Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Invention and Imitation and a Dice Game—It's All Art

I made up this dice game when my kids were elementary-school age and we were homeschooling and I wanted a way for them to practice their multiplication that was more interesting than flash cards. Wouldn't it be swell if I could find a game that used multiplication in scoring?, I thought.

Well, I couldn't find one, so I made one up. I don't recall that we actually used it all that much. Kids don't always feel the same enthusiasm for our brilliant ideas as we do.

Years later, I thought this would be a good product to market to homeschoolers and other parents and teachers, so I designed a little booklet of instructions, bought dice through various educational supply sources, got some round tins from the Ax Man surplus shop in St. Paul, collaged the covers of the tins, and sold them at a homeschooling conference and then on Etsy.

With limited success. But just when I think maybe I won't bother with these anymore, someone buys one, or a few, and tells me how much they like it, and I decide to keep making them.

A third-grade teacher who bought one at a craft show later told me how well it kept a bright student occupied. A person who bought one from my Etsy shop said, "It's a fun game to work the brain." Another said, "Great for my third grader!" And this: "Great for all of us—kids and adults—in the car at first but they ask to play it at home now as well."

These little tidbits of encouragement have kept me making the games, even though they're not exactly a best-seller for me.

As my first few batches of games sold, I was scrounging for tins of various sorts to contain them, and eventually decided to buy the tins wholesale to be assured of a ready supply. Still, I was covering each one with unique ephemera from vintage bingo sheets, maps, and math books, always buffing the metal lids with sandpaper to make the glue adhere, then burnishing them to get rid of any bubbles, and glueing a label on each that coordinated with the colors on the paper. After that glue had dried, I then brushed on a sealant and left them to set overnight.

I knew I couldn't really expect to ask as much money for these as the time and thought I put into each individual game (searching for images, tracing and cutting and glueing, etc.), so I tried designing a standard cover for the tins to print out on sticker paper.

I didn't like the design I came up with, so I went back to crafting them one by one. (I disliked the design so much I can't even find an example to show you.)

Then I had a customer want six of the games for her son's birthday party. When I asked her if she had any preference as to the design on the tins, she replied "Math symbols, please."

And that made me recall a recent cover of Conduit magazine featuring chalkboard math symbols in the background.

And that made me think of a book I read earlier this summer, Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon (which I bought at my local independent bookstore, Moon Palace Books), which pointed out that all artists get their ideas from somewhere, and we shouldn't be afraid to imitate and adapt ideas we come across, because those artists stole ideas and motifs from someone else.

Or, as my art buddy Brian Western once reminded me, "There is nothing new under the sun."

So I designed new covers for the dice games, featuring numbers and equations in a white chalkboard font on a variety of colored backgrounds, and I printed them on sticker paper, which means I don't have to buff, glue and burnish them anymore.

The customer was pleased. And so am I.

You can find these games in my Etsy shop, btw.

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