Spirographics: Designs from Yesterday, Lessons for Today

Note:  This post was originally published on the blog, The Prairie Sage.  Image credit: The Smithsonian  National American History Museum.

A few months ago I purchased a Spirograph kit for myself. A Spirograph is a drawing tool that had been a huge hit back in the sixties when it was first introduced as a child’s creative toy. It was a ridiculous purchase, and I almost felt guilty about it, but when I saw that the original kit of old had been re-issued, I simply couldn’t resist. I’m of an age now when the call to re-examine and re-explore the artifacts of my youth is at least as intriguing to me as speculating about the future (and sometimes more so). I’m drawn now to the mid-century jazz my dad was forever playing on his stereo back home. I find myself lingering long at ephemera stalls at flea markets that feature print ads I remember from long ago. I’ve begun collecting teachers’ edition textbooks from my era as a student. There’s comfort in nostalgia. You can find rest there, and peace, too, because it’s completely devoid of suspense; you already know how the story of your past life works out, how the pieces all come together. But my newfound interest in looking back is not so much a desire to retreat as it is an interest in discovering little treasures or insights I might have missed the first time around. Our collective history is essentially a long, arduous working out of ideas. The stuff we remember—the vintage ads, the Spirograph—is an expression or materialization of ideas at a very specific point in their development. Some of these ideas have utility in our day. The Spirograph, for example, was intended as a child’s toy when it was introduced, and I myself passed many an hour using one to make circle-doodles all over the covers of my school notebooks back in the day. Now, as an adult, I’m finding new use for it as an aid in my design processes.

Image Credit: Spirographicart.com.

The History
The spirograph (little s) has a long history.  According to Wikipedia, it was invented around the end of the nineteenth century by the mathematician Bruno Abakanowicz for use in calculating an area delimited by curves.  The first drawing toys based on the movement of gears were introduced shortly thereafter.  “The Marvelous Wondergraph” was one such toy advertised in the 1908 edition of the Sears catalog.  The Spirograph (big S) that we know, however, was developed by a British engineer, Denys Fisher, who exhibited it at the 1965 Nuremberg International Toy Fair.  His company produced the toy.  It was introduced to the U.S. market in 1966, when Kenner, Inc. acquired U.S. distribution rights.  It was named Toy of the Year in 1967.   It’s still widely available in craft and toy retailers across the country.

How it Works
Spirograph is a gear-based drawing tool used to make geometric shapes and patterns. The original kit was composed of plastic rings (stators) with little teeth on their inside and outside circumferences, and a set of wheels (rotors) with holes in them through which the user inserts a ballpoint pen.  Holding the pen steady and ensuring the teeth of the wheel remain engaged with the teeth of the ring, the user guides the wheel in a circular motion.  The pen creates a new line with each circular pass, resulting in intricate, and often visually stunning, patterns, particularly when patterns are layered one on top of another.

Just a few of the designs that can be created with a spirograph.

Why the Spirograph is Cool
The best thing about the Spirograph is that it lends artistic ability to those who, without the tool, have very little.  I myself love color and imagery, and often think about how shapes and colors might be combined in new ways to produce various effects.  In other words, I have little images in my head that are dying to jump out and take form on paper.  Sadly, I have no natural talent for drawing.  My renderings are always crude and sloppy little things that bear no resemblance to that crystal clear picture I had imagined.  But the Spirograph is mechanical.  There is a refined, controlled uniformity in the patterns it produces.  If I can hold that pen steady and keep those gear teeth engaged, even I can produce little pieces of art.

The Spirograph is also cool because, while you can take a deliberate approach to your designs by planning each pattern in advance, you can also allow yourself to discover designs that result from the random selection of rings and wheels.  Some of my favorite patterns are those that have arrived through this random approach.

Image credit: Spirographicart.com.

What the Spirograph Can Bring to the Design Process
When I started fooling around with my new Spirograph, my intent was to just use it as a mindless stress-management exercise—something to do at the end of a long day to unwind.  But in using it to make circle after circle after circle, I’ve found that the exercise can bring a few things to the basic design process.

  • It helps to work out color schemes.  There are many ways to work out color schemes for a project.  One I commonly use is to arrange and re-arrange paint chips on my desk top.  But paint chips are abstract.  What Spirographs do is show colors in relation to each other within an actual pattern.  It takes only a minute or two to create a Spirograph pattern, so if you want to try out a scheme, or see how particular hues are affected by the proximity of other colors, the Spirograph is a convenient way to do that.
  • It helps to cultivate the art of restraint. Making all of those circles is addictive, and a little hypnotic.  It’s easy to take a pattern too far, to clutter it up, to mar the perfection of a simple form.  I’ve learned to recognize when the proportions of color, saturation, weight, and space are ideal for a particular design.  In other words, my Spirographs have helped refine my sense of when done is done.
  • It helps to develop tolerance for imperfection. Anyone who has done Spirographing knows that perfection is elusive.  It takes a lot of practice before you can fall into a rhythm that’s likely to produce consistently clean lines.  Even then, though, your patterns are vulnerable to the unintended shifts of the gears or slips of the pen.  One night I spent two whole hours trying to produce a series of four perfectly uniform graphs.  I couldn’t do it.  There was always a point at which my gears would lose engagement or my paper would move, and my pen would veer off track.  As someone who tends to obsess over visual inconsistencies, I initially found this completely intolerable.  I thought I was going to have to be institutionalized.  But, strangely, the next morning when I surveyed the stray papers that evidenced all my failed attempts, I saw a few that looked organically beautiful.  I actually used them in a slide presentation I was designing, and I grew quite fond of them.  I learned two lessons here: the first that imperfectioncan sometimes be more visually appealing than perfection; the second, that sometimes small things don’t matter all that much, so get over it!

All those years ago when I was sitting in my bedroom drawing graphs on my notebooks, I would have never imagined that one day, well into adulthood, I would be writing (electronically!) on the virtues of Spirographs.  But, like many relics of the past, Spirographics continue to inspire and shape the ideas of today.

Until next time…

Jennifer Passariello

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