Why Lego Minifigures Have A Hole In Their Heads

To match the bricks? To snap on hats? Nope. In reality, minifigs have been designed to allow air to pass through if lodged in a child’s throat.

What do you call cocktail trivia that’s aimed at 10-year-olds? Regardless, Lego’s humanoid minifigures are one of the most iconic toys worldwide, but they have a strange design feature: a hole on the top of their heads. Why this hole exists is a mystery to most people. That hole can stick to a Lego brick, but why would anyone ever want to stick a humanoid head to a Lego brick?

In reality, the answer is quite simple. As Lego told Gizmodo in a Q&A:

We added this hole on the top of the head just in case any kids got one of the heads stuck on their throat. That way they would be able to keep breathing.

In other words, the minifig is essentially designed to be a tube should it finds its way into a windpipe.

It’s a neat piece of trivia, right? But the more incredible point of the story is something altogether different. The minifig is an unmistakable mascot--it’s basically Lego in the flesh. And its most defining, oddball feature is only tangentially related to the product’s core function. In reality, the minifig has been branded by a tacit commitment to safety, not building castles or pirate ships.

So much of what we consider good design is reductionist--that oh-so-influential tenth rule of Dieter Rams’s principles of design--to boil a product down to its most essential. It seems crass to propose that it’s unessential for a child’s toy to prevent choking, but the industry has sort of decided that! It’s why toy boxes are plastered with a recommended age range and choking-hazard notices, while the toys inside them can be lethal.

In designing the minifig, Lego disregarded conventional design wisdom: They added an extra feature (mistake 1). They made it extremely obtrusive to the design (mistake 2). Then they never advertised that protrusion as a feature (mistake 3). Yet ultimately, that feature lent itself to an aesthetic that’s one of the strongest bits of branding in the entire toy industry. A minifig just wouldn’t be a minifig were it more dangerous to children. And that’s a pretty remarkable thing to learn today, given that they’ve been around since 1978*.

* As it’s been pointed out in the comments, an earlier, solid version of the minifig was released in 1975 before it finalized the contemporary design three years later.

Read more here.

[Hat tip: Reddit]

[Image: Lego Men, Meg via Flickr, Rhysllwyd via Flickr]

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32 Comments

  • J.J. Sierra

    I think that the hole is there to prevent a vacuum effect and so that the head comes off a little easier. Before when the heads did not have the hole, when I took the heads off, I would get a small pop sound created by the vacuum, now that does not happen. -- ALSO, it might save them some money by the reduced amount of plastic, either way, I doubt it was design for safty reasons.

    Still, I'm an AFOL and always will be. LEGO is the best toy brand I know.

  • Line Bering

    My dad worked on lego as a model designer. I can confirm, it's because of the vacuum and has nothing to do with saftey, as each box-set of lego already has age-restrictions on them, as well as another type of lego which has been designed for small children and babies.

  • Matthew Petty

    Bic ballpoint pen lids introduced a hole in the cap for the same reason.
    The Lego minifigs I had as a child in the UK didn't have a hole in the head, just the usual stud with the logo on it.

  • nazrulhadi

    I bet if they do that more people will swallow the head since it's fun to blow it

  • Elie

    it's simply a business scheme, so parents are more willing to pay for "safer" products

  • Andrew Gluck

    Except Lego doesn't advertise this. It;s a pretty useless marketing team if you don't go out of your way to tell people about it.

  • Alex

    What a lot of commentors here don't seem to understand is that if the head is attached to anything at all, there will be plenty of breathing spaces due to the shape of any hat/body configuration keeping open air pockets in the throat. 

    You will need a perfectly spherical object or something with a lot of moldable girth to fully fit in the throat with no breathing passages.

  • legodad

    Purchased mini-figs yesterday new from a Lego store in the UK. They don't have holes in their heads. More research required :-)

  • Bryan Lim

    I just checked mine. The older/cheaper(those that come packaged with purchase of newspaper or other products) dont have holes in the heads. The newer ones especially the Lego Minifigures 1-10 do have holes.

  • Ramali

    This is purely on design point of view (design to assemble, to be precise). The whole concept of LEGO is to build various pieces together - so each piece should have some sort of feature to which other pieces can be pushed and joined. For all other 2x2 and other bricks there are such protruding rings to which other pieces can be attached. If the head is simple cylinder, then other add-ons like hats which need to be in different colors and designs cannot be joined. So, it is purely for the assembly design point of view. But as it is with many things in the world, people give various reasons for certain things which is not obvious.

  • Mark Hanna

    I think you have misinterpreted Lego's answer. The question Lego was answering was "Why is there a whole [sic] in the head of the mini-figs *now*?" (emphasis mine).

    The joiner on top of the head and the hole going through the middle are completely separate features, you could easily have either without the other. The joiner has been around the whole time, but that question implies that the hole is a relatively new feature.

  • Teo Chang Chiew

    I would think is for the air to escape when you insert the head to the
    body. Without the holes, the air inside will be compressed and will drop
    out easily. Even if you managed to push it in, you will have a tough
    time to pull it out due to the vacuum inside.  

  • Alan Schunemann

    Well, I'm no Lego expert (It was the Erector set for me), but... the hole isn't visible when looking at the object's face, so the iconic shape, which includes the necessary Lego interface, doesn't include the hole. (which kind of takes the wind out of the "safety feature becomes accidental toy industry icon" story...)

    If they drilled holes through the eyes and nose, and through the back of the head (two faced Lego man?), then I think they'd be on to something. Actually, a small Lego interface as a nose containing a hole would satisfy the choking and interface requirements. Hmmm... never mind.

    I'm not sure when they added the breathing hole, but I'm guessing it was before toy packaging, apparently, made it ok to design toys that children less than the indicated age could choke on. Segregation of the toy box at home should be so exact, right? It would make good press, and sense, of course, if toy manufacturers self-regulated (if they haven't?) and published a minimum set of safety requirements that all toys meet, regardless of the age printed on the box. 

  • Janak Vm

    I really would like to see how LEGO tested these 'air holes' to ensure that the work the way they are intended to. First make them small enough to be swallowed and then design an air hole to avoid choking...Try telling this to the parents who are going to buy the toys!!  

  • Guest

    And if it's swallowed and it turns the wrong way..? not helpful.. 
    Don't think they thought it through entirely.. 

  • Irene Velveteen

    So why don't the larger, pointer, more dangerous bricks have holes in them too? If anything, a headpiece would be the easiest to swallow. Just doesn't make sense.