From the Design Desk: A trip to the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s gem of a museum, the Exploratorium, recently moved to an amazing new home at Pier 15 along the Embarcadero. If its old home at the Palace of Fine Arts was something of a quirky, unpolished and roughly-cut diamond, its new space near the Ferry Building shows off more than a few shiny, fresh facets. I’ve been a few times since the museum’s move and I still don’t think I’ve explored every nook and cranny of the place. Essentially the Exploratorium is a giant playroom full of one-of-a-kind toys that sneakily teach you a bit of science while you play. Every “toy” you spend time with eventually prompts questions—“What’s going on here?,” How does this work?,” “How can I learn more?”


One thing I love is the handmade but incredibly top-notch feel of the exhibits. Just about every exhibit is made by the Exploratorium’s staff, on the premises. In fact, the workshop where staff conceives, designs, and builds the exhibits is prominently placed within the museum. You get a glimpse of the tinkering that goes into the final piece before it makes it out onto the floor. I think this makes the Exploratorium unique, because we are so used to seeing super-sleek or cheesy museum exhibits, especially in the science arena.

Chronicle recently partnered with the Exploratorium on a book called Seeing.


Seeing is a collection of interactive visual mind tricks and Op art (Optical art). If you hung out in malls in the late ‘90s you’re probably familiar with those Magic Eye stereograms that populated the poster carousels at Spencer’s Gifts – cross your eyes hard enough and you see a dolphin doing a backflip over a giant pot leaf, or something else equally awesome. Seeing has one of those (called a stereogram—this one sans pot leaf) and SO much more.


The cool thing about Seeing is that you get a brief explanation on the science behind the trippy effect you’re experiencing. Oh and you get to tear it apart. The book has pages you tear out, cut up, and assemble to create illusions or reveals. It comes with a spinner tool, some pipe cleaners, and straws that aid in some of the activities. It also prompts you to use common household items like pencils and mirrors for some of the experiments.

This one cracked me up.



I should also mention that former Chroniclers and design duo extraordinaire, MacFadden and Thorpe did the excellent design.

The Exploratorium has a division called The Tinkering Studio. This is the space in the museum where the visitors get to create their own mini exhibits to take home. It truly feels like the heart of the museum and it’s always packed. The Tinkering Studio has a rotating cast of featured artists and scientists called Tinkerers. They exhibit their work and create activities for museum patrons to engage with and to create their own art, all inside the Tinkering Studio. It’s all about being curious, cracking and hacking to create joyful, irreverent, and often incredibly beautiful art that you can take home.

San Francisco publisher, Weldon Owen, partnered with the Exploratorium and Tinkering Studio directors, Karen Wilkinson and Mark Petrich, on a deluxe and innovative book profiling the Tinkerers and their amazing creations. The book is called The Art of Tinkering.


And in true “tinkering” spirit, the cover is printed with conductive ink and can be hacked, and of course several of the artists did just that. Here’s a video:

As a designer, I can appreciate the epic level of thought and planning that went into this book’s layout in order to illustrate the materials, thinking, and processes behind all of the artists’ work in a clear and engaging way. I may be a little biased but I’m very impressed with what Will Mack (the art director and my husband) and the rest of the Weldon Owen team pulled off.



John Lee is responsible for most of the amazing photography throughout.

I was excited to see Chronicle’s own Blinky-Bugs for sale in the Exploratorium store. It actually makes a lot of sense: a book about making silly bugs with everyday materials and blinging them out with LED lights—it’s science and it’s fun. In fact, the author, Ken Murphy, is a featured artist in The Art of Tinkering.



Speaking of LEDs, during one of my recent visits to the Tinkering Studio I found Grace Kim, maker of gorgeous LED wearables (see above in The Art of Tinkering), leading a tinkering session in wearables. She helped me make this cute LED pin for our daughter who is obsessed with cats.



Go check out the Exploratorium and get curious.

Amelia Mack
Senior Designer

Amelia Mack

Amelia Mack is our Senior Designer for Children’s Books. She enjoys sleeping (because she gets so little of it these days), as well as oil painting and knitting.
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