Update 14 Oct 2017: my Lego Ideas project submission, Planetary Outpost, has been accepted. Please visit my page there, support, and help spread the word. If you want to see this as a set, we need 10,000 votes for Lego to consider the idea!
Designing with Lego offers you amazing creativity and versatility, but there’s actually one major drawback: unless you’ve got tons of pieces, there will come a point when what you want to create is hampered by the parts you don’t own.
This is where the virtual world comes in most handy. In it, the parts constraint evaporates and you can focus on what you want to create.
LEGO have obliged and have created an app for Mac or PC called Lego Digital Designer, or LDD for short.
In the sense of playing with unlimited bricks, LDD does its job well. But there are limitations. For one thing, not all bricks are available, especially not any of the ones more recently created by LEGO themselves. There’s an “extended” LDD mode where some further parts are available, but that’s a cumbersome way to find what you’re looking for.
Further, although it appears to display all available colors for those parts, that’s not actually the case: some colors are no longer produced and some parts are available in colors not listed in LDD. So if colors are important to your project, you need to regularly check with LEGO’s replacement parts site and Bricklink to make sure what you want to create can actually be created in the first place.
The biggest bugbear: you’re creating a 3D object in a 2D environment, so sometimes, LDD will struggle to understand where you want a specific piece placed. You then have to rotate, move around and zoom in or out, until it “gets” where the piece you’re holding has to be placed. This can be so frustrating at times.
There are other designer apps available out there. I took the time to try one other, Stud.io by the people behind the Bricklink website.
I like Stud.io a lot. The interface is sleeker, you can see the bricks you’ve placed on your model (if they’re all the same color, LDD just gives you a big block of color without any clue as to which parts are used), and the best part of all, it’s linked to the Bricklink database, so not only can you get an idea of much your model can cost, when you’re ready, you can place an order straight from the app and Bricklink will find the best merchants to fulfill your needs.
Sadly, it too suffers from the 3D/2D brick placement issues, and as far as I’ve been able to determine, it lacks one big feature which LDD has: the ability to create a manual to recreate your design with real bricks.
I find that feature crucial, especially since my project currently has over 1,300 pieces (!). Without LDD’s “Building guide mode”, I think I’d be seriously lost.
And I don’t want to be lost: you see, after months of design and four major revisions, I think I’m finally ready to order the parts I need! And it’s gonna be a big order, one I know LEGO won’t be able to fulfill alone – I’m also going to need to access Bricklink for those elusive colors!
So I’m going to get the best of both worlds: design in LDD, export to Stud.io to order the parts I need via Bricklink, then go back to LDD for its vital guide mode (I can go from LDD to Stud.io but not the other way around it seems).
It’s an exciting moment… I just hope I don’t radically change the design between now and the time the parts arrive (I’m a compulsive tweaker)!