John Bowers | Essays

A Lesson from Spirograph


While recently going through some items in my mom’s basement, I found the “1967 Toy of the Year.” With the exception of a few missing pieces, the Spirograph I shared with my brother was almost perfectly intact: plastic circles and rings, colored pens, pins, storage tray, a piece of cardboard, a pad of white paper, and the “pattern booklet.”

The still-popular, mass-produced toy from the 60s is the embodiment of controlled emotion in the face of the decade’s social unrest and conflict. The Spirograph promoted adherence to procedures and non-controversial design through a methodical process.

Although the Spirograph provided hours of fun, wonder, and amazement for my brother and I as we formed our simple patterns, using it again as an adult has prompted a few thoughts on wonder and its limitations.

Designed by British engineer Denys Fisher in 1962 and acquired by the American manufacturer Kenner Toys in 1966, the first and simplest of many subsequent Spirograph versions hit the stores in 1967, the year we received ours as a Christmas gift. The accompanying manual stated that the toy "stimulates the imagination and develops creativity,” and that there would be “no limit to the different designs you can make!”

The set has 18 sizes of small circles that fit into two large rings. Designs are created by placing a pen in a circle’s holes and moving the circle inside a ring, which is pinned down in the cardboard to make it stationary. The pattern booklet shows a dozen designs and describes the required ring, circle(s), and pen positions. For example, one formula (abbreviated) reads: "Pin RING no. 144/96 to Paper and Baseboard, the No. 1 mark at the top…with pen in Hole 3 draw another pattern. Repeat, using Holes 5 and 7."

The design procedure is both methodical and repeatable, with the patterns yielding virtually exact copies by all users. The most fun for us came not by following the patterns or the rules but randomly mixing colors, moving the circles and rings at will, and placing lots of pinholes in our designs.

The Spirograph demonstrates, if not promotes, the belief that design can be formulaic and that good design has something to do with simplicity and objectivity. However, qualitative aspects such as emotion, irrationality, and instinct are largely missing. The patterns themselves make no direct reference to a user’s nationality, ethnicity, social class, or gender. Choices are officially confined to color and template combinations.

The focused geometric and rational visual language and limited plastic components restrict the range of outcomes and equalize abilities. It brings to mind a Swedish saying my wife told me: “Everyone wants you to succeed, as long as you’re not doing better than they are.” Our designs were original but not too original.

We received our Spirograph as the space race was underway and the Cold War was yet to thaw, the summer of love was over and the Tet Offensive was soon to begin. Soon my brother would receive his draft lottery number. Perhaps the Spirograph offered a bit of rationality and order to the chaos. It was predictable and socially safe. Any combination of templates and color would result in a Spirograph manual “sanctioned” design. The toy gave the illusion of counter-culture experimentation, yet furthered the establishment adherence to staying the course.

Yet I felt a sense of pride in the detailed patterns I could draw. It was incredible, magical, how quickly overlapping circles would create a dynamic and mesmerizing design. Even more, I was in awe of the more complex and colorful patterns my older brother could create. Perhaps he was working through the stress of receiving his impending call to duty.

What set the Spirograph apart from our other toys in that era was the suggestion that we were actually making something (art). Drawing patterns was more than simply assembling parts in various combinations to create a temporary object to be taken apart (e.g., Legos) or moving a stylus to create a temporary design to be erased (e.g., Etch-A-Sketch).

Allowing repeatable solutions, minimizing differences, and channeling outcomes in part describe the 1967 Toy of the Year. Denys Fisher’s design was an outgrowth of his work on Vietnam-era munitions, research no doubt guided by procedures and constraints.

Thankfully, my brother made it through the Vietnam War without getting drafted, and we recently played a round of Spirograph together. At the bottom of the box were some patterns we had drawn 41 years earlier. Looking back, I clearly saw how limits can provide a sanctuary, foster exploration, and with some imagination generate beauty. But the random pinholes in the official paper pad reinforce the notion that sometimes moving outside of what’s expected has its place, too.

Comments [26]

Interesting to look at something as simple as a child's game and see similar issues having played out in the Minimalist and Pop movements as well. Repetition, manufactured art production and so on. My two year old enjoys the Magna-doodle and quickly erases anything I attempt to draw. Nothing lasts with him. Ephemera in art has been a trademark of war time as well.
Courtney Stubbert

I wonder if Jean-Pierre Hébert had a spirograph when he has a kid. Algorithmic Art (be sure to watch the videos on the left).
Snowflake Seven

When I was a kid it used to fascinate me how a sequence of seemingly dull lines like the ones in the Algorhtymic Art where xy points are joined or the curves of the Spirograph can create such beautiful patterns. It also allowed me to do something I could never have done accurately by freehand.

I remember winding a ball of yarn and trying to apply the spirograph method with evenness and with the proper approach to each intersection of the passing yarns forming tangents around my thumb to get the perfect globe. ( 3-d studies inside the bauhaus weaving and spinning room, from x y warp and weft shuttling to trajectory paths and strands, ca. 1969)

John, this is a great reflection. My interaction with the spirograph was far briefer as I grew up with magna doodles, pogo balls and glo-worms. But the spirograph appeared neighborhood garage sales so we had a few go rounds with the stick pens before they dried up. Our biggest goal was to see how many designs you could actually make with it.
I'm excited to see the update on your book. Pre-ordered on Amazon. Hope you're doing well at SAIC.
Jessi (Hunter) Long, OSU Alum
Jessi Long

I'm showing my age by saying this, but I did a double take when I saw the photograph of the Spirograph box, because I had the same one back then. Thanks for your thoughtful article.
Ricardo Cordoba

I was another Spirograph kid. I seem to remember the original kit being bought one Xmas for all the family to use but I was the one who ended up persevering with it. The more elaborate patterns required endurance and dexterity to keep moving the pen around while avoiding the horror of the meshed gears slipping and ruining your drawing.

Just to show it wasn't only a kids' toy, the great movie poster illustrator Richard Amsel used Spirograph patterns in his art for Hello Dolly from 1969:


First professional use? Or did it get used in ads around that time as well? Curious that the Spirograph took off right at the time when people were seeing those kinds of patterns on a regular basis while using LSD and other drugs.
John Coulthart

Does anybody recall Martin Venezky's Sundance Film Festival posters that utilized the patterns made from spirographs with broken teeth? I can't seem to find reference to them online, but boy were they beautiful.

John, good to hear that you're still out and about. Go Beavs!

(another OSU alum)
Darrin Crescenzi

In conjunction with an exhibit at a local library, I recently produced a number of geometric designs to be placed on the library activity table and used for coloring-in by young visitors, an activity I remember enjoying as a child (and still do). Viewing the results some weeks later, I was surprised to find that several children had used my designs as framing devices for their own art. Rather than coloring in one or more of the openings, they had drawn pictures in them, adapting my contribution into a supporting role. We could have done this with the Spirograph, but I don't remember ever doing so.

When I was two, I swallowed some pins from my brother's spirograph and had to go to the hospital.

Damn kid's toy almost killed me, yet its mesmerizing patterns fascinated me for years afterwards.

As a kid, I recall seeing commercials for the Spirograph on television, and to my nine-year-old mind, it seemed a toy that I would want to use because it was too controlled, and the products of its use were permanent, unalterable. Through the majority of my childhood I favored things like Legos and Playmobil, whose forms were inherently temporary, but also afforded (and perhaps encouraged) the possibility for successive reconfiguration and re-imagination limited only by the pieces you had to work with.

It had never occurred to me at the time that the Spirograph could, in fact, prove to be just as viable an exercise in breaking beyond the suggested bounds for use. In retrospect, I wish I had asked for one of them for a Birthday or Christmas. Thankfully, I'm in a position now where I could easily go out and grab one should the urge so strike me.

Glad to hear more insight from you, John, even if it is indirectly. Hope all's well.

-Evan Rowe
(soon to be) OSU Alum
Evan Rowe

I love the way you tied ideas of restraint and creativity to the social setting of the 1960s. I'm younger but also remember a similar computer program from the 1980s. It's interface featured green, pixelated, geometric shapes on a black screen. My classmates and I would line up and patiently take turns altering the accumulated patterns by striking keys. Each key stroke would alter the trajectory of the rotating shapes and add to the pattern.

The spirograph had a tremendous influence on me. It combined two of my loves, mathematics and drawing, and I can still feel the physical balance between freedom and structure that the toy provided. However, I think Spirograph's most important contribution was its introduction to abstraction as something beautiful and valuable in its own right. In my lectures I often compare the instruction book from the original Spirograph—its serious, adult, no-nonsense presentation—with the more recent booklet which encourages the young designer to turn the patterns into pictures of flowers and animals. In today's version the value of the work lies only in its transformation into recognizable objects.

For the Sundance project we bought a bunch of Spirographs on ebay (they're really cheap when they're missing parts), jammed the gears, broke some of the teeth and went to town! I still have a stack of nine different versions (including a pristine never-opened Super Spirograph) here in my office.
Martin Venezky

To someone who had no ability to draw, Spirograph was actually freeing and enabling. (This was an interesting post to read after seeing the great Saul Bass spiral of the Vertigo poster in one of the 50th anniversary articles.)
M.A. Peel

"Our designs were original but not too original." a testament to exploration i would think; and true progress, the kind fought for one brief moment of clarity at a time.

Great read, Professor Bowers.

_lap le (another from osu)
Lap Le

Saul Bass's patterns for Vertigo were a combination of harmonographs, produced by a swinging pendulum device, and (in the title sequence) Spirograph-like animations created by the abstract film-maker and computer graphics pioneer John Whitney.

Harmongraphs look great but are a slightly different process to the Spirograph, the former being an open and unending design, the latter being closed and finite. Harmonographs are also more random, being subject to the minute variations created by the speed and motion of the pendulum. There's a nice period article about them here:


And there are more recent examples of people creating them using swinging lights suspended over cameras set to a very long exposure.
John Coulthart

When I saw the image of the box and began reading this article I immediately thought of Martin Venesky's work. His book "it is beautiful...then gone" is an excellent source of inspiration and describes his process in designing those fantastic sundance posters.

This was a great read!

Wow. Design is strange. Yesterday I was rummaging through an antique store and came across what looked like a variant of Spirograph, I gave it half a thought and moved on to the next bit of eye candy. I can't remember the name of the game, but I will certainly go back this week and look at the item more carefully.

Before I logged in to DO today I blogged at my site about airline route maps which are real world, growed up designer versions of the geometric and rational patterns that Spirographers created. I assume what prompted me to write about the route maps today was seeing that Spirograph-like box yesterday. So I guess that Spiropgraph does have an aspect of emotion and irrationality attached to it. Unless I am just attached to Spirograph nostalgia.

Great post, thanks.
Mark Kaufman

When i started reading this article i thought: "one more guigue fascinating with some toy who does circles in a peace of paper, remembering his childhud...".
But now, after read it, i think it was me the guigue by thinking that.
My congrats about the crossover between Spirograph and Design. It's all there, we just need to combine shapes and colors to do Design.
With such random object, we (you) could produce the beggining of what could be the next poster for...Radioactivity??(just kidding).

"...The Spirograph demonstrates, if not promotes, the belief that design can be formulaic and that good design has something to do with simplicity and objectivity. However, qualitative aspects such as emotion, irrationality, and instinct are largely missing. The patterns themselves make no direct reference to a user’s nationality, ethnicity, social class, or gender. Choices are officially confined to color and template combinations..."
Sure did.
Design could be like the Spirograph. Is all about choices and decisions. If going by rules or "no más rules"...If we pick blue or orange. If we pick the standard pen or pick a brush. If it's a circle or a square.

Nice article

(sorry for my bad english)
Sérgio Paulino.
Sérgio Paulino

Wow. Looking back to when I discovered a Super Spirograph in the back of the toys closet at the age of five, I must have reacted in a much different manner to it than the author. To my young mind I quickly learned that Spirograph — like crayons — was a set of tools that took a lot of time and practice to "stay within the lines" and was something to use "outside of the box". As I realize now, it was Spirograph that taught me to appreciate and respect my tools and what it takes to master the fundamentals.

Even before I "mastered" Spirograph, I was already using it within my mixed media masterpieces. But then that was how all toys were used in my house: combining toy sets into something better than the sum total of their parts isolated from one another. And when an artistic flourish could be incorporated into whatever it was I was playing — usually a game that at age seven I began to call "City Emergency" — with whatever art materials, media, toys and/or tools, then all the better.
A.B. Montana

The picture of the box caught my eye - and brought back some pretty fond memories of christmas, either 1967 or 1968. Initially I was fascinated; I doubt if I used the spirograph very much after the new year.
I recall that it came with colored ballpoint pens - correct?

Within a year or two, I was buying my first ever Flair pens.

WAAAAAY! Over-thought.

...but still interesting.
Axl VanJovi

I agree WAAAAY over thought.

I also agree that a toy can be formative - and can build the basis for understanding general principles of our various realities. To a kid .. thats what they are - principles .. they don't become rules (and in design - "tastefully" prevailing opinion- ha ha) until later in life.

Here is what i have found about critical writing (especially about design). The writing can be insightful and wonderful .. but often the interesting flights of fancy and vacuumed intellectual discourse side step the cornerstone. In this case - spirographs - wonderful toy. Can it be made in to an argument of rationality, limitation and control vs emotion and instinct in design ? Sure - just like a piece of paper itself limits you to its confines, and a pencil to its color, etc ad nauseam . It wasn't created to be that though- so its like a partial fiction to prove a point - or dispense a moral.

thank you travis. well-said.

i know an online programme that makes them here:

You have carried out nice issue
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