants. Adding non yellow colours is a limit to imagination.
I like seeing hearing aids, wheel chairs etc in sets . It is great to see this as normal in toys.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Anthony! LEGO have been very careful in this area – if you watch the LEGO Christmas commercial, you’ll notice that the cops depicted are black, and the criminals were white, which was a very intentional move to prevent the exact issue that you just described.
As for non-heterosexual family units, I’m not 100% sure but I think we got a single dad in one of the City Minifigure packs.
Also, really glad you brought up the thing about Duplo figures and minidolls having human skin tones. The disconnect between those and minifigures has been odd to me ever since I found out.
Yeah, it’s weird as I’ve always seen Duplo figures as the precursor to LEGO minifigures. I’m not an expert on design, but it does illustrate the very different philosophies between LEGO Minifigures and Duplo figures – I guess with Duplo figures, they didn’t have to contend with years and years of historical legacy, and were free to just have a wide mix of skin tones.
“These figures had orange/red skin to better match Native American skin tones.”
Unfortunately, I highly doubt they had the best intentions in mind back in 1977 with this one. Thankfully we didn’t get another set like this ever again, but it’s funny how in that set they deviated solely to do racial stereotyping. 🙁
Totally, but the world was a very different place in 1977, so it’s really important to judge a set by the context of its era. I doubt LEGO had poor intentions with this, but they could’ve done far, far worse!
I tend to agree with Vector here. Bright red isn’t really any closer to most Native American skin tones than yellow. “Redskin” today is even mostly considered a slur.
As a sidenote, the word is actually believed to stem from the use of war paint, rather than how the white population perceived the skin tone. The relationships between the white and Native Americans were largely based on mutual hostility and distrust, but there doesn’t seem to have been any indications that the skin tones were perceived as particularly different.
Lucas Renzi says
Fantastic article, love the blog. Just pointing out your use of the word flesh coloured as inaccurate.
First introduced as “flesh tint” in 1903, it eventually dropped the “tint” and appeared in different box counts throughout the years until the name was changed to “peach” in 1962 for obvious reasons.
Thanks Lucas! In the context of LEGO, “flesh” is a common unofficial term for the beige tone minifigures!
It’s not an official term, but commonly used by fans. The official colour designation is “Light Nougat”!
Lucas Renzi says
Oh I totally agree, but it’s a common, non descriptive term that does not sit well in your “we have flesh tones as the default” sentence. IMHO your use in that paragraph and the one below should be replaced with something non-discriminatory like light nougat or peach or whatever or be edited to be placed in inverted commas. I can’t think of an argument where the use of “flesh” or “flesh tones” *should* be used in this post. Simply that flesh coloured is a collection of all skin colours. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-9-year-old-girl-got-people-to-finally-stop-thinking-of-the-peach-colored-crayon-as-the-skin-color-crayon/2020/02/22/89ab7590-5506-11ea-b119-4faabac6674f_story.html
I was surprised that the Charles Dickens a Christmas carol set used skin tones, which I think makes it the first LEGO set that assumed the race of a character, as nowhere in the story is their race mentioned (obviously based on the period it’s almost certain that they were intended to be white, but it’s never stated).
Moving into skin tones on none ip sets would open LEGO up to a host of complaints about which race fulfils which occupation, and how to handle the fact that different regions can have massively different racial diversity. Maybe people packs of different skin tones may appear in 2021 but I think LEGO are more cautious than that.
What would be nice is if they made more of an effort to do ip deals with more diversity, even the disney selection for 2021 seems rather white, if they were to make a move for diversity, then they could have done a full Tiana set as so far she has only appeared in a set along side other princesses.
It was written in 1843, what do you think?
Hey Ian, that’s a really good observation – now that you mentioned it, it’s also odd that they deviated from the Hans Christian Andersen set, which had yellow minifigures.
Maybe they based it on the movie?
Your point is really valid – there was a lot of drama when one of the criminals in the LEGO City Adventures was named Vito, which implied Latino origins, so I agree that LEGO would need to tread carefully here.
IP is an interesting way to circumvent this, but its largely in the hands of Hollywood, movie studios how they cast their characters. There has been a lot of improvement in that space in recent years, but there’s still a lot to do there.
Vito is Italian, not Latino
Oh woops, you’re right, thanks for the clarification! I’ve fixed it!
Yeah, it is a mafia stereotype, but still an ethnic stereotype…
The simplest solution would be to provide a parts pack and not pre-assemble any of the minifigs. For the renderings on the box, they could show the same head on multiple torsos to not shoehorn any of the figures into a role.
The best solution, in my opinion, is to make minifigures of all shades in as many sets and as many roles as possible – just like how yellow minifigures have held all roles before.
That’s a really good suggestion – the recent Wedding Brickheadz took a similar approach, with several different shades to allow for maximum customisation options.
Phillip Galan says
I prefer yellow = neutral
First off, in this day and age anyone who answers ‘no’ may be labeled as racist because they are not supporting ‘inclusiveness’.
Secondly, from reading your article they are going from a yellow skin tone to darker in the core ranges. Why are they also not going lighter? Why should those with white tones be left to relate to yellow?
It has to be all or nothing. Either keep them all in the traditional yellow, or Lego must ensure all possible skin tones are represented.
I don’t think it’s fair to label someone racist for disagreeing with this, so apologies if that has happened to you.
That’s a good point, and in an ideal world, there would be sufficient parts for all but the point that I’m trying to make is that I’m predicting that LEGO will do more to improve representation in 2021. How and when, is the question.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!