Above the Fold: Dan Winger, Senior Concept Designer
In Above the Fold, we spotlight individual members of Coroflot's vibrant creative community. The idea is to take you behind the scenes and inside the minds of talented Coroflot members who we think are doing exceptional work. Coroflot was created by designers, for designers, and Above the Fold is the place where we can talk to creatives about work that we not only love, but think you'll love too!
Designers often talk about how their career is the result of having creative outlets as a kid, but how many can say they work for one of the company's that fostered that creativity? For the last five years Los Angeles-based Dan Winger has worked for LEGO as a Senior Concept Designer, the kind of job many designers (and probably a ton of kids) dream about. Specifically, Dan's work is with LEGO Future Lab, which, as he puts it, "functions like a start-up within The LEGO Group to drive radical innovation and invent the future of play." Dan also has some serious skills as an illustrator and a product designer, and has done freelance consulting projects for huge companies like L'Oreal, Bose, and JT Racing. Given the sheer scope and diversity of Dan's talents as a designer - and the awesome fact that he works for LEGO - we had to pick his brain.
Was there a specific moment in life where you realized you wanted to pursue a creative path?
Dan Winger: I was fortunate to have art classes in school starting from kindergarten, and had the same awesome art teacher through 8th grade, Mrs. Ellen Barth. I specifically remember an assignment from her in 5th grade using colored pencils to design a house. I drew a colorful Victorian style house with glowing yellow windows under a cool evening sky...I got carried away in the project. A couple years later, my dad built our family home from the ground up. I would help on the weekends and experienced the entire process of bringing it from a design drawing to finished product. So after high school, I decided to pursue a degree in architecture.
Who are your design heroes?
That's a tough question since design can mean so many things today, such as the strategic process of design thinking, creating intuitive user experiences, or making things look aesthetically appealing. Two personal heroes come to mind. First is Bob Ross, I loved watching him paint as a kid and even followed along with a few of his videos. He made art accessible to millions of people, inspired a generation of creative talent, and simply made the world a more beautiful place through his work and infectious positivity. Second is Bucky Fuller. Throughout college, I was fascinated by his breadth of work to make transportation, housing, cities and even the world operate more efficiently. Many of his projects did not gain mass production or adoption, but he highlighted how design and strategic thinking can solve big problems and better our world. There are many others, but these probably had the greatest impact in launching my journey.
You work for Lego, which, to many designers, would be a dream job. How did you end up with Lego and can you maybe tell us what is the most fun part about working for such an iconic, creative company?
I attended Art Center's GradID program and was working on my thesis project, Creatoys. It was a digital game with interactive instruments to provide music lessons for kids, with a curriculum focused on providing the knowledge, skills and inspiration for creative music making - teaching music more like art classes. The manager of LEGO Concept Lab, Martin Sanders, attended a review at the school, so I had an opportunity to share my project and creative process. Shortly after graduating I reconnected with Martin, started some freelancing, and was hired on to the LEGO Concept Lab team - growing the LA office to a team of two.
LEGO is a fantastic company and beloved by generations. One of the best parts is the reaction that happens when I tell people I'm a designer for LEGO. Their eyes light up, they quickly think back to their childhood, and respond with a favorite memory of LEGO. It's a great reminder that the work we do can create moments so special for kids that they will still remember and cherish them as adults.
Your Coroflot profile mentions that you drive radical innovation for Lego. Can you tell us a little bit more what this means and perhaps give us an example of a project that you've done that would fit this idea?
As a front-end innovation team, our role is to design and develop new opportunities for The LEGO Group beyond our existing portfolio. This may take the form of new products, experiences, digital media, services or business models. The LEGO Fusion sets are a great example as they bridged physical and digital creative play. In one of the experiences - Town Master - you can build, manage, and grow your own city. As you unlocked a new building in the app game, you then used physical bricks to create a building of your own design, scanned your design with your mobile device and it would appear as a 3D building in your virtual city. This created a continual loop of digital gaming to creative building with physical bricks. Not only did it deliver on an innovative experience, but it also challenged our established development process, distribution model, communication strategy, technical capabilities and more.
Can you share some details about your most recent project?
As a front-end innovation team our projects tend to have a three-year timeline from start to shelves. Therefore my work remains confidential for a few years, so unfortunately I cannot discuss much. I can mention that I'm currently working on a project for a 2019 launch and we're getting ready for our first in-home tests...but that's probably about it.
Walk us through some of your process for creating.
I use a mixture of the Design Thinking and the Lean Startup processes. There's a bit of similarities between the methods - they both involve an iterative cycle of prototyping, testing and refining - but each one has distinct advantages. The Design Thinking takes a human-centered approach to gain a better understanding the user, their needs, pain points and opportunities. While Lean Startup is a more scientific approach to validate or disprove a hypothesis with a minimum viable product - gaining meaningful learning from minimal effort. The first is a great way for sparking the idea, while the latter maximizes efficiency of the development process.
Are there any projects (professional or personal) that you are especially proud of?
Definitely, LEGO Fusion. It was the culmination of years of design development at the uncharted intersection of physical and digital play, and it won the 2015 E-Connected Toy of the Year Award. LEGO Worlds is another one. Similar concepts were being kicked around for years; to create the ultimate creative LEGO experience for the digital world. It started as a small project with two of us in LA designing the experience, features, tools and overall vision. As the project gained momentum it was transitioned over to our awesome Digital Games team for development, and it will be available for all consoles in February. There have also been a couple projects that I absolutely loved, but unfortunately never made it to market...but that's the nature of R&D teams.
What tools (physical or digital) do you find yourself using repeatedly?
Over the years, the focus of the projects have varied greatly; ranging from research, product design, web-based applications, video games, and even story and IP development. Therefore, I have used a variety of tools: Photoshop for visual development; Rhino, Lego Digital Designer, and SketchUp for 3D modeling; Unity for building digital games; POP for preliminary prototyping of web apps; Trello and Jira for project management; and, of course, LEGO bricks and physical prototyping materials. As a satellite studio, we need align with our team in Billund, Denmark and have adopted a few tools for remote collaboration: Mural has been great for creative design and development and Sneek for seamless face-to-face communication.
Is there any work out there that you've come across recently that you've really loved?
The work that I find most fascinating is coming from the tech industry. Over the last few years there have been massive breakthroughs in this space, such as computer vision, speech recognition, virtual reality, augmented reality, internet of things, and artificial intelligence. These technologies have provided designers an entirely new set of tools, new platforms, and opportunities for designing never-before-seen experiences. I think we are about to see major disruption in entertainment, and across many other industries.
Do you have a ritual for getting in work/design mode (music you listen to, certain exercise, food you eat) aka a productivity tip?
Nothing too specific. I find it important to have a clear understanding of long-term goals and short-term tasks, so you're spending your time on the right things. When in production mode, I work most efficiently when distractions are limited (often with headphones) so I can get in the zone and focus on the tasks at hand. I work from home a bit, so it helps to make a schedule for myself so personal time doesn't bleed into work time and vice-versa. Lately, my days have been starting at 6am to overlap and align with our team in Denmark.
Outside of your professional life, do you have any other creative outlets or hobbies?
With two little kids, I spend most of my time with the family. When I do have a spare minute, I enjoy sketching, fixing up our house, gardening, hiking, racquet sports, disc golf, reading, building things, and pursuing personal projects. I recently designed and built a custom playground for the kids and I am (slowly) writing and illustrating an offbeat children's book.
If you're stuck on a desert island and can only bring three (design) tools, what are they?
I love to sketch, but don't have much time for it lately. So being deserted on an island would be a great opportunity to sit back, relax, and sharpen my skills. I'd bring a large sketchpad, my 0.7mm Draft-Matic pencil with blue lead, and Pilot Precise V5 pens.
Do you have any tips for getting the most out of your Coroflot portfolio?
After completing grad school, I was very active on Coroflot. I would check out and study the work of other members to learn new skills and processes. It would also inspire new ideas for personal projects, which I would record in my sketchpad. In my free time, I'd refer to this giant list then begin to tackle some of the concepts to build up my portfolio...and have a bit fun. It's also been a great way to connect with creative professionals, get feedback on designs, land freelance work, and push myself to improve in various areas of design.