Spirograph business cards

Adafruit Industries' Limor Fried used her lasercutter to make plastic business cards that can be snapped apart into a miniature spirograph. "Adafruit business cards - Laser cut SPIROGRAPH cards!"


  1. Yes, the link in the original post isn’t right.

    Where’s the “your business card is crap” guy when you need him?

    @#2: Thanks! What a fun collection! Although, honestly, I’m partial to business cards that are business card sized, and fit in a pocket or wallet without too many complications. The business card with plants growing out of it would piss me off immensely if I actually were handed it, for example, as would the balloon.

    My favorite was the divorce lawyer whose card tore in half.

  2. Yay, more plastic bits in the world, to get caught up in the fish and float around in the sea and become toxic dust…

    I’m sorry to be down – I love the idea of this. I’m just up too early in the morning, and I’m a bit sad to see such another frivolous use of plastic. I feel like plastic is one of those things we’ll look back on and say, “how could we use something like that so carelessly?”.


  3. “Did you know that there’s a direct correlation between the decline of Spirograph and the rise in gang activity? Think about it.”

  4. @imag – i co-designed the cards and i don’t think it’s “another frivolous use of plastic” – paper business cards and toss out almost immediately and rarely saved or recycled – the spirograph cards we made are something keep and save for a long time in addition to being educational (we published the files on how to make your own).

    anyone could also say the computers we’re using to comment are toxic messes too…

  5. Limor gave me one of these at Maker Faire! I think I’m going to get all meta and use it to draw a design for my own business card! ;-)

  6. PT, I’m sorry – It just feels we have reduced the amount of time things need to be useful to make them in plastic. These days, a mere moment of frivolity or the elicitation of a smile apparently warrants the use of this permanant, nonsustainable material.

    I realize this makes me sound like a curmudgeon, but standing in line at a place like a Walgreens really drives me up the wall. We think a joke or a smile is worth forever pollution, just because it’s so easy. I needed to comment on this, despite the fact that it’s clever, because the attitude is one we need to stop. Trivial use of plastic is not cool.

    And I’m again sorry, but a business card is trivial and disposable; no matter how cleverly formed, few people will actually use it for its intended purpose, and far fewer will use it for that purpose more than a moment or two. Most will be excited at the possibility, but never move further than that. With that in mind, couldn’t it be made of paper?

  7. The impact of that little plastic card is many thousands of times smaller than the impact of the computer you’re typing this on. Plastic has its own issues, yes, but it’s so light and easy to work with that it rarely adds up to a significant environmental impact when compared with whatever monstrosity it’s casing or packaging.

    A quick look at Okala environmental numbers 07: Primary (unrecycled) ABS plastic has a weighted impact of 23 mp/lb. Bleached paper has an impact of 11 mp/lb, while bleached paperboard is 23 mp/lb – so we could probably peg an average white business card at ~15 mp/lb or so, which is before printing. Which is a long way of saying the difference in these two materials – by weight – is relatively insignificant. (Yes, you could make more paper business cards for the same weight, but considering this is a limited run someone did for Maker’s Fair, it’s likely less total overhead than ordering 1,000 cards from a major printing office.)

    For millipoint comparison: Adafruit, based in NYC, will have an impact of roughly 30,000 mp to send *one person* by plane to California. (12 mp/person-mile, about 2500 miles). This is the impact of some 1,000 pounds of ABS plastic.

    Yes, the world needs less plastic crap. But nit-picking one particular material glosses over impacts that are orders of magnitude more significant. In the grand scheme of things, a seagull eating a piece of spirograph is unimportant – and more of a sympathy-inducing strawman argument.

    (Whoops, was logged out, comment probably stuck in anonymous-limbo forever.)

    1. a seagull eating a piece of spirograph is unimportant – and more of a sympathy-inducing strawman argument.

      It’s important to the seagull. And some of us don’t view empathy as a straw man.

  8. @imag – it seems to me that we’re only going to solve the world’s problems with more scientists and engineers, so while it’s good to have goals on lowering the amount of wasteful “stuff” we also need to inspire and encourage creativity.

    so, here’s the thing to really think about.

    all art is wasteful, every single piece of it ever made or will be made.

  9. Oxling: To me, MPs are not the most important unit in the plastic/paper comparison. A styrofoam cup uses far less energy to make than a paper cup and it uses far less landfill space in the end. The problem is that the plastic never goes away. It just gets smaller, locks together with nasty PCBs, and works its way up the food chain, concentrating in animals to such a degree that a killer whale can now be classified as hazardous waste.

    I realize that the impact of your cards is less than that of a laptop or even that of the plastic packaging that came with a piece of food I just bought. It’s just that you guys are designers. You are the ones who lead the way. Designers have loved plastic because it can be so cute, so cheap. I think we need to start reacting to the fact that plastic may be cute, but it’s not worth the tradeoffs.

  10. PT –

    Nature, of which we are a part, is inefficient.

    Nature, of which we are a part, is not wasteful.

    Inefficiency is not the same as waste.

    Art is not the same as science.

  11. @Antinous:

    I probably phrased that poorly. What I was intending to convey: the stereotypical image brought to mind when you bring up sustainability is often the classic seagull-stuck-in-6-pack-holder. (Or, in this case, a seagull choking to death on a business card.)

    Yes, junk pollution matters and I have no particular ill will towards seagulls. But it’s a very narrow way to look at a very, very large issue – it’s close to the smallest possible scale of environmental impact. It’s a striking, emotional image, but it’s used so often as a description of the problem, not just a mascot for it. Considerations of sustainability go far beyond the trash-picking sort of fuss that we tend to focus on. You’re looking at the absolute end of the material’s lifespan, while ignoring its extraction, manufacture, shipping and use – all of which have potential impacts. Plastic is difficult to dispose of, but what of the nasty chemicals used in paper manufacture?

    What I was trying to get at with my post is that sustainability issues are huge, pervasive and full of shades of gray. It’s all comparative – plastic cards are a little worse than paper cards, but both are worse than no cards at all, which are all 1,000x more damaging than just staying home anyways. Bluntly dismissing an entire class of materials is missing the picture. If we only focus on the human-appeals side of sustainability – like dead birds – it’s far too easy to ignore issues with orders of magnitude more impact.

    If we don’t step back and look at the broader picture, we fall prey to designing “green” products that are worse than the original. The choking bird is a false argument – is that better, or worse, than the same bird dying of chemical runoff (from paper manufacture)? Being displaced from his natural habitat for construction of a new airport? Your decisions impact his hypothetical gruesome death in thousands of ways. We can’t just narrow it down to “birds could choke on this plastic” and declare an entire material useless, or condemn who made it. The tiny keyhole argument is the strawman, not the unlucky bird.

  12. PT. You’re right, and that brings up another argument for not using plastic.

    Plastic says: use once, for one purpose only, then throw away. Once made, most plastic cannot be unmade. Plastic says, “I don’t care about the future. This is cool now.” When someone gives you plastic, they say “I didn’t care enough about this enough to use a material like steel, aluminum, or bamboo. Instead, to save 20 cents, I am giving you an object that will pollute the earth for generations.”

    Paper, on the other hand, represents impermanance, which I think is admirable in an artwork, engineering or otherwise. If the idea is really cool, the abovementioned steel, aluminum, and bamboo are energy (and cost) dense, but they are at least disposable or directly recyclable.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to be critical of creative ideas. I like spirographs. I just think our creativity is more inspiring in sustainable forms, *especially* for the future’s artists, engineers, and scientists. If you want to use plastic, there’s always the mass of it out there that is practically crying out to be creatively reused…

  13. @IMAG:

    They’re not my cards. I’m just a student with too much free time and an old Okala guide from a sustainabilty class. If I gave the impression I’m affiliated with them in any way, it was by accident.

    I was less interested in defending what (you’re right) is sort of a frivolous use of material. It’s more that the blanket condemnation of plastics, in particular, really gets me – mostly because it’s often accompanied by an argument like “replace it with metal/wood/some other hugely impactful material.” For my own standpoint, I would argue that business cards themselves are completely wasteful and should be done away with.

    Point taken about designers leading the way, though. I always find it strange that the same group that supports green initiatives falls all over itself with gadget lust.

  14. Cool Business card!

    “Yay, more plastic bits in the world, to get caught up in the fish and float around in the sea and become toxic dust…”

    This reminds me of a comedian’s take on plastics – from about 15 years ago. I can’t remember who the comedian is, but he has a harsh view on humanity here. Paraphrasing –
    “The Earth wants plastic and has only allowed Man to survive because of this desire. In ten thousand years, everything Man has made will be crumbled to dust – except plastic. The only difference between the Earth ten thousand years ago and ten thousand years from now is that the Earth’s crust will have an extra layer, a layer of plastic.”
    It’s been a long time since I heard this, and I may have added or taken away from the observation, but the gist is basically the same.

  15. A place for everything and everything in its place. I have no problem with huge landfills stuffed with non-bio-degradable material and turned into hilly green parks. Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View is a great example of a man-made trash-to-treasure waste solution that is win-win.

    Turning the home composter gives you a sense of the persistance of plastic. The lid off a can of bugspray, a pirate action figure toy, the green rubbery tape that holds the nursery trees to their stakes. These little plastic pieces defy the ravages of time. All around the earth churns with life and decay. But any scrap of plastic will remain, unchanged.

    But if you put the trash in one place, cover with high tech sod and let people walk their dogs there, its not really such a problem. Trash doesn’t have to be a tragedy.

  16. Oxling: I made the assumption – apologies.

    And: agreed. Cheers…

    I just have a feeling that plastic is going to be one of those things where people say, “Seriously, WTF were you thinking??? You invented something you didn’t know much about in the first place and in only a couple decades you were spewing it out on an imaginable scale, knowing -*knowing* – that it wouldn’t go away, that it would in fact spread in nasty plastic dust form, and infiltrate every part of the food chain, every remote spot on Earth.”

  17. I’m not a designer, I’m an engineer. Engineers think about how to make things best, even if they’re a little ugly and make designers unhappy.

    Putting words into my mouth like “I didn’t care enough about this enough to use a material like steel, aluminum, or bamboo.” is rude. I don’t think you’d appreciate it if people always told you what you thought without checking with you first.

    Because even if you don’t like it, plastic is, in fact, the best material to make a spyrograph toy out of. Paper gears dont work, bamboo doesn’t come in thin sheets, mdf is often made with toxic chemicals that release into the air when lasered and metal will tear up the paper. (Not that metal can even be lasercut at under 1000W power anyways) So in the end, it would be more likely to get thrown out because it sucks. if something is well made, it will last longer and spend more time being used and less time being thrown away.

    Assuming that plastic is BAD just because its plastic is short-sighted. Plastic is a fantastic material and has its uses. As an added bonus, a clear spiro allows the user to see the graphic while its being drawn.

    Anyways. all art is wasteful and terrible for the environment. Save the planet, kill yourself!

  18. @imag Uh, what? you’re making some big assumptions there. First is that I’m “spewing” laser cut business cards. That isn’t true: I made 50, thats 0.012 cubic feet of plastic. I gave them away to friends as a gift for Maker Faire. Next year I will have something else.
    Second, I didnt “invent” plastic, laser cutting, business cards, toys, or spirographs.

  19. I’m with you, melady. I’ve designed hundreds of things, the majority in plastic. These guys gotta realize that if everything plastic was metal, it would cost a whopping lot more, it would corrode, it’d be heavy and difficult and expensive to process.
    So here’s a little suggestion: make these wonderful spirographic business cards edible. Then these guys can eat it, then blow it out their yas, yas yas.
    Plastics Rule!

  20. I saw a documentary on water pollution when I was maybe 7 or 8 and it made a big impression. I remember one of the narrators walking through the dump. He picked up a box of Tide detergent with its bright packaging and showed how the paper was starting to decompose. We think its good that its breaking down, but in fact, as the paper discintigrates, the toxic dyes used in the manufacture of the paper get released into the soil, leaching into the groundwater, etc. etc.

    Then he’d show a little broken piece of plastic, from a beverage container or a toy or whatever, and it never breaks down, but it holds onto its toxicity without releasing that into the environment. (The manufacture of the plastic is another thing altogether.)

    LadyAda, I think you provided a convenient springboard for a discussion that is really important, yet totally unrelated to your project. Hope you understand…

  21. Ladyada:

    I didn’t figure those would be quotes directly attributable to you, nor would I expect most readers to. They were meant to imply subtext, clearly, I think.

    Likewise, I didn’t ever hope to imply that you invented plastic. I can see how you thought that quote might have been about you, but it wasn’t meant that way. It was about all of us, me included. I think we will have an issue rationalizing our use of plastics in due time.

    In general, my reaction comes not from receiving one of 50 of these parts from you, but that this part is celebrated on a blog with much, much higher circulation. Through a blog, the device has grown bigger than the cards you cut yourself, and I wanted to say that I found mass production of this kind of thing objectionable, in the hopes that people would find one less reason to make tens of thousands of them. In other words, because you’re part showed up on a blog, I treated it as a case study more than a specific example. I think that’s fair in context, but I understand you being miffed.

    As far as engineering, my work involves engineering utility scale clean energy projects. We have talked about using a plastic frame around the PV modules because it would eliminate our grounding problems with the frame. However, I and many others, have been loathe to introduce a new plastic part, even with a 30 year lifespan, and even though one could argue that the lowered energy cost will outweigh the issues with the plastic. One of my points is that we still don’t even know all the issues with the plastic, which makes me less comfortable using it or seeing it used, then thrown “away”. I would certainly agree that plastic is convenient.

    I would also agree that your business cards won’t be the downfall of our civilization. I do have to take issue with the comments about waste and art, as though they excuse any and all waste in the pursuit of art. Most of us would agree that pouring a hundred thousand gallons of lead paint into the sea is not equivalent to painting a watercolor on an 8.5″x11″. Just because art often involves excess energy or materials does not make it all suddenly immune from thoughtfulness about scale or sustainability. The best art, engineering, and design often do quite the opposite. As you say, 50 cards are different from more.

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