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Looking back to what LEGO offered in the 1980s and early 1990s (oh, those memories ...), it looks a lot like LEGO's colour palette had been limited to a small number of colours - unless I'm missing something, and just counting non-transparent colours now, mostly:

  • white
  • black
  • red
  • blue
  • yellow
  • light grey

But wait: A couple of other colours had been around for a long time, but had only been used for quite special elements for many years:

  • dark gray (some other castle accessories, such as minifig swords, at least since 1981 ... before the colour started getting slightly more widespread in actual buildings in the shape of BURPs, starting in 1993)
  • brown (some castle accessories, such as minifig spears or bows with arrows, at least since 1984 ... until LEGO finally started using some brown for trees instead of approximating them with black around 1993)
  • green (granted, this one appeared as plates in castle sets at least since 1984, but was otherwise mostly reserved to plant parts, baseplates, and special decorative elements such as flags ... until around 1992, when the fictional Octan gasoline brand was introduced and green started becoming a "mainstream" colour)

Now, I am aware I have not listed all the parts that ever came in the respective colours; my point is that, at least in my impression, these three colours listed above were mainly used for a rather small number of accessories or other specific elements for many years, as opposed to seeing widespread use as regular plates and bricks, compared to the other aforementioned colours.

Is there any known reason in terms of business/design decisions/the material used for each of the colours for this?

  • 5
    The actual light grey is actually a fairly rare color. The lighter of the 2 common greys is actually medium grey, with light grey appearing only rarely (in sets like Thok and King Mathias). – Alexander O'Mara Dec 17 '19 at 4:51
  • 1
    @AlexanderO'Mara: and in certain NXT components. – Phil B. Dec 17 '19 at 10:53
  • This doesn’t detract from your main point, but Lego had “started using some brown for trees” already by 1989, in the palm trees of the Pirates sets, eg Forbidden Island. As you say, though, this was still specialised pieces, not ordinary blocks. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Dec 17 '19 at 12:49
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine: Right, "brown for trees" was an oversimplification. Pirates also brought brown ship hulls, brown ship ladders, brown oars, and some more pieces like the small wooden barrels had probably been around in Castle even a bit earlier. But, yes, this arguably makes it even more noteworthy that of all pieces, standard bricks in these colours were conspicuously absent, especially considering that Pirates did feature other wooden structures where wood was mimicked with black pieces (parts of pirate buildings, the crane on the imperial palace, etc.). – O. R. Mapper Dec 17 '19 at 12:52
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    Set 125 in 1974 had a 10x20 green brick. It was one brick tall and had connecting tubes around the bottom edge, so it's technically a brick. – shoover Dec 17 '19 at 14:29
45

The answer I've heard the most (with a source citing the official confirmation) is that green, brown and gray bricks were omitted from the LEGO palette because the company wanted to discourage kids from building tanks, planes, and other realistic military hardware.

  • 13
    Wow. Never thought of this one, though when enumerating the colours as "green, brown and gray", the possible connection to camouflage becomes immediately obvious. – O. R. Mapper Dec 17 '19 at 10:19
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    There is some further evidence to this theory. – T. Sar Dec 17 '19 at 12:47
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    Though they had no problem including various types of guns (both in the space and pirate sets), and even working cannons (though they sadly backtracked on that one later). There was also an extensive variety of medieval weapons in the castle sets. So - ancient and futuristic weapons are okay, but modern ones aren't? – Darrel Hoffman Dec 17 '19 at 14:28
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    I have to say, the lack of colours never stopped me from producing machines of war. You should have seen my bedroom the day after I sneakily saw Top Gun...... – Moo Dec 18 '19 at 3:05
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    @Criggie Right, but don't forget, the plant pieces were made of polyethylene instead of ABS, which made them softer and more pliable. However, the existence of the green "baseplate" brick mentioned in a comment by shoover above proves that green ABS was indeed used, just not for basic bricks. – zovits Dec 18 '19 at 7:43
26

Early LEGO colors were inspired by the work of Mondriaan, which mainly consists of white, black, red, blue and yellow. These primary colors were considered to be most appealing to kids.

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From the book “Brick by Brick”:

The new product was patented in 1958 and within a few years bright yellow, red and blue Lego bricks, colours inspired by the paintings of the Dutch Modernist painter Piet Mondrian, were scattered across the floors of millions of homes.

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    Interesting, but is this just speculation, or do you have any references to back this up? – O. R. Mapper Dec 17 '19 at 8:19
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    From the book “Brick by Brick”: The new product was patented in 1958 and within a few years bright yellow, red and blue Lego bricks, colours inspired by the paintings of the Dutch Modernist painter Piet Mondrian, were scattered across the floors of millions of homes. – Phil B. Dec 17 '19 at 10:51
  • @Keeta-reinstateMonica Done! – Phil B. Dec 18 '19 at 3:18
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    Does Brick by Brick indicate in any way their source for this? The use of primary colors in kids’ products is pretty wide-spread, and I have doubts that Piet was the direct inspiration for that in a variety of settings. Something from LEGO themselves would seem necessary to cement this claim. – KRyan Dec 18 '19 at 4:55
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    This justification was also used in the documentary The Toys That Made Us. – Amedee Van Gasse Dec 19 '19 at 12:57
15

A practical engineering concern could be a reason to limit the colours used for molding in ABS plastic.

The colourant added to the base plastic can affect the physical properties of the molded part. Depending on how tight the dimensional tolerances are for the finished part a separate mold may be required for each colour.

Perhaps the Lego group process engineers have enough controls in the automated molding process now to tweak the mold setups to compensate for the variations induced by the colourants.

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    You may be on to something there, given that the early swords may indeed be somewhat softer, as were various of the earlier green pieces (old trees and whips, for example - but obviously not the plates), pointing to differences in the material. Do you have any references to back this up? – O. R. Mapper Dec 17 '19 at 8:24
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    @O.R.Mapper I'm fairly sure those pieces were deliberately made in softer material to be slightly movable, to avoid breaking. They're generally things containing longer or thinner pieces that would easily be subjected to accidental damaging force. I doubt this is related to the colour. – Nyerguds Dec 17 '19 at 13:15
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    @Nyerguds: Certainly. In the case of whips, for instance, they are intentionally softer as they are meant to be bent for some sets. I rather thought of it the other way round: Maybe certain colours were somehow easier or cheaper to manufacture with soft materials, so they were used for parts that were always manufactured from softer material in the regular colours, as well. – O. R. Mapper Dec 17 '19 at 20:05
14

I have a background in precision injection moulding, although not to the extremely tight tolerances of Lego. Here's why a manufacturer would try to reduce the number of colours they used, particularly in the old days.

Most resin (the raw material) nowadays comes pre-coloured, especially for a large customer like Lego. That wasn't the case fifty or sixty years ago: we used to get white resin and colour it with powdered pigment. This operation would have to be repeated for each batch of each colour, a batch being (in the old days) a cement mixer's worth of resin. Between colours you would need to clean the mixer out thoroughly, because a small amount of the wrong pigment could contaminate many pieces. The contamination would be hard to see: try examining 1,000 pieces for a small swirl of the wrong colour!

If the colour of a moulded piece was off we would have to re-grind it, add more pigment / plain resin and re-mould it. We couldn't do that for pieces of different colours, or for badly contaminated pieces. We had the advantage of manufacturing some products in black that would hide most discolourations, so we would reserve contaminated material for those.

Moulding machines used to have a hopper above the machine, and the coloured resin would literally be carried up a ladder and poured inside. To switch between colours we would generally run the hopper until it was almost empty, possibly add some plain or disposable reground material to "purge" it, and then add the new material. A certain amount of pieces would necessarily be contaminated by the old colour, which meant that changing colours for small batches could be quite wasteful. Nowadays we have vacuum feeders instead of large hoppers. We still have the problem of colour contamination, but this has been reduced by better mould design.

Speaking of moulds, older moulds used to convey the plastic down a channel to the moulds for the individual pieces. When the mould emptied the channels, called sprues, would separate or be sepaarated from the puieces and reground. There would invariably be a certain amount of this material left at the end of a job, and it could be a pain keeping track of it for next time.

When you add these costs in time/quality together it's easy to see that (keeping the total number of pieces constant) adding extra colours rapidly increases your overheads. It isn't just the fixed cost of changeover and storage, but the potential for things going wrong. I think this would have given Lego a good reason to reduce the number of colours they used, particularly when the firm was smaller and technology wasn't as advanced.

  • Thanks for this detailed answer, and welcome to Bricks.SE! – jncraton Dec 19 '19 at 3:57
  • LEGO used to produce bricks from pre-coloured raw material, however they've switched base+color pellets nowadays. I'm not entirely sure why (probably due to cost saving), but this introduced problems with color consistency, which is still hasn't been resolved until today. – Alex Feb 17 at 13:44
4

Manufacturing logistics play a part in this decision. If you have to maintain six different dyes or pellet hopper combinations in the injection molding pipeline in your factory, that is a different story in terms of cost than maintaining sixteen or thirty hopper combinations or dye vats. If the pellets are pre-dyed (as I believe was the case), sourcing these will depend on the logistics of and the options made available by the supplier.

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    It's known that LEGO has had problems sourcing red and yellow colours that did not contain cadmium, but no such problems have been known about green, brown or grey. – zovits Dec 18 '19 at 7:27
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    Also, the existence of the green "baseplate" brick mentioned in a comment by shoover above proves that green ABS was indeed used, just not for basic bricks. – zovits Dec 18 '19 at 7:44
3

Most bricks in sets are picked from large bins of a given colour/shape when making up a set, and used in many different sets. Hence there is a cost advantage to limiting the number of colours and hence the number of different brick.

  • So, why did (the importance of?) that cost advantage gradually change or vanish starting toward the end of the 1980s? – O. R. Mapper Dec 18 '19 at 19:56
  • @O.R.Mapper I expect automatic systems for picking bricks from many bins, and increased production levels. Along with them wishing to create more realistic models. – Ian Ringrose Dec 19 '19 at 15:07

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