Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us as we continue our newest series: Interview with an AFOL. In the following weeks, every Tuesday and Friday, we will be having interviews with AFOLs of different kinds. There will be photographers, collectors, builders, animators, and even bloggers! We’ll try to learn a little more about them and see how they came to love the plastic brick (or people) we all love. Some of these AFOLs are well known throughout the community, while others, not so much. No matter who they are, they are all incredible people who have at least one thing in common: Love for LEGO.
Today we have Tim Johnson, the founder and admin of New Elementary (left in the picture below).
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Australian, but lived in London virtually all of my adult life before returning to live in Melbourne recently. Strange timing, as it is proving difficult to resettle in the midst of a pandemic! I’m 49 which if you do the math means I was the perfect LEGO age when minifigures first appeared. Space was my main passion. I have clear memories of being thrilled by new elements too… I distinctly remember the 1×3 brick being introduced and it blowing my mind! Simpler times eh.
How did your journey with LEGO begin?
I’m not quite sure what triggered it, but I was 39 and having a pre-40 crisis! The Architecture range convinced me LEGO was adult enough to purchase and Fallingwater was my ‘conversion’ set. I quickly made friends on the Brickset Forum and then met them IRL at a show/convention in Manchester. Many of them remain really important buddies in my life today, like Kev Gascoigne and Pete Reid.
What about your journey with blogging?
I was lucky enough to get a place on the Inside Tour in 2013 and when I met designer Mark Stafford there. I complained about the lack of information about new parts online. He politely shrugged and said, well, why don’t you do it? I was so fired up after that experience, I did it. I figured I’d lose interest after 6 months or so.
What do the people around you (friends/family/spouse/children) think about your obsession?
Oh, everyone is pretty excited by it in my family and they’re good enablers… they keep telling me to apply to LEGO Masters (but that’s not my thing at all)… Friends think it’s cool too, although some do wonder what life choice led me here. It’s a good question frankly!
What is your favorite theme?
It is still Architecture. It was getting a bit tired a few years ago but I think designer Rok Kobe really elevated the theme, with his astonishing attention to techniques and part usage. Of course I still adore Space but we don’t get ‘proper’ Space themes these days! Alien Conquest was awesome.
You are the admin of one of the most unique LEGO blogs. Can you tell us about your journey with New Elementary?
It was just my little thing at the start, there was a lot more ‘journal’ style of content. It has changed a lot since then, even in its tone. This is partly because of the way things have scaled up both in terms of output and number of people involved. Having Elspeth De Montes come on board was a massive change for me; she has an amazing energy and was great at doing things I would not, inspiring me to do them. I’ve brought many amazing people on board over the years, and sadly they sometimes move on, too. In the cases of Sven Franic and Chris McVeigh though, happily this was to become product designers at TLG!
Do you only manage the blogs, or do you write yourself as well?
I wrote every article myself for quite a while; nowadays I barely write any. I’d love to write more, but the admin is just too all-consuming. I’ve also written for DK Publishing (as well as building models for them) and for 2 years I was Editor of the magazine Bricks Culture. That was a real passion for me – a high end product made for adults, very similar to the approach TLG are now taking with adults – but sadly the owners were terrible businessmen and the whole thing folded. But the quality of that magazine still remains, I was really happy to be able to curate and provide a platform for fantastic talent – which is also a big aspect to New E for me too.
Your blog is recognized by LEGO. Was that hard to achieve? Can you tell us about the process of becoming a RLFM?
It was very easy because they approached me. This was only about 6 months after I started and was during the time Kim Thomsen was first setting up the RLFM program, so it was quite informal and there weren’t many of us involved. Of course, the big guns like Brickset were there, so it was pretty astonishing that Kim was reaching out to me, just one guy writing the occasional nerdy post about parts! But his ethos was to support sites – big or small, established or quite new – who the community clearly value. Kim could see the unique value of New E, and wasn’t shy about telling me that many LEGO employees read it. So that was all just mindblowing to me… and to then start receiving pre-release sets to review was just thrilling and a true support that gave the site a real attraction. I’m positive I would have given up on the blog soon enough if Kim hadn’t supported me like that.
Nowadays it is all very different and formal: there is the LEGO Ambassador Network which is a forum for all RLFMs, RLUGs and RLOCs to interact with each other and TLG. The support process is formalised, as is the application process. You can read about that on lan.lego.com. Kim sadly is no longer at TLG but what has not changed however is that vision of supporting the sites that provide value to the community. Check out the list of RLFM on the LAN; there is a massive variety in terms of what they focus on and how they use their support!
What has been your biggest challenge during this time?
Inevitably, you hit lows. The challenge there is that the site feels like an unstoppable machine. I’ve taken my ‘foot off the pedal’ many times over the years but I’ve never stopped altogether. I think the key at those times is your collaborators – turn to them for support, or seek more collaborators. There’s nothing like sharing a passion to raise your momentum! It is also important to branch out into uncomfortable territory, one example of this for me was realising I could not afford to spend the money and time I was putting into the site. I asked readers for financial support and we now have over 60 pledgers to our Patreon.
What would you say to those who want to blog?
Everyone will tell you it’s a bigger time investment than you expect: boy, is that true! It’s a fantastic way to learn or improve writing skills. Be yourself. Don’t just imitate the voice or tone of existing LEGO sites – naturally, you will be inspired by them but if you just try to be them, you’ll likely not do as well and you won’t enjoy it as much as saying what you really want to say. So be original. That’s not easy in the crowded environment of LEGO sites these days, but if you want to stand out and if you want to obtain RLFM status, your best chance is to provide something valuable no one else is providing. Nobody needs another standard news and reviews site… unless you have a great new take on it!
And that’s it, folks! Thank you, Tim, for having this interview with us and letting us take a sneak peek into your world. As for everyone else, don’t forget to check the New Elementary Instagram page and website. It’s pretty unique and provides some very interesting take on LEGO parts!