Bret Schafbuch Lego
Thursday, June 13, 2019
By Rebekah Tilley

“At Lego, we talk about this period we call the Dark Ages—when kids leave Lego behind and before they get back into it when they are adult fans. The same thing happened to me.”

Bret Schafbuch (BBA00) is living any Lego-obsessed kid’s dream. The Iowa native is now a senior manager of user experience and prototypes at the Lego Group headquarters in Billund, Denmark – a place where no one but Lego employees are allowed to enter if they are over the age of 12.

“Lego” is an extraction of the Danish phrase leg godt, or “play well.” The company, known for the iconic, colorful plastic bricks, has long explored how to extend healthy play into digital spaces, which is where Schafbuch and his department come in. They produce apps that accompany Lego products, and design and build software that supports internal model designers. Most recently, in close collaboration with internal teams, they developed an app called Powered Up, which allows builders to drive the newly released remote-controlled Lego Batmobile.

As designers of user experience, Schafbuch and his team study how people feel and how they accomplish tasks when they use technology. One of the joys and challenges of designing for kids, says Schafbuch, is “many of the paradigms we think work for adults pretty much don’t apply to children.”

One obvious example is most children under the age of seven aren’t reading so you cannot rely on text for navigation. Other aspects are more surprising.

"In terms of testing digital designs, kids are not afraid of failure—in fact, they learn that way,” Schafbuch explains. “Generally, I’ve observed that the younger they are, the less fear they have trying out an app. When we lay out a design, an adult might follow a particular path or be tentative about doing something wrong, but with kids it’s more about what’s exciting and interesting. ”

Currently, Bret enjoys managing a group of designers as a member of his department’s overall leadership team. Some of his most rewarding work at Lego, Schafbuch says, has been the opportunity to collaborate with research specialists at Tufts University and the MIT Media Lab. Also, while attending an Association for Computing Machinery’s Interaction Design & Children Conference, Bret interacted with Juan Pablo Hourcade, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa.

“In my industry, he’s an important person. It’s really special that we have someone from the University of Iowa who is an academic leader for interaction design for kids,” Schafbuch says.

The “Dark Ages” ended for Schafbuch before his children came along thanks in part to the Lego Group’s induction program for new employees where set building is part of the work day. Today a favorite family pastime is building Lego sets that match his sons’ skill levels and interests, and trying to free-build objects like Santa’s sleigh with inspiration from pictures found online. His work is clearly something he takes a quiet pride in.

“It's been neat to have worked on a product line and then tell my sons ‘daddy worked on that one’ and to see how curious they become.”

Workplace Culture at Lego

"The culture here is very collaborative and authentically polite. In Denmark, the hierarchies aren’t flat, but employees at all levels can speak up. I can talk with a senior vice president on a first-name basis quite easily, and there is an avenue to give constructive feedback to leadership. That also means the junior people are quite respected if they give their opinions. I expect the younger people we hire to be quite vocal.”

Emerging from the ‘Dark Ages’

“My first year working at Lego I was buying a new set every month. Nostalgia kicked in big time and I cleaned all my old sets from the ’80s and ’90s that my mom had kept. There have also been several niche sets that pull the nostalgia strings like Ghostbusters, Doctor Who, Back to the Future – and I had to buy them. Oh, and the Lord of the Rings sets were hard to pass up.”

Advice for New Graduates

“Hard work is still key. It’s important to keep challenging yourself and working hard. Stay hungry. Challenge the status quo and challenge the systems other generations have put in place.”

This article first appeared in the summer 2019 edition of Tippie Magazinea semiannual publication for alumni and friends of the Tippie College of Business. A complimentary subscription is provided to those who make an annual gift of $10 or more to the college.