Exercise: Learn to Build Graphics by Playing with Legos

University of Illinois at Chicago students use Legos to build bar charts during the second week of class. (Photo/Mike Reilley)

Before opening any design software, here’s a creative way for you to learn how to build a graphic.

Matt Waite, a professor of practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was searching for a way in 2015 to get his students to understand form, function and scaling a graphic. He reached back to his childhood for the answer – Legos

Waite had his students create bar charts using a set of Lego blocks to illustrate Super Bowl statistics. Students had to grapple with scale: what did each block size represent: 10 yards? 20? 100? 

Students worked in teams to scale the bar charts. Sticky notes can serve as labels and other “scaffolding” that Cairo refers to. The exercise is an effective way to help students understand design concepts before ever touching software.

“The Legos let them focus on representing the data with shape,” Waite told The American Journalism Review. “There wasn’t any, ‘Did I miss a semicolon? Did I use the wrong function? Did I press the wrong button?’”

In the past several years, professors from many other universities have experimented with using Legos. It works with many datasets – homicides, COVID-19, sports, etc. 


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