LEGO is so easy to get into. You buy a set, take it out of the box, and then follow the instructions. It takes a little effort and a lot of patience, but eventually you’ll have a lovely LEGO model to admire and display.
LEGO is for everyone and it’s easy to get into, but what happens when you’re starting a blank slate and have to come up with your own build? There are no instructions and no picture guide. You don’t know any of the things we take for granted when someone else has designed a build and written instructions for us.
Welcome to the feeling of freefall that first-time free-builders face. It’s no different from a writer or artist staring at a blank page, trying to come up with a new idea and getting nothing but static. Even people who have been building LEGO from plans for years can feel lost for a place to start, but if you follow the general steps in this article it should help you get those creative juices flowing.
Before we get into it, I just want to make clear that I do not think this is the only way to free-build, nor that it will be the best way for you, but that it’s a way I have found to structure the creative and practical building process.
The Lightbulb Moment
Before you even touch a single LEGO brick or try to envision what your build is going to look like, you need an idea. The key to any build is having a strong theme or vision. It has to be something that excites you for one reason or another. Anything goes, although the more abstract your idea is the more creative work it will take to turn it into a physical LEGO model.
Take a pen and piece of paper and jot down ten things you really like. For example, my list would look something like this:
I might divide those into sub-categories, perhaps movies could include Sci-Fi or something similar. In the end, I could stop at “spaceship” or, specifically, Starship Enterprise.
You can do this exercise as extensively as long as you like, as long as you hit on something that excites you as a LEGO build. Once you have your theme or specific object, we can move on to the next phase.
Do Your Research
Next, you still don’t get to touch any LEGO. Sorry! No, we need to find reference material for the build. Since I’ve decided in my example to build a replica of the USS Enterprise it means I need lots and lots of pictures of the ship. In the old days that would take quite some doing, as you’d have to get your hands on all sorts of media. These days your best friend in the world is Google Image Search. Just type your search term into the site and you can spend hours finding and saving pictures to your system. It’s one of the reasons I love my iPad, since it means I can have my reference pictures right there when I eventually build the model.
Don’t be shy to compile a lot of reference material, especially if you aren’t looking to build a specific thing like a vehicle or animal. If you want to do a scene such as a town or nature scene, you won’t be making an exact replica, but something inspired by that class of visual. You’ll need to consult a lot of material to ensure that you get the right look and feel.
The next thing you need to do is decide what you are going to do about size and space. It’s a very important step to know exactly how much space you have or want to use for your build. It’s not just about planning so that you don’t run out of bricks or make your build too big to get through the door. It’s important because it’s going to influence the scale of the build.
If you want to build at minifig scale, for example, you can calculate how large the final model will be. In the case of my hypothetical space ship, that’s not quite practical. After all, it would end up being as big as a house! Nonetheless, building at too small a scale means having to get by with fewer bricks to bring the vision to life. You also have to take your time, money, and brick supply into account.
Now we finally get to the point where you get to put your own design in place. At least on paper. Even if you have reference pictures that are exactly what you want to build, you still need to figure out how you’ll do it in LEGO. For the purist pros, this means getting out the graph paper and other analogue tools. The more artistically-inclined may even draw mock-up sketches.
Personally I run straight to the various LEGO CAD programs that are available. I’ve written an article highlighting a few of the good ones(LINK) and you owe it to yourself to at least try a free one before deciding if it’s for you. By using a CAD program, you can experiment with the different brick types to figure out how you’ll achieve certain structures and details.
This is especially useful if you do not yet have access to the bricks you need to complete your build. By using a CAD program you can know exactly which bricks you need and exactly how you’ll assemble it. Many of these programs let you print out proper instructions and beautiful renditions of what the final product should look like.
Unless you already have all the bricks you need, now is the time to order them from LEGO or a local vendor who sells loose bricks. If you used a CAD program, it should be easy to print off a brick inventory.
Now all you have to do is wait for your bricks to arrive and you can get to the actual building!