I got them as a gift when I was in high school. Then there were some incidents where little kids were swallowing them and getting them stuck in their stomachs and they became illegal. I’m glad I got mine before then.
I would just sit and watch TV and play with them for hours. Even now I have them at my desk—I play with them when I’m bored or stuck. They make all sorts of cool shapes. They represent endless possibilities. They are irresistible, these little round magnets. They’re called Bucky Balls.
The name is a nod to Buckminster Fuller, the architect who popularized the geodesic dome. Unfortunately I’ve lost so many over the years that I can’t make the real shape anymore!
I know that there’s a lot of architecture inspired by Fuller, like geodesic dome houses, and I know he was a cool guy. But the truth is they don’t symbolize anything about his work to me. I appreciate these more as objects in and of themselves. Objects that hold unlimited possibilities.
Ultimately, in our work the way we have to look at things is to approach them as if there were unlimited possibilities and it’s all about figuring out what works best. As a mechanical engineer, I think Bucky Balls are really cool because you are always playing with the same number of balls, and they all have the same rules, but you can transform them into anything you want. And that’s kind of how we work in design. Usually we’re playing with the same materials and the same rules and it’s all about how we bring everything together.
For instance, we have to take into account a lot of tooling considerations, especially with plastic parts. We know that we always have to make surfaces that have a minimum angle of draft, that there has to be this much space between all the features. We have to abide by a set of rules in order to make anything manufacturable. And taking into account how everything interacts with those rules is how we are able to innovate all of the different parts that make up the products we design.
Often I play with Bucky Balls unconsciously when I’m doing something else. Sometimes that happens and I’ll look down and see that I’ve made something really cool. For instance, I was playing with a circle of these magnets, and they formed into a triangle shape, so I formed the others into the same triangle shape and I started putting triangles together and saw how they naturally they came together into the classic geodesic form.
At the same time, while I’m playing with them, outwardly doing “nothing,” I’m really building shapes in my head. I start moving them around and wondering, where is this going, what can this be, what is it trying to be? That’s a huge part of a design, especially when we are working in CAD and we see our design in 3D. It helps us spot ways to create more elegant solutions, which is something we are always trying to do.
It’s all about what seems most natural, what is the thing that has the least resistance in a given situation. It’s sort of a balance between the intent of the project and the organic will of the design itself. You start designing something to fulfill a certain purpose, but then when you’re working with the design you start exploring where the design wants to go on its own.