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Tinkering and the Art of the Perfect Example

Tinkering and the Art of the Perfect Example

The Tinkering Studio presents some unique design challenges when it comes to creating experiences for visitors to the museum, but perhaps the most pressing is time. We allow visitors to choose the length of their engagement with us, which impacts design in two major ways. On one hand, we have to design activities to have a quick entry point which allows visitors to have early successes; we refer to this as providing a low threshold for the activity. At the same time, we have to design activities to have enough depth that over the course of a prolonged engagement — say, 1 to 2 hours — a visitor can “complexify” their exploration as they get deeper into it; we call this providing a high ceiling.

To accomplish all of that in a drop-in setting, we have found that it is crucial to rely on abundant examples in the space. As visitors approach the Tinkering Studio and then start building and making, examples serve both to inspire and spark their initial curiosity — to get them in the door, so to speak — but also as quick starting points to guide initial experiments and directions. Without examples, visitors don’t know what the activity is about and why they should dedicate a good chunk of their time to it; but also, as they sit at the table to make something, having a few examples or models can soften the “blank slate” effect, that feeling of not knowing where to start and what to do with the materials available.

However, there is an art to creating and displaying the right kind of example for a tinkering activity. It is tempting to come up with and display beautiful, clever, polished pieces so that visitors can fully grok the potential of the activity and be inspired to create their own equally ambitious project, but we have found that this can easily backfire.

Cranky Contraptions examples set on a table in front of the Tinkering Studio

We were confronted with this phenomenon with particular force during this winter’s long engagement with Cranky Contraptions, an activity that by nature skews a little more product-focused than others. Our initial approach to offering examples was to try and go for interesting, stimulating, and whimsical contraptions that showed a variety of ways to work with simple mechanisms and linkages. Unfortunately, we saw that a high percentage of our visitors took them as models to copy rather than starting points to generate their own ideas.

A visitor working on an exact replica of an elephant automaton
An elephant rearing up from a mouse being copied exactly by a visitor

Inspired by one of Keith Newstead’s Trash Automata I made a cranky contraption version of an elephant that rears up when the handle is cranked. The mechanism is interesting, with the pivot point being all the way at the back of the elephant and the crank slider at the front, so it’s a good example to include. But the elephant is too complete a narrative element, it looks like a finished piece and so it can function as a substitute for creative expression rather than a spark for it.

A visitor making an exact replica of a plumed rhino automaton
The plumed rhino fared no better

In an effort to minimize copying while preserving the mechanism I made a version that used less “attractive” materials, like plain cardboard, a less polished construction and general appearance, and what I thought was a weird enough look — some sort of vaguely rhino-esque beast but with feathers? — that nobody would want to make another one of that specifically. I was wrong. It got copied verbatim too!

A visitor making a copy of a frog automaton
A flowers automaton made with pipe cleaners
a penguin automaton

A frog, a penguin, and pipe cleaner flowers all got copied many many times. Of course, this is somewhat unavoidable: providing inspirational examples is important and some percentage of people will always choose to make life easier for themselves, or simply feel more comfortable starting by copying something as a way to develop expertise and facility with the activity. But it is worth thinking about the balance between those kinds of examples and other types, which don’t lend themselves to copying so much while still providing valuable information to visitors.

An automaton showing a man lifting his bowler hat
An automaton showing a man lifting his bowler hat
So, what are the qualities of a “perfect” example? I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and here are a few thoughts:
  • I think a very good example should contain a hint of narrative, the equivalent of an opening paragraph, but leave the ending very open. The bowler hat example above has a little bit of a story in it (“man says hello by lifting his hat,” perhaps) which could be reinterpreted with different characters or props — it intentionally doesn’t have a face, and following versions also did away with the suit decoration to leave just a plain cardboard trapezoidal body.

  • It should show an interesting idea, but one that can be expanded or adapted in many different ways, not a closed finished piece. The penguin example looks great and moves beautifully, but it’s very complicated and hard to understand as a system. It’s hard to isolate just one element of all the linkages and movements in it and adapt it to a different idea. The bowler hat man does one thing, so if you need that type of motion in your unrelated project it’s easy for me as a facilitator to bring this example over and suggest it might be adapted to your needs.

  • It’s easy for a visitor to see how it could be improved upon. This is a big one: the best examples have fairly obvious shortcomings that generate ideas for improvement. An ideal reaction from a visitor is to think: “Oh, cool. But look, you could also just do this…” Which indeed means that the perfect example is, actually… imperfect.

  • The example itself can be tinkered with and used as a model to work out something about your own project. This is not always possible, depending on the activity, but for Cranky Contraptions I tried to make a couple of examples that were meant to be working models to figure out relationships between pivot points and constraints — this idea was also inspired by the way Keith works out his own automata.

a modular automata example

This strange little device offers little in terms of narrative, there isn’t much that invites copying, but the three articulated pieces are made with several possible pivot points (the various holes in the craft sticks) and the constraining wires can be anchored at different points along the base — by moving the skewer sticks around — and at different lengths (notice the double loops at the end of the wires).

a visitor experimenting with the positioning of parts of an automaton

a visitor experimenting with the positioning of parts of an automaton
In fact, the whole idea behind this was that it could be manipulated by visitors to experiment in a low-consequence way with those relationships until they got to a movement they liked, then translate that into the narrative of their choice, as you can see in the examples above. Nothing in the example suggested “fish,” that was completely learner-driven, but I would say that without spending a good amount of time familiarizing herself with it it would have been almost impossible to create the amazing articulated fish that resulted.


A visitor showing the finished piece, an articulated fish automaton

So, somewhat painfully, we decided to go on an example purge and put away all the ones that only showcased how clever the person who made it was, and only kept the ones that allowed room for the learner to "fill in the blanks" with their own ideas, imagination, problem posing, and personal expression, and the experience of the activity on the floor was better for it. As you set up an environment for tinkering, it is worth thinking carefully and critically about what type of examples you populate it with and why they are there.