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.
[Hat tip: Reddit]