Discovering New Possibilities in Familiar Materials
In the process of developing new activities at the Tinkering Studio, a common theme is that we frequently repurpose everyday materials for innovative uses. We call this one of the Tinkering Tenets: "Use familiar materials in unfamiliar ways." For example, we've used hundreds of boba straws to create a streamlined laminar flow for the wind table, interior moldings for marble machine tracks, and poster tubes to create the walls of the Tinkering Studio. We consistently find ways to utilize items in slightly unconventional or unexpected ways. This practice has become so deeply embedded in our work that it now seems like a natural part of what we do. However, it's still important to recognize and appreciate this practice as part of our unique approach and to unpack what's happening behind the scenes. Ideas for using familiar materials in unfamiliar ways don't just come to us; there is always a leap, a new way of looking at things that people have not seen before. With this in mind, I want to share one of our recent examples.
The original idea for the Roly-Poly rollers came from paper rollers that I used to play with as a child. I found the movement fascinating, so I wanted to recreate rollers using a more durable material suitable for public use on the museum floor. I also wanted to make the outer covering transparent so that the movement of the marbles inside would be visible. However, I was stuck for a while because I didn't know what kind of transparent sheet to use, and what adhesive to use to glue it neatly and securely.
But then, while at a craft store, I saw a container of beads that was tube-shaped and made of soft, transparent material, and I thought "This is it!" Up until then, I had been thinking of a transparent sheet to wrap the body of the Roly-Poly, but I realized that it would be much easier if I just bought the tube-shaped container. This was a big jump for me to switch my focus from a sheet-shaped material to a tube-shaped one. When I started looking at the world through the filter of "flexible, transparent tube-shaped containers," I noticed that the plastic bottle I was carrying in my backpack could also be used. It was surprising to realize that the thing I was looking for was right in front of me all along.
With this new inspiration, the development of the Roly-Poly rollers quickly accelerated. Since the material was already tube-shaped, all that was needed was to cut out our desired shapes using a laser cutter and press-fit them together on both sides. There was no need for glue, making it quick and easy to create multiple rollers. While the circumference of the roller is determined by the circumference of the plastic bottle we buy, we were able to test many different shapes of the rollers that can be designed using Adobe Illustrator to calculate the value of the circumference.
This is just the beginning of our development, and we still have many new ideas to generate. Tinkering R&D gives us opportunities to constantly revisit everyday materials around us with a fresh perspective and ask ourselves, "Oh, can this (X) be used for that (Y)?" Our next project involves using the checkout counter belts you see in grocery stores in a completely new way. Yes, that conveyor belt thing! How would you play around with that if you had access to one? Stay tuned to see what we come up with. When we start seeing familiar things in a new way, I like to call it a jump, a new perspective or way of thinking that leads to unexpected discoveries. It’s a playful surprise that we go through as part of our R&D practice everyday. I'd love to hear about some examples of your 'jumps' as well."