Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to become a better builder. People have asked me online and at conventions if I can give them any tips on how to improve their builds, and I feel honored that they should come to me for advice. This article is a brief look at the common characteristics which great MOCs share and a few ideas of how to improve one’s building. Because my knowledge in this area is far from complete, I’ve asked for advice from some of the top builders on the Internet; their combined feedback on ‘what makes a MOC great’ is an invaluable contribution to the topic. This article is also a work in progress; I really appreciate your feedback on how to make this article a better resource, and I plan to incorporate some of your ideas in future drafts, like I did with my previous article on LEGO® purism. ‘What Makes a MOC Great?’ is dedicated to my fellow builders who are serious about improving their craft. Thanks for reading, and I hope that you guys may find this helpful.
- Mini-Glossary: (You should be familiar with these terms before reading the article.)
Purism: The personal belief that the LEGO building experience is more enjoyable when LEGO models are constructed using only official, unaltered LEGO elements.
AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO): This term’s pretty self-explanatory; the acronym can be pronounced one letter at a time (‘A-F-O-L’) or simply spoken as ‘AY-foal.’
TLG (The LEGO Group): The company responsible for inventing and producing official LEGO products.
MOC (My Own Creation): An original LEGO model constructed by a LEGO fan; a model can either be a set (when it is officially produced by TLG) or a MOC (when it’s constructed by a LEGO fan). The acronym is generally pronounced ‘mock’ by the fan community.
NPU (Nice Part Usage): A creative way of using a given LEGO element in a model that is new to the viewer. Unfortunately, this descriptive term has become somewhat of a cliché in the last few years.
- What Makes a MOC Great?
“A great MOC is one that the builder likes. If the builder likes it, that’s all that really matters.”
Tyler Clites [Username: Legohaulic]
First off, how are we defining ‘great’ in this article? I believe that a MOC is great when it achieves its purpose and is virtually the best it can be at fulfilling that purpose. With this definition, every MOC can be great depending on its purpose. Like I mentioned before, if you’re just building something for your own enjoyment, that’s great; however, if you’re reading this article, you probably desire to share your work with others in the hope that they enjoy it too. In that case, your MOC’s purpose (pleasing your viewers) depends on their standards (their likes/dislikes), and the question becomes, “What do people like about MOCs?” Listed below are some of the most common favorable attributes of popular MOCs, as found in comments by viewers. People typically say they enjoy MOCs that are:
-Detailed; the builder has gone to the trouble to include a large amount of special surface variation (or information) within a small amount of space.
-Realistic; the MOC’s purpose is to closely resemble a given subject, and it does so to the extent that the MOC doesn’t look like it’s composed of LEGO elements.
-A creative choice of LEGO elements (think NPU); the MOC uses existing LEGO elements in ways that are new to the viewers.
-Functional; the MOC contains “working” mechanical and/or electrically-powered features.
These are just a few of the aspects that viewers appreciate in the MOCs that they consider to be great. However, there are many models that share these characteristics but aren’t considered ‘great;’ they fail to engage many viewers, and for one reason or another, they just don’t stand out from the horde of other MOCs that are out there. What is different about the great MOCs versus the good ones?
What common traits do great MOCs share which help set these models apart? To go a little deeper, I decided to pose the question, “What makes a MOC great?” to some of the most celebrated builders in the AFOL community. Often, these individuals have been blogged by the likes of The Brothers Brick and BrickNerd, featured in publications such as BrickJournal and HispaBrick, and/or selected as winners in major competitions such as Iron Builder, the MOCathalons, and other building challenges. My reason for contacting these people was simple; they have repeatedly produced MOCs that stand out from the crowd, and despite the hundreds of other incredible MOCs that have come before, these builders know how to keep putting a different spin on LEGO, to keep improving themselves, and to keep catching the viewer’s eye. I was really encouraged by the responses they gave me; many of the AFOLs I contacted were very kind and quickly provided me with material I could include in this article. Their help and encouragement is greatly appreciated, and I hope that they may find this article an interesting read. (If you’re not familiar with their work, be sure to check out their galleries!)
“I think what makes a MOC great is first and foremost the builder’s own satisfaction with it. Beyond that, I think an interesting subject matter, clever or new usage of parts and building techniques, and making people say, ‘I didn’t know it was LEGO!’ all contribute to making a MOC great.” –Bruce Lowell (Username: Bruceywan)
“A great MOC is one that leaves an impression on the viewer whether through its quality of construction, innovative theme, or sheer size. Every memorable creation has at least one feature of being intricate, novel, or grandiose.” –Nannan Zhang (Username: Nannan Z.)
“MOCs are art so it follows that a great MOC should adhere to the elements of art and the principles of design. Things like color theory, shape, balance, unity, etc. all play a crucial part in creating a MOC of art.
“A great MOC is one that is presented well. If you’re taking a photo of the model, take time to do it right and show off all your hard work.” –Tyler Clites (Username: Legohaulic)
“The best MOCs are the ones that showcase the talent, hard work, and personality of the artist. They may manifest these qualities differently from builder to builder, but the variety is what makes the LEGO community diverse and unique. Viewers think one creation is better than another just based on how the variety and style appeals to their tastes. This is why the best MOCs can withstand critical peer review and are acclaimed in the public eye. They have both the talent that we LEGO fans appreciate, and the beauty and fineness of form that the public likes to see.” –Blake Baer (Username: Blake’s Baericks)
“In my opinion, the key to a successful MOC is that you should (a) do a lot of research before you begin building, (b) add many reasonable details to your creation while you are building, and (c) be patient and try to put as much effort into taking pictures of your MOC as you have put into building it.” –Thorsten Bonsch (Username: Xenomurphy)
“The most important characteristic that all great models share is originality. Whether in subject matter or technique, a model that is unique is always better than one that is ordinary.” –Jordan Schwartz (Username: Sir Nadroj)
“There are a lot of things that come together in a good model. Build techniques, in the sense of using clever combinations of parts oriented in a certain way to recreate a shape are just part of it. I think the overall look of a model is more important than specific techniques and to get that right, plenty of care and attention should be given to the bits that might not seem all that exciting.” –Ralph Savelsberg (Username: Mad physicist)
"A great MOC is a creation that breathes artistic life into simple bricks; evoking feelings in the viewer of inspiration, excitement, nostalgia, or exploration. It inspires gateways to the imagination, and the awe of ingenuity or grandeur." -Sean and Steph Mayo (Username: Siercon and Coral)
“A great MOC inspires others to build.”
“There’s a small window or opportunity to grab a viewer’s attention. A good MOC is able to get it and a great MOC can hold it.” –Mike Nieves (Username: retinence)
“First, I feel that it would benefit our community to get away from the term MOC – I prefer the word ‘build’ because it better signifies our process.
“…There are countless ‘good’ builds, and even ‘excellent’ builds, but I feel for a build to be ‘great,’ it needs to contribute something new and original to the world, convey some sort of sense of who the builder is and what they have to say, and have some sort of connection to the larger world. There are many technically excellent builds that utilize brilliant techniques and part usage, but this alone cannot make a build ‘great.’ [For it] to truly be a great build, a connection must occur between the viewers and the creator that connotes a deeper meaning beyond an assembled collection of plastic interlocking bricks.” –Dave Kaleta (Username: davekaleta)
“The creative act does not create something out of nothing. It uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. Typically, the more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole.”
“Good design isn’t just good looks. People don’t buy aesthetics, they buy emotions. They want an experience: what it does for them, how it behaves, how it works for them. And most importantly, how it makes them feel.” –Robert Brunner
- How to Improve One’s Building: Some Ideas
So now that we know what makes a MOC great, how do we apply this to our design/building process? Here are some ideas that have helped me improve over the years, which you may find helpful:
-If you’re not already posting your own creations online and you’re just looking at other builders’ work, you are missing out on a huge opportunity for constructive feedback. This also applies to people who attend LEGO fan conventions and exhibitions but don’t bring anything of their own to display. It is okay if your MOCs don’t look that polished compared to other people’s work; everyone has to start somewhere, and you’ll get better with practice, especially if you can look at your MOCs through other builders’ eyes. They’ll see things you hadn’t considered and give you tips on how to refine the model, but only if you allow them to see it! Building for an audience, especially in a contest, will make you more conscientious about both the quality and presentation of your work, and these will certainly improve as a result.
-Comment on other builders’ work. When you analyze another person’s model and take the time to give them constructive criticism in written form, you help them out by showing them what would make their MOC better. By doing so, you also benefit yourself as well by developing an eye for what improves a MOC and being able to look at your own models more objectively. (You also strengthen your relationships with others in the community, which is another plus!)
-Get the color(s) right! There is nothing more distracting about a MOC than if the color is wrong; the human eye will typically see color before shape, images, text, and any other elements. If you don’t have enough pieces in the right color, and you’re striving for realism, then you should probably buy more pieces or build something else. (Everybody starts off building rainbow-colored MOCs and eventually moves on to fully coordinated color-schemes when they improve.)
-Squeeze as much detail as you can into the model’s available space, unless you are intentionally going for a simple or sentimental look. Try to refine every aspect of the MOC, whether it is a life-size car or a microscale boat. Don’t waste this opportunity to show that you take pride in your work and that you want it to be the very best it can be. Keep tweaking the model even after it’s “finished.” If you take the time to get every detail right, people will notice immediately.
-Be a purist and challenge yourself to build only with official, unmodified LEGO elements. If you’ve grown up in North America and/or bought secondhand LEGO bricks in bulk, you have probably picked up some clone parts from cheap toy brands like MEGA-Bloks, Tyco, etc. If you have any of these floating around in your collection (like I once did), be sure to get rid of them. These parts are usually very poor in quality (with discoloration, cracking, and lack of proper connectivity being common), and many viewers will be impressed if you can stick with just LEGO elements and not ‘cheat.’ See my article on purism for more details.
-Pore over LEGO catalogs, magazines, and set reviews, and become ridiculously familiar with all the different parts that TLG has released in their building sets over the years. Go ‘window-shopping’ on Bricklink and stay current on what parts have been produced in what colors. Keep track of new elements that have been released this year and what sets they’re included with. The better you know the LEGO System (which includes its relatives, such as the Technic, Bionicle, Duplo, and even Znap Systems), the more easily you can determine the best possible parts to use when you’re building. You may even start to ‘see in LEGO,’ where your brain automatically starts to break everyday objects that you see into possible parts-connections as you daydream. (Your friends and family will think you’re weird, but your building will definitely improve!)
-Practice your photography, especially your use of lighting and perspective. Focus (literally) on the aspects you want your viewers to see, and don’t overwhelm them with a distracting background. Let the pictures provide a simple, straightforward presentation to the viewer. If your MOC is really complex, that’s great; however, if its visual presentation looks too complicated to the viewer, they may not take the time to appreciate it, and click, they’re looking at something else. While they’re not essential to a good presentation, photo-editing programs like Photoshop and GIMP can make any picture look better; be sure to check these out!
-When you push the envelope in your building and try to achieve things that no one has done before, there will are many times when you run into difficulties, the project becomes a drag, and you are tempted to give up and try building something that is less ambitious. Don’t give up; if you get stuck on a problem, take a short break and do something else before coming back to it with a fresh perspective (and hopefully, a better chance of finding a solution). My greatest and most innovative MOCs are often the ones that I don’t feel like finishing; be patient and remember that it is often easier to build something up once you’ve “broken it down” into smaller, more manageable subsystems. When you start a project, work on the complicated components separately and solve the most difficult problems first. If you manage to get the hard parts out of the way first, the remaining parts of the model will seem much easier (and enjoyable) to complete, and it will be smooth sailing from there.
-Strike a good balance in the MOC between looks, functions, and durability. Know which one of these is most important to you, but be careful to maximize the amount of all three in the design decisions you make. A mosaic that looks really cool would be even more impressive if it was strong enough to resist breaking in transport and had extra working features, like a lenticular surface and motorized functions. An advanced robot with sophisticated working features and a strong skeletal frame would be even better if it was covered with a realistically-sculpted shell that concealed its mechanics and kept its features a surprise until the opportune moment.
-Remember to have fun! If you’re using LEGO and you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong. Relax and try not to take the hobby too seriously; remember why you started building with LEGO bricks in the first place. Both the journey and the destination are important in any creative endeavor; be sure to enjoy and learn from each stage of the project.
- Closing Statement:
These are just a few of the many things you could do to improve your building and create great MOCs. As I mentioned in the introduction, this article is a work-in-progress; as I find more ideas on how to improve one’s building, I hope to keep adding to the article. This is also where you guys come in with your comments; please feel free to join the conversation and share any tips or ideas you have regarding the topic.
Really good read. This will help in my future mocs! P.S. Sorry I took so long to comment on this, computer is messed up. But now I have an iPhone. Hopefully this will get better pics than my last phone. :-)
Quoting Chris K
Wow, great article! I can tell that you put a lot of work into it, and I as a builder appreciate your effort. I hope to upload a new creation in a month or so, I've been really busy lately!
Thanks for your comment, Chris! I'm not going to ask what your new MOC is (I like keeping projects under wraps myself), but I'm really looking forward to seeing it when you post it!
Keep building, ~Cole
Thanks a lot for your comment, Evan! I really appreciate your thoughtful critique (hopefully I'll find and get all the grammatical errors fixed up soon!) and am grateful for all the feedback I get from my readers like you! ~Keep building, Cole
May 16, 2014
Excellent article. The builder's quotes are particularly illuminating. I'd love to see this idea extended even further, with case studies of some of the "Great MOCs", including some insight into the builders' processes of creating them.
That was really helpful. I appreciate the time you took to put this together. Where you said eventually you'll see the world in LEGO, as primarily a minifig customizer, I tend to see people in Minifigure; thinking about what face or hair would best represent that person. One thing I noticed was a few grammatical errors but nothing too serious. Also you may want to reduce the amount of quotes as they're a bit lengthy; not that it's really all that necessary but there are quite a few of them. Keep up the good work!
Thank you for your comments, guys! I really appreciate your feedback, and I think that Matt has done a great job of expressing the necessity of critical feedback (constructive criticism) which artists need so that they can improve themselves. I also hope that nobody feels uncomfortable leaving any criticisms here if they think this article could use some improvements. Thanks for reading, and keep building! ~Cole
I agree with Matt, looking at comments on my builds almost all of them are short, and completely positive. though I do love to see these kind words I like even more the suggestions to improve. most times this goes unwritten. leaving me to assume the build is at its best, and I should not experiment with it to improve it. that said most times I fiddle with builds after I post them to correct little things that bug me.
Great article! You definitely gathered the essentials of what makes a MOC a great one. If you can't capture the interest of the people with the first picture of your MOC, then you've missed your chance. Thanks for the time and effort put into this article!
Fantastic article and definitely worth a read from everyone. You hit on many of the major points of which I believe the most important being Have Fun. This is truly an emergent and valid Art form. As such, it is our responsibility to foster and nurture it. This, like other Art, is about purposeful and deliberate communication with ourselves and the viewers. The concepts are important, the execution is vital, and the expression is necessary. Additionally, there is an air of apprehension in giving constructive criticism, possibly the most useful tool for any Artist. In this day and age where everyone is afraid of hurting someone's feelings, we comment solely in the positive. Negative comments are not necessarily bad by nature. They must be structured appropriately so as not to extend the barriers in defense, but they must also be received as helpful. The end result won't simply be a great moc but a great mocer. Sorry for rambling, I'm a bit passionate about the subject. ;)