Lego Soup

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

I’ve been mildly hostile to Lego as a medium of tinkering. Even though I’ve bought all sorts of other kits as I’ve built up the Ribbonfarm Lab over the last few years, I’ve resisted the siren song of Lego. Until now. I’ve finally succumbed. It all started when I inherited a starter box from a Summer of Protocols workshop exercise, worth about $30, in July. It sat around for 6 months, until I finally caved, and played with it for a bit over the winter break. Turned out it was a relatively weak kit, heavy on cosmetic detailing and greebling parts (googly eyes, flowers, tiny 1-stud contour-smoothing wedges) apparently aimed at 4-year-olds, rather than expressive and versatile parts. The kit was the Lego equivalent of the stone in Stone Soup. Before I knew it, I’d spent another $170 or so. Here’s my current Lego meta-kit.

The reason I’m mildly hostile to Lego is it takes away too much friction and engineering messiness in favor of simplicity of UX (PX? play experience?) and aesthetics (apparently this has been a trend known as “juniorization”). I argued this point in Truth in Inconvenience, via a Lego-Meccano comparison. Lego fosters somewhat utopian engineering sensibilities. Compared to Meccano or electronics kits for example, it encourages an excessively sanitized view of engineering problem-solving. I have no experience of the Technic or Mindstorms lines (they were wildly beyond my means as an 80s kid in India — my sister and I only had a couple of very small Lego kits), so I’m looking forward to seeing whether my first-ever Technic kit, the Perseverance kit shown above, offers a more Meccano-style experience.

I have to say though, I’m very impressed with some of the advanced original builds by adult experts I’ve seen on social media, such as this dragon, these curved forms, and these African style sculptures. The representational art bias doesn’t necessarily mean the engineering complexity is lower. Hat tip to Topias Uotila ( on Bluesky and Dorian Taylor, among others, for helping soften my Lego-skepticism with good arguments and examples. Also thanks to Chenoe Hart for providing me with a crash course on the Lego maker scene.

That said, as a personal preference, I like to see the higher-dimensional messiness of real-world engineering reflected in a tinkering medium. So I doubt Lego will ever become my favorite tinkering medium. But it’s \ likely to become a strong supporting medium. I suspect I’m also generally suspicious of colorful-fun vibes.

So despite my misgivings, I suspect I’ll end up spending a couple of hundred dollars more rounding out my Lego inventory. I’m already eyeing a couple of buckets of additional off-brand parts and a few more interesting Lego-branded parts. Apparently, even though most of the important Lego patents have expired, generic competitors still can’t make the larger parts as well as Lego can (I suppose tolerance stacking is the issue?)

I’m still developing intuitions around what might be interesting lines of tinkering investigation with Lego, but two that intrigue me are interoperability with other construction kit languages and the idea of kit-bashing.

This universal construction kit (HT kinda gets at what interests me with regard to interoperability, though it seems to involve custom 3D printing Lego-compatible parts, a notoriously difficult thing to do due to the tight tolerances, and doesn’t include my favorite, Meccano, in its “universal” scope. I might instead try to use off-brand Lego parts set in custom-designed 3D-printed coupling sockets that mate with Meccano.

Kit-bashing is about exploring design spaces created by pooling two or more kits. Once I build the rover, I might buy a second technic kit and explore that question in-universe. It feels like kit-bashing is a good way to explore a question that interests me: the problem of scavenging parts from one machine for another, in pursuit of accretive robotics. The key idea is that instead of working with an inventory of nonspecific parts, you work with a teardown inventory. Everything comes from a nominal design. It’s like sexual reproduction rather than interchangeable-parts manufacturing.

Anyway the Lego soup is now bubbling away in the cauldron. Stay tuned for Cultural Learnings of Legoland to Make Benefit Glorious Lab of Ribbonfarm.

Series Navigation<< Can Robots Whittle?A Tale of Two Kits >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Since a few years I’m out of my “dark age” an am building lots of Lego sets (and other brands) again.

    I’m not sure how many percent of the joy can be attributed to nostalgia but it’s certainly a major factor.

    But I never saw it as engineering. If you build an official Lego set, it’s basically painting by numbers in 3D. That’s my substitute for a meditation app, but no engineering.

    It is certainly different once you get in the game of designing your own builds (JK Brickworks is a great starting point, first copy than create), but that’s a whole other game.