Universal Kit Template

Thanks to my recent involvement in creating a kit, I’ve become very interested in the idea and conceptual structure of kits of all sorts: Lego, Meccano, Arduino-based electronics learning kits, kit-assembly robots, Ikea furniture, paint-by-number kits. Also kits in the industrial sense, used as an intermediate product in manufacturing high-complexity things like cars and airplanes.

Beyond physical kits, you can apply the kit idea to intangible things. You can think of a spectrum of tangibility: physical kits, software development kits, textual/media kits, and finally, idea kits. But it’s easiest to start with intuitions drawn from successful physical kit universes like Lego.

The old Make essay, Kits and Revolutions talks a little about the high-level philosophy, but the mid-level question of how to design good kits is what currently interests me. There’s a lot more to it than just throwing together a bunch of parts that can be assembled in various ways. I made this little diagram of the conceptual structure of a good kit.

This template can be used both to analyze existing kits (or infer the existence of kits), and scope out designs for new ones. Here’s an explanation of the elements, with reference to prototypical physical kits like Lego:

  1. Attitude elixir: Basically, the kool-aid the kit conveys. For example, Lego is peppy and cheerful. Meccano strikes me as more gritty and steampunk. Arduino-based kits are scruffy cyberpunk. More subtly, industrial kits may convey attitudes about things like quality control, or agile vs. waterfall development philosophy. The language of the code in an SDK is also an attitude that communicates the corporate values of the corporation that produced it.
  2. Toolbox: Embodied by the tool-like elements of the kit. Lego has no tools. Ikea usually has just one Allen wrench. Meccano kits come with a couple of wrenches. Arduino kits are mostly complete, but really need the addition of a few things like a multimeter, and ideally a soldering iron, to complete them. The complexity and completeness of the toolbox are a good proxy measure for the height of the barrier to entry.
  3. Perspective pill: In the sense of red pill/blue pill. Kits induce certain ways of looking at the world. For example, Lego induces highly modular + highly custom thinking mindset. Meccano has a much more realist perspective, and the parts are typically both more varied and versatile, and avoid going into cosmetic design spaces with weird themed parts. Arduino kits are about feeling a certain power in doing real things and solving real problems, not just toy construction.
  4. Aesthetic sensibility: Lego is twee, and you have to learn to love the pimply look and the relative fragility of push-fit construction (and it’s biases: Lego models are better in compression than in tension or shear loading). Meccano has a more blue-collar robustness sensibility, conveyed by its more muted colors and use of fasteners. Arduinoverse is an ersatz version of higher-grade electronics building by professionals and corporations. Russian military hardware is bouba. American military hardware is kiki.
  5. Memory orientation object: A kit induces a certain point of view, and way of seeing history and remembering the past, often with a specific part, like the Lego human character with a knobby head, or the similar Ikea-man instructions character. While all kits encourage a view of history as the memory of an accumulating building process with a certain innate logic, the specifics differ. Lego elides friction, wear, imprecision, and presents an idealized, isentropic view of building for example. Meccano does the opposite (I wrote about this in Truth in Inconvenience).
  6. Escapist comfort portkey: When immersed in working with a kit, typically you experience a degree of natural, ludic escapism. This is as true of adult/serious “work” kits as toy kits. This ludic tone then serves as the foundation of a natural mode of culture making. There is an entire Lego movie. But the culture-making doesn’t have to be directly linked to the kit. The kit can also serve as a lens for selection, appropriation and affiliation. Certain movies and media properties lend themselves more to themed Lego kits than others. But even beyond that, I suspect Lego fans watch particular sorts of movies (caper movies perhaps?).
  7. Local wildcard: Finally, kits tend to exploit some wildcard local conditions or other special circumstances initially to gain traction, and this is part of their identity (I thought of calling this element a “secret sauce” but that’s too narrow). This is because kits lower the activation energy for particular sorts of action, and do so by simplifying reality in some way. Lego used precision manufacturing capability to produce a kit that got rid of all fasteners, and created a fastener-free universe on that basis. It feels like a very European thing to do. Meccano feels more stereotypically Anglo in origins.

Learning to assemble a kit is not just how kids and hobbyists learn things. It is also how entire corporations or countries acquire new industrial capabilities. India, for example, learned to design and manufacture fighter planes starting with imported kits for assembling them. Outsourcing an industry to a lower-cost geography with a weaker skill-base often starts with plants for “local assembly” of kits and bootstrapping the skill-base from there. Skills are learned starting with assembly and moving inwards to home-sourcing an increasing fraction of parts, developing design chops, then basic research, and so on. Kits are how you begin the journey from buy to build.

On the flip side, putting together a kit, from a chaotic world of overwhelmingly many possibilities, is how you learn to teach a capability. If you want to learn, buy a kit; if you want to teach, design a kit.

Beyond technology, kits are having a bit of a cultural moment I think, as evidenced by the “type of guy starter pack” meta-meme. In fact kit-like memes are how we bottle-up and communicate the more sophisticated things we call vibes. Unlike traditional memes that make a single trenchant point, or offer a tight narrative template (think jealous girlfriend meme), starter-pack memes just convey a vague space of narrative possibilities, a vibe (this is why I dislike overly themed/specialized Lego kits — they are too tightly coupled to a single narrative to convey the Lego vibe).

I think there’s a good reason for the rise of kit-memes. In the midst of anxiety-provoking uncertainty in our environments, a kit is a tangible, human-scale embodiment of real agency that can seed an entire worldview (and world-do if I may coin a clumsy term; as in “why then, the world is mine oyster, which I with my sword shall open!”). It can also supply an element of hardness in mushy, oozy environments.

If we take the idea of cognitive kits seriously, we can apply the same ontological approach to them. It helps to be very literal-minded and map each conceptual element to a notional or allegorical tangible element to help think about the design space, even if the intent is to traffic in intangibles. Here are two examples. These kit manifests aren’t how I’d construct either kit (if I wanted to actually communicate either worldview/world-do), but they communicate the idea of the kit.

Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror Kit (container: creepy trunk)

  1. Attitude elixir: Madness inducing potion
  2. Toolbox: Grave-digging implements
  3. Perspective pill: Small prehistoric fossil you can look at anytime
  4. Aesthetic sensibility: Creepy small sculpture of Cthulhu
  5. Memory orientation object: Photo of grim New England house
  6. Escapist comfort portkey: Membership card for weird library
  7. Local Wildcard: Impossible geometry object

Ballardian Banality Kit (container: cheapest Chinese laptop case)

  1. Attitude elixir: Bottle of water
  2. Toolbox: High-school geometry box (ruler, compass, protractor, set squares etc)
  3. Perspective pill: Cheap square-grid notebook to write in
  4. Aesthetic sensibility: set of cheap semiprecious crystals/metal samples
  5. Memory orientation object: Small framed photo of partner or pet
  6. Escapist comfort portkey: small clock
  7. Wildcard: Piece of unidentified trash

I’m not sure where I’m going with this line of thought, but it feels very interesting. I think more people should be designing and building kits of all sorts, and also analyzing all kinds of coherent behavior spaces in terms of kit-like elements driving them (such as by making type-of-guy starter pack memes; a very valuable analytical contribution to sensemaking).

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Small note, Lego sets do sometimes come with a tool these days. the brick separator: https://www.lego.com/en-us/product/brick-separator-630

  2. Very interesting article. We built a new kit at the intersection Lego and Arduino called Playto (www.playtolabs.com) – to make Arduino more Lego-like so kids can build more complex, working real-world products and explore Science, Tech and Coding through play.. And we thought a lot in similar direction when designing it. Great to see this post! :)

  3. looking forward to defining the kit at the yak collective robotics garage

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