As It Happens

Lego minifigures designer remembered as a 'grown-up playmate' by friend

When Jens Nygaard Knudsen started throwing around his ideas for Lego, it wasn't a brainstorm — it was a "brain hurricane", says his longtime friend and fellow designer.

Jens Nygaard Knudsen, who has died at 78, left a huge impact on generations of children

Jens Nygaard Knudsen designed the Lego minifigures, which are adored by children everywhere. (Lego/Twitter)
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When Jens Nygaard Knudsen started throwing around his ideas for Lego, it wasn't a brainstorm — it was a "brain hurricane", says his longtime friend and fellow designer. 

"I might have three or four ideas … and then Jens would top that with 10 or 20 ideas," Niels Milan Pedersen, who has worked at Lego for 40 years, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It was really a brain hurricane." 

Knudsen, creator of the Lego minifigure, died on Feb. 19. He was 78 and had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

He came up with the idea for the Lego minifigure in 1978. He was also responsible for some of Lego's iconic pieces, including the castle and space sets.

'Grown up playmate'

Pedersen first met the legendary designer in 1980 at his job interview for Lego, and over the many years they worked together he came to consider him a "grown-up playmate." 

"He was a … guy you would have loved to play with as a kid. Well, now you sort of could do it when you were grown up," he said. 

He went on to work with Knudsen on the castle and space sets, as well as designing the Lego horse, crocodile and monkey, among others. 

He said that during his time at Lego, He, Knudsen, and designer Daniel Krentz would come up with ideas by imagining what they would have wanted when they were kids. 

Knudsen said that for the first few years, they didn't even have children try out the toys. 

"We were just more three grown-up kids," he said. 

Knudsen designed the minifigures because he wanted to bring life to the Lego world, says his friend Niels Milan Pedersen. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Knudsen, especially, went all out during these "brain hurricane" sessions. He would make up stories about the Lego figures, sometimes creating ideas that were so outlandish that they were impossible — for instance, a dragon figure that breathed fire. 

"He had such an imagination," Pedersen said. 

Matthew Ashton, vice president of design at Lego paid tribute to the designer on Twitter, calling him "one of the unsung heroes of the toy industry."

Created the minifigures

The creation of the simple yellow Lego minifigures, with painted faces and rounded heads, was Knudsen's brainchild. 

Pedersen said Knudsen was inspired to create the figurines because he felt there was "no life" within the cars and buildings that already existed. 

He made sure that they had rounded heads, so any hat or wig could be added, and that the arms and legs could move. 

Now the minifigures are dressed up as anything from Batman to a firefighter, and the LEGO movie, with the minifigures as the stars, was released in 2014. 

"It's quite magic," Pedersen said. 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Samantha Lui.

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