While LEGO are widely used in museums and schools for sculpture, building, robotics, and all sorts of creative play, our project, “What Color is ______?” at the 2018 Wisconsin Science Festival, marks the first time that LEGO has been used to conduct a large-scale survey and to store and visualize the findings in real time.

Over two summer pilot tests and four days in October, more than 2,000 children visiting UW Madison’s Discovery Building participated avidly in our project. We asked them to answer 21 questions about themselves and the world using only 2×4 multi-colored LEGO blocks in 12 colors. Each child’s “answers” in this LEGO language formed a vertical stack 21 blocks high. Here are some of those stacks combined together into mini walls in the window of the Discovery Building.

Kids—along with their families, friends, and teachers—often sat for 15 or 20 minutes discussing their responses and building their stacks, before putting them in one of the window racks designed by our team. The project ultimately filled a dozen of the windows, which drew attention from visitors inside and out, bringing additional traffic.

What did we ask?

Using the template below, designed by the WID staff, we asked each visitor 21 questions, all of the form “What color block do the words below make you think of?

You’ll likely notice that the questions move from the concrete at the bottom to the poetic at the top. You may also notice that they fall into four types:

  • Questions 1–4 ask the child to encode information according to simple system that we provided, e.g. If you are age 0­–5, put in a red block.
  • Questions 5, 6, 7, and 12 ask the child to makes factual observations about the world:  What color is the sky right now? or What color is your shirt?
  • Questions 8, 9, and 10 ask the child about personal preferences: What color is your favorite food or What color is your favorite song?
  • Questions 11, and 13–21 ask the child to make abstract/poetic associations to colors: What color is justice? hope? anger?

Storing, manipulating, and analyzing

By inspecting and observing the wall of blocks, many people will be intrigued to find how often that “love” is red and “hope” is blue. Going beyond this, team member and UW computer scientist Kevin Ponto built a program that allows the colored LEGO stacks to be “translated” into Excel tables via a phone camera or flatbed scanner.

So we go from this…

…to this…

…which allows the data to then be manipulated and analyzed in all the conventional ways, a new way to explore thoughts and feelings.

We saw very high levels of enthusiasm and engagement for making the stacks. Interestingly, the surface absurdity of the more poetic questions not only entertained everyone (both the adults and the children), but also provoked unique reflection on topics like justice or friendship. Overall, our experience was that LEGO offer many unique advantages as tools for (a) finding out about what people think, and (b) presenting that information back to them in an immediate and delightful way. In addition, team member and UW psychology professor Karen Schloss is ensuring that our work is informed by cutting-edge research on color association and interpretation.

Our plan is to explore these and other approaches, as well as develop our software in upcoming work in the Discovery Building’s sciences programs and with other museums and festivals.

Stuart Flack is playwright and policy researcher and senior fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. He was University of Wisconsin Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence for 2018, teaching and working at the intersection of data visualization and performance.